June 10, 2012

Quick picks

Five all-time great fast bowlers who had pace as well as every trick in the book

Ray Lindwall heads my list of the five best fast bowlers I have seen.

This artist-cricketer changed his pace with all the subtle artifices any fast bowler of any era has achieved, and he did what all great bowlers must do: broke the rhythm of the batsman. At his peak he had the power to slay by thunder or defeat by guile.

Stocky and strong, Lindwall was like a well-toned welterweight, ready to punch and counter-punch. He bowled outswingers at genuine speed, and had what Pelham Warner called "shades of pace". To the purists, Lindwall's bowling arm was too low, but that helped his skidding bouncer. Instead of climbing harmlessly over the batsman's head, it came at the throat, earning him the nickname "Killer".

Lindwall was at the height of his powers when he spearheaded Don Bradman's bowling attack - which included Bill Johnston, Keith Miller and Ernie Toshack - on the celebrated 1948 Australian tour of England. In five Tests there, he took 27 wickets. Through the 1950s he reigned supreme as Australia's spearhead, bowling his heart out against some of the greatest batsmen of any era, including such luminaries as Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Garry Sobers, Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell and Vijay Hazare.

Just before World War II erupted, then St George Cricket Club captain Bill O'Reilly took Lindwall under his wing. It is said that O'Reilly brought to the club the technology called "electric-eye photography", which allowed the youngster to watch his action on film in slow motion, a tool to help identify any technical faults. O'Reilly remembered Lindwall as a starry-eyed kid, who always timed his after-school cricket in the street with his mates to coincide with when O'Reilly, secretary of the Lion Tile Company, walked the streets of Kogarah on his way home. The instant O'Reilly turned into the street, there was young Lindwall in full flight.

Lindwall's first Test was O'Reilly's last - the 1945-46 one-off match against New Zealand in Wellington. O'Reilly took a match haul of 8 for 33 off 19 overs, and his protégé got 2 for 29 off 17. Lindwall played 61 Tests, 228 wickets at 23.03, with a Test best of 7 for 38. However, his 6 for 20 in the England first innings of the fifth Test at The Oval in 1948 to demolish Hutton's men for 52 was his piece de resistance.

****

Good judges describe Dennis Lillee as the "complete bowler", one who always stayed a step ahead of the pack.

In the Test arena, Lillee was never beaten. He did what it took to take you out, and sometimes he roughed you up along the way.

His battles with West Indian champion Viv Richards were legendary. Richards put to the sword to all the international bowlers of his era, but from the first time that he came up against Lillee, it was two irresistible forces meeting: a heavyweight fight between two unrelenting combatants. Their contests were always take-no-prisoners affairs.

In December 1971, Lillee blitzed a strong World Xl batting line-up in Perth, taking 8 for 29 and then four in the follow-on. He bowled magnificently as well in England in 1972, taking 31 wickets at 17.67 in the series.

Many believed Lillee's career was all but over late in the summer of 1972-73, when he sustained multiple stress fractures in his back. He underwent a long regime of intensive physiotherapy, during which his determination became legend. He came back to big cricket in 1974-75, perfect timing to partner Jeff Thomson against England Down Under, when the two destroyed the visiting team as Australia won 4-1.

Lillee played World Series Cricket for a couple of years, during which he worked diligently on his approach to the wicket and his delivery. He became an even better bowler technically, if that was even possible. The famous "caught Marsh bowled Lillee" dismissal appears on Test match scorecards 95 times. In 70 Tests, Lillee took 355 wickets at 23.92 with 23 hauls of five wickets, and his best Test figures were 7 for 83 against West Indies at the MCG in 1981. But figures cannot tell of a bowler's strategy, the way a victim is stalked and finally put to the sword. When he had to struggle with his body - and he often had to, over his stellar career - Lillee called upon all his inner reserves and often drove himself upward and onward by sheer will power.

****

To me, cricketing heaven would be Wasim Akram and Shane Warne bowling in tandem to Victor Trumper and Don Bradman.

When he came in to bowl, Wasim was a mirror image of Keith Miller, the great Australian allrounder, whose build, athleticism and good looks captured the imagination. Wasim excelled at the highest level with the ball - often on wickets that did not provide much in the way of pace and bounce. He could move the ball - new or old - either way. His efforts with the old ball, especially, were fabulous; he learnt better than anyone how to rough one side of the ball up in such a way that he could achieve reverse swing.

Wasim had a style of his own. He'd shuffle to the crease, transfer his weight from back foot to front, and with an incredibly swift arm action left fly with a searing bouncer, a late inswinging yorker, or a ball he held back to lure the batsman into an indiscreet off- or cover drive. The best Pakistani fast bowler since the halcyon days of Imran Khan, Wasim was a match-winner with the ball, but I also recall him once batting with Imran when both of them hit centuries at the Adelaide Oval to thwart an Australian victory.

I've seen some fabulous left-arm pace bowlers in my time, including Alan Davidson and Garry Sobers, but none of them at their top quite gets above Wasim. He invariably wove some magic and brought the deadest of pitches to life. I can still see in that Adelaide Test Steve Waugh shoulder arms to a wonderful inswinging yorker that would have scattered all three uprights, ending up being palpably lbw.

****

Alan Davidson's strength, smooth action and skill saw him take 186 wickets in 44 Tests at an average of 20.53. He bowled from a 15-paced approach and eased into a lovely side-on position just before delivery. While he didn't have the bustle or rapid bowling arm of Wasim, Davo had a nice rhythm. He used his front arm to good effect and had the ability to swing in late to the right-handers or angle the ball away. It was, of course, his ability to swing the ball that made his away angle so dangerous. So many of his Test victims were caught behind by the ever reliable Wally Grout.

Davo took some time to emerge from the shadow of Bill Johnston, one of the bowling stalwarts of the 1948 side, and it was Johnston who showed him how to adjust his grip ever so slightly to achieve subtle changes of pace and swing. "Bill was terrific to me on my first tour of England in 1953," Davidson recalled. "I fielded mid-on to him in the county matches and he'd say to me, 'Ready, Davo?' For a beautifully disguised slower one he pushed the ball back into his palm and spun it in the orthodox fashion. The ball seemed to curve in and drop, thus creating a lot of mis-hits and scoops to me at mid-on." Davo was then just 21 and fielding to Johnston was quite the education for him.

Through his career and beyond, Davo made a study of the craft of bowling. He practised bowling deliveries with his fingers strategically placed along the seam, using his thumb as rudder. "I think of the grip as a kangaroo - two fingers at the top of the ball are the kangaroo's legs, the thumb at the bottom of the ball is the kangaroo's tail. When a kangaroo wants to change direction, he stops squats and his tail points the way. My thumb became the kangaroo's tail."

Davo was immensely strong, with the shoulders of a colossus, which gave extraordinary power to every ball he delivered.

The WACA ground in Perth was the venue for the only hat-trick he ever got in first class cricket - on a day I took a "sickie" from my post at the Commonwealth Bank to watch. It was WA versus NSW in 1962. Davo's first victim in the hat-trick was John Parker, a solid right-hander, who lost his castle to an inswinging yorker. Next came the WA captain, Barry Shepherd. "I got him with a yorker which moved in late to knock out the leg stump," Davo remembered. The new batsman, Russell Waugh, walked briskly towards the centre, hell-bent upon saving the team from the third wicket in three balls. "I tried the inswing yorker," Davo said, "and Waugh came forward, getting an inside edge onto his pad, and the ball ballooned to Norm O'Neill at silly point."

****

Malcolm Marshall emerged from a pack of tremendous fast bowlers. When he started his international career, the likes of Andy Roberts. Joel Garner, Colin Croft and Michael Holding provided an armoury of fast bowling riches for West Indies captain Clive Lloyd to call upon. But where with the likes of Roberts, Garner and Holding, a batsman needed to be able to hook a bouncer and dig out a searing yorker, it was different with Marshall.

Here was a man who bustled to the crease with sparkling little steps. There was a twinkle and a bustle about him. Some purists thought his action too open, but while Marshall was very chest-on at the point of delivery, he managed to get the ball to swing away late from right-handers.

In terms of pace, he seemed to always have a little in reserve - quite unsettling, for you knew as a batsman that this man could take things to another level. His front-on action allowed him to bowl an outswinger or an inswinger from exactly the same position, and that gave him an enormous advantage. Only top-class batsmen could negotiate controlled swing of that nature at genuine pace.

Like Wasim, Marshall possessed a wickedly fast arm that took him at will from fast-medium to express. Marshall did not have the height of a Garner or a Holding, and like Lindwall's, his bouncer skidded at the batsman. In being very front-on, he was much like South Africa's Mike Procter; also in that he was relentlessly at you: both bowlers were hunters.

Late in his career Marshall developed a splendid legcutter. On an absolute turner at the SCG, in a game in which Allan Border took 11 Test wickets - Marshall bowled 31 overs and took 5 for 29: masterly pace bowling on a wicket that provided nothing for any type of fast bowler. His strike rate of 46.22 was phenomenal, and he got 22 bags of five wickets, with a Test best of 7 for 22.

His great courage was ever with him. His bravest, most astonishing, performance came against England at Headingley in 1984. Marshall had broken his left thumb and was not expected to take any more part in the match. When the ninth West Indies wicket fell in their first innings, some of the England players began to stroll towards the pavilion, but they stopped when they saw Marshall emerge from the shadows. He batted one-handed, enough to allow Larry Gomes to complete his century. Then, with his lower left arm encased in pink-coloured plaster, he demolished England with a take-no-prisoners 7 for 53.

He excelled for West Indies and for Hampshire, the county team he loved. He may well have been the greatest quick of them all. Vale Malcolm Marshall.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

Comments