Lillee and Thomson: the greatest pair? (1977)

From Spofforth to Lillee: the really great fast bowlers

Right from the time Spofforth bowled out England in that famous Test at The Oval and Ernest Jones slipped his faster one through "W.G.'S" beard at Sheffield Park, Sussex, fast bowlers have been the most exciting merchandise in cricket. Oh, I know they called Bradman "The Don" and Everton Weekes the "Barbados Butcher" but even those nicknames scarcely convey the menace of "Demon" Spofforth or "Typhoon" Tyson in full cry. In the two Tests of the 1954/55 series in Sydney and Melbourne, the "Typhoon" was the fastest bowler I ever faced. The Sydney pitch was so green it could hardly be distinguished from the rest of the square and the Melbourne one so dry that it was thought necessary to give it a subtle hosing on the rest day, lest the saucer shaped depressions point themselves skywards the next day.

Fast bowlers capture public imagination. At the same time they make the hearts of opposing batsmen beat a little faster and there is no question in my mind that they draw spectators through the turnstiles with their searing pace, gesticulations and all out attack. Real fast bowlers I am talking about. The ones no one likes to bat against. I know there have been some "oldtimers" who have gone on record saying "the faster they bowl the harder I'll hit 'em." Those are not bowlers of the pace of Larwood or Voce we are talking about, or before them Gregory or McDonald. Don't be misled into thinking that anyone ever fancied themselves against Miller or Lindwall, Tyson, Trueman, Statham, Snow or Lillee and Thomson, even if the pitch were perfect for batting. Provide a surface with a little variable bounce and it was absolute hell for the batsmen. I suppose cricketers who are expert batsmen, bowlers (slow) and fieldsmen may cavil at the thought of fast bowlers being more exciting, but in my own section of leg spinning there was only ever one bowler considered volatile enough to warrant the name "Tiger".

The rest of us were simply rated as "thoughtful" with the occasional exception of "cunning". So be it. After all we scarcely put as much exciting physical effort into the game as do our faster counterparts. Rarely do you hear of a slow bowler who has gone in the back as Lillee went in the back in the West Indies in 1973, though there have been a few slow bowlers like myself who have had shoulder trouble from flexing the wrist.

The question of the pace of fast bowlers of different generations is as vexing as posing the question of who has been the greatest batsman in the world. Or was as vexing. With the electronic and computer methods available these days, experts can calculate that Lillee bowls at around 95 miles an hour, Thomson a fraction faster, and that they average something like 85 miles an hour.

Were Gregory and McDonald faster than that? Did they even remotely approach that figures? Well, the Editor of Wisden, having seen them bowl at Tennyson in the 1921 series in England, gave them a rating of 60 miles an hour. It is possible he was correct, but from what I have heard they were just as quick as a lot of the faster bowlers of modern days. I hope so, or a lot of the dreams of the older players will have faded away.

Speed is relative It is relative to the batsman you are bowling against, to the pitch condition, to the atmosphere, but in the end, if you are talking about brute speed there is not much in it when you compare a number of really fast men.

I'm certain, for example, that Tyson when measured on a modern day electronic framing machine would bowl as fast as Thomson most of the time. ... faster at times. Thomson's new style action poses problems and might give him an extra yard in pace before the batsman is able to focus on the ball.

Tyson and Statham were the first really fast bowlers I batted against in first class cricket.

When I came on to the first-class scene Miller and Lindwall also played for New South Wales and although there were some other pace bowlers around at that time these two were easily the fastest. Lindwall is the best fast bowler I have ever seen from the technical point of view, even though the purists may say that his arm was a fraction too low in delivery. There are others of whom the purists say that their arm has been too high, so there is no guarantee that the player himself is wrong. Lindwall, in fact, could hardly have been more successful with a method that allowed him to have his outswinger snapping away from right-handers and coming back late at left-handers. He didn't bother about an inswinger, until playing in the Lancashire League for a season, he discovered that the best way of making certain of taking wickets and therefore a collection, was to bowl out the batsmen rather than rely on the slip catches to be taken.

Because he was as shrewd a campaigner as I have seen he allied that inswinger to his legcutter and a batsman after that time could never really be certain if the ball would swing in , or, having been held across the seam, would cut away. Once in a match in Sydney when New South Wales played Victoria, I persuaded him to bowl it first ball of the second innings to the Test opener Colin McDonald. Colin knew that "Lindy" liked to warm up with an over or so before loosing the inswinger at the batsman. It was the most perfectly pitched delivery. Colin shuffled across to allow the outswinger to pass and the flurried defensive stroke missed the ball by six inches and I have scarcely ever seen a more adjacent lbw turned down. I had the feeling that the umpire was as surprised as the batsman., as he too had never seen Lindwall bowl an inswinger first ball of an innings.

They were a great combination, Lindwall and Miller, both all-rounders, in fact, I felt that Lindwall was always underrated in that department. He was a fine hard-hitting batsman with a flourish in the backswing, and although he went in late for Australia he still played many innings of distinction.

Miller was in the great class as an all-rounder. A flamboyant cricketer and a great character, he was the best all-round cricketer I ever played with or against. Gary Sobers later made his name in the same area and is classed by many now as the greatest cricketer ever to play the game because of the many things he could do so well. But in that 1948-1963 I never saw another cricketer to equal Miller.

He was a dynamic batsman , a brilliant fieldsman and his batting could have earned him a place in any Australian Test era. But it was as Lindwall's partner that he was most famous and he was the perfect man to have at the other end. Whereas Lindwall was slightly round arm and was skidding at you, Miller was all upright delivery, hair awry, and was lifting the ball from even the most sluggish surface at around your ribs. It was as they were coming to the end of their time that Tyson and Statham came on the scene.

I played in the Australian XI game against M.C.C. in Melbourne in 1954 and Statham was on his own then. He posed enough problems for me and for the other Australian batsmen on trial and I had a fair guide to his pace because I had hit a century off Ray Lindwall in Brisbane a couple of weeks earlier. He bowled very well to take four wickets on an unresponsive surface, but it was a rude shock to find that Statham was making me hurry my shot a little. It was an even ruder shock the following week to bat at number three against Tyson at the Sydney Cricket Ground and find him sliding at me from 20 yards at the Randwick end and having to fend one away from my chin to first slip. I had seen him before. In the 1953 tour of England, Northamptonshire produced him against us and he bowled Hole and hit McDonald on the foot so hard that had he not been lbw he could not have continued his innings for a considerable time. Neil Harvey then preceded to hit a century before lunch, but Tyson's speed had not been forgotten. When he came to Australia he had a run up so long, that in the first match at Bunbury, in much the same manner as Wes Hall in Jamaica, he would begin his run by pushing off the sightscreen. Unfortunately for Australia, common sense prevailed in the end and he was persuaded to shorten his run and he was immediately a better and faster bowler.

Frank was never quite the same again after that tour, but it was no real pleasure to bat against him and Brian Statham in those Tests, on at least two pitches that were difficult. The best fast bowling combinations are the ones with one fine supporting bowler. Miller and Lindwall had Bill Johnston, as good a fast medium left-hander as you could ever hope to bat against. "Large" took the new ball for Victoria and bowled more bumpers at the opposing batsmen than any other bowler around at that time. The difference was that he never snarled at you. He always offered that wonderful throaty chuckle and there is no batsman born who could possibly take offence at that. Umpires, keen to see their frames on the television screens these days, could have had a field day with him, but, I suspect, even in these modern times they would have been as friendly to him as the batsmen. If he was the perfect foil to Miller and Lindwall, so was Bailey to Tyson and Statham .... Trevor was not necessarily everyone's idea of an entertaining batsman, but as third "seamer" to that pair he was just about ideal. Mostly outswing, sometimes the one coming back the other way and a good deal of movement off the pitch.

They are the lucky ones, the fast bowlers with the third seamer to assist them. But what about the ones who did it all on their own .... In single file. Although this is an article to do with fast bowlers it would be sacrilege to omit mention of Alec Bedser, Alan Davidson and Graham McKenzie, all of whom had the misfortune to play their best cricket for England and Australia in an era when there was no other experienced fast bowler at the opposite end. Bedser was one of the real greats for England. I had first hand knowledge of Davidson as I captained him from 1958 onwards and then McKenzie carried the Australian attack from 1964 to 1969. What they would have been like if there had been an express bowler at the other end and the batsmen were trying to get down to their end is a mind boggling exercise.

Freddie Trueman bowled splendidly for England as a raw youngster in 1952, then did Army service and played against us in 1953 in the final Test before going to the West Indies in 1953/54 and missing the tour to Australia in 1954/55. He bowled superbly in 1958/59 and 1961, but he was more a craftsman than an express bowler.

Generally when captains win a series for England or Australia they have bowling trumps at their disposal. When Ray Illingworth planned his campaign in 1970 he had John Snow and some courageous but lesser lights at his disposal. Snow in the 1970/71 series was a great bowler in Australia, fast and aggressive, able to move the ball in the air and off the seam and despite anything the batsman did, able to keep an almost perfect line and length.

In the fifth Test of that series in Adelaide I had my first sight of Dennis Lillee. Long black hair, thinnish build and a sprawling delivery stride couldn't disguise the fact that here Australia had something for the future. He bowled with great enthusiasm and for the amount of experience he had to that date, with a great deal of skill and temperament, and England's batsmen were in no doubt that they had seen a star of the future. Since then he has become a wonderful bowler, a fluent action, ability to change his pace and move the ball either way off the seam or in the air, and a tremendous temperament have made him one of the real greats as far as I am concerned. Anyone who can fight back as he did with that back injury of three stress fractures is tops for courage. He was lucky that in 1973 the Australian selectors took a chance with some fellow with a funny action named Thomson. He looked a little like a javelin thrower with the crossed feet in delivery stride and the hiding of the ball from the batsman by propelling it from behind the right thigh instead of the shoulder. Just think, some coach might have got hold of "Thommo" a few years ago and said to him, "look here son ... you'll never get anywhere this way ... try it the orthodox way."

Together Lillee and Thomson are the fastest pair I have ever seen. You can throw in Hall and Griffiths, Tyson and Statham, Miller and Lindwall and if I had to choose one pair it would be Lillee and Thomson. What ... just what ... would they have done if they had played in the late forties when administrators gave fast bowlers the chance of having a new ball every 40 overs in Australia and every 55 overs in England?

© John Wisden & Co