Shell-shocked and bloodied
In the modern era of saturation TV coverage there is no such thing as a surprise package on an Ashes tour. Anyone in a squad is likely to have been seen in action many times before they set foot in England or Australia for the first time. But a generation ago, when cricket on TV was rare and even then almost never from abroad, players could arrive seemingly from nowhere.
In 1950-51, Jack Iverson took 21 wickets for 15.73 runs in five Tests. Iverson developed a peculiar method of spinning the ball, which he gripped between his thumb and middle finger which bemused England's batsmen. That series was his entire Test career. In 1954-55, Frank Tyson, who made his Test debut just before setting sail to Australia, took 28 wickets at 20.82 to effectively decide the series. And in 1974-75, Jeff Thomson was the unknown who turned a series on its head.
England set off for Australia in October 1974 on the back of a drawn series in the Caribbean the previous winter and a summer in which they had whitewashed India and drawn with a strong Pakistan side. Under Mike Denness, they possessed a good fast-bowling attack, even though they controversially omitted John Snow, the hero of the previous tour. They were also without Geoff Boycott, who had gone into a self-imposed international exile a few months earlier.
Australia seemed to pose few threats. Their one known fast bowler, Dennis Lillee, was on the comeback trail after a career-threatening back injury and few thought he would be anything like the force he had been in the 1972 series. England watched him in action during a state game soon after they landed. "He was not employing the high kick and jump, which he had used just before delivery," Denness said. "Neither did he look as quick as before."
One other bowler's name had cropped up in the local media: Thomson. He was erratic but fast and with a unique action, and looked as if he would be more at home on the beach with a surf board under his arm. He had played one Test, almost two years earlier, when he had taken 0 for 110; unbeknown to anyone at the time he had played with a broken foot.
The tourists got a chance to see him first hand when they played Queensland. For a couple of overs he was sharp, but then he cut back and the feeling was that he was quick but wayward. "Most of us found it a little difficult to pick up the ball, because when the arm goes back the ball is hidden behind the body, and could not be seen again until just before delivery," Denness said. "At that time we were very open-minded about the threat he posed."
What England did not know was that Thomson was under orders from Greg Chappell, his captain, to rein himself in. "Just **** around," Chappell told him. "Don't show the English batsmen what you can do." Chappell had already been alerted to his potential in a state match. "He was quick through the air, hitting the bat and the gloves hard… and he hit a couple of players as well."
"I followed his instructions," Thomson admitted, "and just toyed around and bowled within myself." Even so, he let rip in the second innings after Peter Lever and Bob Willis had peppered the Queensland tail with a barrage of short stuff.
England were surprised when Thomson was included in the Australian side for the opening Test in Brisbane. "We never thought they'd pick Jeff," recalled David Lloyd. "We thought it was a different Thomson... Froggy, who played for Victoria."
In the days before the Test, Thomson upped the hype in a TV interview when he said: "I enjoy hitting a batsman more than getting him out. I like to see blood on the pitch."
The night before the match Lillee came across Thomson in the bar drinking scotch. "When I go out to bowl I want a hangover from hell," Thomson explained. "I bowl really well when I've got a headache."
When the game got underway Australia batted first, leaving Thomson in the pavilion to nurse his hangover. Towards the end of their innings Tony Greig, who could bowl briskly and generated significant lift from his 6ft 7in frame to trouble decent batsmen, bounced Lillee. The ball reared at his head and he could do no more than glove it to Alan Knott. "Just you remember who started this," muttered Lillee as he trooped off.
Although England were not outgunned in the first innings, largely thanks to a brilliant counterattacking hundred from Greig, they were blown away by Thomson second time round. He took 6 for 46 to give him 9 for 105 in the match. "He frightened me, and I was sitting 200 yards away," wrote Keith Miller. There was no looking back.
Denness had an early taste of what was in store when he was hit on the collarbone by Thomson. In those days there were no helmets and no body protection. "Of course it hurt, but you couldn't show any signs of distress against the Aussies because they will always smell blood. In those days, I used to wear a gold St Christopher pendant, and it was only when I got back to the dressing room that I found the ball had literally embedded the pendant in my chest. For any bouncers aimed at your head, you had to rely on your reflexes, or, for those brave enough to take on the hook shot, you had to be prepared to lose your front teeth."
In the first four-and-a-half Tests Thomson took 33 wickets at 17.93 and left England battered and beaten. He seemed set to break Arthur Mailey's Australian record of 36 wickets in a series when on the rest day of the penultimate Test in Adelaide he tore muscles in his shoulder playing tennis.
By then, England's morale was in tatters. Lillee's form had increased as the series went on and Thomson's raw pace had left nerves shattered. "When I batted at Perth I didn't even wear a cap," said Lloyd. "All I had was an apology for a thigh pad." It was in that Test that Thomson struck Lloyd so hard in the groin that his protective box was turned inside out. "You didn't feel fear," he added, "but you did feel a hopelessness at times, a feeling that you couldn't cope."
Denness noted Lloyd's reaction when he returned to the dressing room after one innings. "Within seconds his body was quivering. His neck and the top half of his body in particular were shaking. He was shell-shocked."
"There was no respite," added Dennis Amiss, who the previous year had set a record for the most Test runs in a calendar year but ended the tour a shadow of the batsman he was. "They were in your face the whole time."
Only years later did it emerge that Greig almost became the first man to use a helmet in Test cricket. A man came to see Denness in his hotel with some new head protection. "It looked like a motorcycle crash helmet, and it weighed half a ton. Tony was staying in the room next door, so I invited him to come and have a look. Greigy was all front, all bravado, and he was all in favour of wearing one in the next Test. I told him, 'You can't wear that against Lillee and Thomson. It'll be like a red rag to a bull'.
Australia won the series 4-1 - England's sole win came in the final Test when Thomson was absent and Lillee broke down after four overs. It served to underline the impact the pair had on the rubber.
"As the plane left Australia for New Zealand, some of the lads said they were glad to get out alive, even if some of them didn't exactly get out all in one piece," Denness said. "That was difficult for me to take. They had spent three months fearing for their livelihoods and wondering if they were going to get hit on the head, and I was upset I hadn't picked up on it earlier."
- Thomson was almost as effective in the 1975 Ashes series, which Australia won 1-0, and again in the unofficial world championship against West Indies in 1975-76, which Australia won 5-1. But in the first Test of 1976-77, again in Adelaide, he collided with Alan Turner as they both went for a catch in the deep and seriously injured his shoulder. Thereafter he was rarely as fast in anything other than occasional bursts, but he had already stamped his mark on Ashes history.
- Denness, who took the almost unprecedented step of dropping himself for the fourth Test, scored 188 in the final Test and then 181 when the side played in New Zealand. But after an innings defeat by Australia in the first Test in July 1975 he was sacked as captain and replaced by Greig.
- Helmets soon became a feature of the game, first used in World Series Cricket in 1977.
Thommo David Frith (Angus & Robertson, 1980)
My Story Tony Greig (Stanley Paul, 1980)
I Declare Mike Denness (Arthur Baker, 1978)
Matches Of My Life ed Sam Pilger & Rob Wightman (Know The Score, 2006)
The Toughest Tour: Ashes Away Series Since The War Huw Turbervill (Aurum Press, 2010)
Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa