Jeff Thomson, running late, rolls over, sits upright, thinks of the many annoyances and injustices in his life, remembers how he hates liars and cheats, gets out of bed. He often drinks Scotch instead of beer because beer hangovers wake him up feeling bloated and lethargic. This morning he is in a lousy mood, cranky, but loose, which for Thomson is the optimum state of being for a day's fast bowling. Without a glance in a mirror, he stuffs his white clothes under an arm and leaves the house on the last day of 1973.
The first inkling that this day's cricket may not be like other days comes when opening batsman Rob Jeffery shapes to play a hook shot. Jeffery is young, 20, and in the space where his two front teeth should be are two false teeth, the real ones having been knocked clean out when, aged 16, he hooked and top-edged fast bowler Dave Gibson of the Waverley club. "Please pick up my teeth," said Jeffery, seeing the teeth sitting pitchside, as he was helped off. Today he has a mouthguard on, no helmet; the cricket helmet's invention is four years away. He, a left-hander, notices that when Thomson bowls, the ball gives the impression it is following him. Jeffery's plan, same as Jeffery's plan always is, is to step back in his crease and hook behind square. He goes to do exactly this, thinking "I'm in position but this ball's on to me quicker than what a ball's ever been" - except the thought is barely half hatched, some kind of skating premonition, because this ball actually is on him, on his right shoulder, bulleting into it, a blast of agony, then Jeffery feels his legs crumpling from beneath and his body toppling backwards on to the stumps.
Until this instant, the nine batsmen yet to bat have sat at ease, on the grass, sort of watching, sort of not bothering. Now, heads lift. Some players hop to their feet. The captain Barry Knight, who played 29 times for England, feels his mind coil back to a day it hasn't alighted on in years - Ilford, 1957, Essex against West Indies, quiet morning, the kid Roy Gilchrist bowling. Next ball whipped clear of batsman, stumps, wicketkeeper and rebounded, with an echoey pock, off the sightscreen.
Jeffery, safely on the sidelines, does not take his pads off, just sits, pads on; minutes later he sees, with a surprise, he's shaking.
John Pym got the best view - 22 yards away, non-striker's end - of the Jeffery ball. Pym, unlike Jeffery, is no step-back-and-attacker. If an hour and a half's batting is up and the ball a bit bruised, Pym's job is done. He has faced Thomson many times. Since the last time, he has read something batsman-turned-classy-journo John Benaud wrote: something about 23-year-old Jeff Thomson having turned himself into the world's fastest bowler. So that week Pym asked Barry Knight to lug the bowling machine into the practice nets and switch the setting to a click under 100 miles an hour. One-oh-oh.
Straight away, even before Jeffery's been hit and gone, Pym realises, "Unbelievable. This ball's coming down at least ten per cent faster than the machine." Pym concocts a strategy: he'll hover on tiptoes, weightless, poised to duck or weave or block, and he will not swing his bat back at all because there is simply no time. Then the Jeffery ball explodes before his eyes. Pym's thinking now, "I've got to do something, otherwise I'm gunna be target practice here." He re-schemes things: he'll afford himself a wafer backswing, six inches, enough to deflect the screaming ball behind square leg or through the slip cordon and no glorious-uncertainty-of-cricket way known will a fielder risk laying a hand on it. The first time he tries this the bat jabs back five of the preconceived six inches when - how is this happening? - the ball's too fast for his swing, it has clipped the bat's inside edge, leg stump's cartwheeling. Pym is walking off, disbelieving. "Not fair" - the feeling punches him in the guts, then, "Oh well, at least I'm alive."
Thomson has been annoyed all season. This is round ten, at Bankstown Oval, of the Sydney first-grade competition of 1973-74. It is Mosman against Bankstown, two suburbs separated by Sydney Harbour Bridge and 20-odd miles of motorway. Every cricketer in this city hears it said that the state selectors won't cross the bridge to see Bankstown's players. Thomson, the fourth of Don and Doreen Thomson's five sons, grew up on Market Street, Bankstown. Two-thirds of Bankstown houses are fibro-cement constructions. In Mosman, the verandah posts are sculpted timber, and the roofs terracotta-tiled, "red-tiled roofs of comfort" the poet Henry Lawson called them, and jacaranda-lined avenues wind up hills and in semi-circles.
Bankstown bat first, scoring 186. Sometime before play the pitch, uncovered, was gently rained on. When the ball bounces, it puts a dent in the mud-like surface, and as the mud slowly dries these dents are effectively cemented in, which is the recipe for a pitch that's pockmarked and lumpy, but later on in the afternoon, not yet. Thomson, the No. 8, crouches bent-kneed and fidgety, hacking his bat up and down in readiness like a weed-cutter's rusty shears. Yet his 29 out of 186 is Bankstown's second-top score. One swing of Thomson's sends the ball orbiting high above the fieldsmen, 20 metres beyond the fence and into the nearby high school, a furious swipe.
Reasons for annoyance centre on an October evening when the New South Wales XI for the season's opening interstate match was about to be announced. Leg-spinner Kerry O'Keeffe told Thomson you're not in it, "oh, that'd be bullshit," Thomson replied, but then the selectors confirmed it. Thomson's previous first-class game had been for his country against Pakistan. None for 100, he'd taken; with a broken left foot, he'd bowled. Now he was considered not good enough for the state. Thomson carries inside him an urgent sense of right and wrong. Sometimes he leaps wrongly to the conclusion he's been wronged; this time, no doubt, he'd been wronged, right? He rang his Bankstown captain Dion Bourne to say meet me down at Bankstown Sports Club.
"The pricks," said Thomson. He talked about how upset he felt, about knocking people's arms, legs, heads flying. He said it again. "Pricks."
When Thomson bowls, the climax of a weird shuffling trot that verges on pony-like, his feet perform a last-second cross-shoe slide, then his right leg tilts and braces, his elongated left leg kicks out horizontally at the batsman, and his left arm points skywards, fingers and thumb at full stretch - so completing his temporary self-transformation into a human slingshot - and by this stage his long hair is standing up on end, his white flannels tend to be flapping out around his backside, and his eyes fix so insistently on their target that the muscular torsion this involves is visible when freeze-framed, hollowing out his cheeks and sending a crooked leer ripping across his face. It is - no other word works - beautiful. Here is one subsidiary word - eerie: the ball, dangling low, behind his back, is almost but never quite within the batsman's sight line.
A cricket player's physicality expresses itself mysteriously.
Behind every cricketer is another cricketer.
Thomson's dad, Don, bowled with the same action. Years away Thomson's own boy, Matt, will have the same action. Two other sons do not bowl often but when they do it is with the same action.
Imagine adding annoyance and a miscarriage of justice and a simmering two-month thirst for vengeance to that action. At Coogee, Drummoyne and Marrickville ovals, the wickets and casualties mounted. Against Balmain, he clipped a chunk of Balmain wicketkeeper Kerry Thompson's ear off and the ball kept going. "A little piece of your ear's missing," Dion Bourne offered helpfully, "down near the fence with the ball."
The Pym ball was an inswinging yorker. Next in is Billy King. "Same ball to Kingy," silly mid-off Barry Thebridge wanders over to tell Thomson. "He won't get behind 'em." Thomson does not really need to be told. People have been underestimating Thomson's IQ for years. They still underestimate it. But he ranked in the top five students at Condell Park Primary and had his pick of high schools - and one day in the future, in Perth, he will win not only the Fastest Bowler in the World competition but the $A1,000 bonus prize for most accurate.
Thomson bowls the same ball again. This time it is off stump that's cartwheeling.
Greg Bush, the non-striker, who overheard the Thebridge-Thomson conversation, smiles at Thomson: "Pretty impressive."
The hat-trick ball climbs off one of the dents in the pitch and misses Barry Hyland's shoulder. Hyland is batting at five instead of his regular three because he is wearing new glasses. When Thomson's next over begins it is Bush on strike. Bush turns and peers round. Something he has never seen: the slips and wicketkeeper are stationed nearer to the sightscreen than the pitch. This is Bush's sixth first-grade match. At 18 he balances studying law with playing cricket, the thing that he loves, and 14 years from this day he will encounter the massive Barbadian Wayne Daniel on a wet Manly Oval wicket. Daniel will rifle a ball up his armpit, and he will hear Daniel's mouth in his ear, "Hey, man, what you get behind the ball for, man, you're mad?" That will seem like nothing next to facing Thomson today. No chance of a backswing: time only for a short-armed bunt. Even so Bush, a left-hander, is managing to discern the blur coming at him, and because Thomson is angling the ball across and away from him he feels comfortable. He gets away two scoring shots: a forward punch off a full toss, when Thomson slips a little in his run-up, and a backward jab off a short one.
Hyland's new glasses are worrying him. Bush pokes towards gully, tries for a single, Hyland shouts no. It is overcast but not cold. The honking traffic is loud and the atmosphere dead. A hundred people, rough count, are present. The sightscreens are too low to cover the bowlers' arms. Bush has a reputation for not scaring. Next ball, the ball after Hyland's "no", is the first ball on the line of Bush's body. It pitches on leg stump, neither full nor short. One small step lands Bush squarely behind it. This ball leaps. It has its own mind. Bush thrusts his gloves and bat handle up, up to about nose level. But the ball is like a wave breaking, over the top it crashes. Bush staggers and falls. He puts a hand to his right eye. "Have a look," he hears. He looks: blood on the glove. Thomson walks back to his bowling mark, and stands. Bush's eye, people notice, looks to be sort of hanging, not sitting correctly in its socket, the most shocking and grotesque cricketing injury, everybody knows, that they ever have seen or will see.
Bush's team-mates, on the boundary, heard the thud, then a crack.
Garie Beach, Norah Head, Maroubra, The Entrance: at a string of far-from-stress escape hatches along the coast of New South Wales, Thomson and his friend Lenny Durtanovich, later Pascoe, would surf and talk to girls. Thomson cannot remember a time in his life when he did not want a boat. As a kid he asked for toy boats, while dreaming of the real thing. Later, older, still not a boat owner, he and Greg, the third brother, would select some ocean rocks to stand on, and fish off them, sometimes through the night, a metal spike to cling to when the surf turned treacherous on top of them. Thomson played many sports, not just the working-class ones. In his Bankstown backyard flattened by five boys' footfall he gouged holes in the grass, and put soup cans in the holes, to create a golf course. Beach excursions with Lenny happened Saturdays - days of no school, or work, days of invariably turning up late for cricket.
Durtanovich and Thomson were Punchbowl High partners in shooting pigs, catching fish, pulling birds, taking wickets. Durtanovich shook out eight for 21, Punchbowl v Birrong. Thomson smashed that with nine for three, Punchbowl v Belmore. Occasionally Thomson would catch sight of Alan Davidson or Graham McKenzie bowling on TV - "like watching fuckin' paint dry". Davidson's inswinger dipped devastatingly late. McKenzie had a Mona Lisa of an outswinger. Not impressed, was Thomson: "pace and more pace" was more fun and also bothered batsmen. He was six when he bowled his first bumper. At 12 he'd get through 50 eight-ball overs on a Saturday, spread across Under-14s, 16s and C-grade, jogging from venue to venue on days Dad didn't drive him. At 14 he bowled a ball that sent a wicketkeeper flying. Once, when Wes Hall ventured to the far-out western Sydney sticks to teach Australian children how to throw, Thomson threw further than Wes.
Twenty was a complicated age. Those fond of Thomson - and not many who glimpsed a layer beneath the bloodthirsty persona were not - believed that if not for the Bankstown postcode he'd have been opening the nation's struggling Test attack with young Dennis Lillee of Western Australia. Instead that summer, 1970-71, Thomson was dropped from Bankstown first grade to third grade for an afternoon (he took ten for 31) when club officials tired of the surf/girls preoccupation and the lateness.
Thomson's attitude to cricket was: "I mean, you have to play all afternoon, so what's the hurry to get there?"
In the middle of Bankstown Oval lies a red pool. David Colley, the incoming batsman, sees it on his slow walk out. Greg Bush's blood. Sort of "squeezey" looking, like squirted sauce. Sick feeling in the stomach. Red blood on white creaseline. Try not to step in it. Colley gave Bush a lift to the ground that morning. Try not to get your friend's blood on you. Blood on the creaseline, behind it, in front of it. Red splash in the line of all three stumps. Got to know where middle stump is. Colley asks the umpire for middle and marks the spot with his boot. Red on white boot.
Colley's presence today has been playing on every player's mind. Colley is one of three fast bowlers - Steve Bernard and Gary Gilmour are the others - in the New South Wales team. Tapping his bat in blood he hears voices from behind. "This is the one we want, Thommo, this one's yours." They think Thommo should be picked for New South Wales before Colley. Thomson thinks Thommo should be picked. What else is Thomson thinking? - the usual stuff against Mosman - "pack of jerks"; "fancy bats"; "elegant and clever". Colley himself got thinking, before heading out to bat, "I'll try to stir Thommo up. Make him bowl short and go crazy and try to kill me. Might be my best chance." So he put his New South Wales sweater on. Thomson sees the sweater. The day is, still, not cold. The fieldsmen standing closest think they see white in Colley's face. Colley, inside - "I'm not going to dog it" - is fixed tight on a plan, to go back, and across, get yourself behind the ball when it comes...
The ball is fairly full and swinging in. Colley is a long way away, maybe a metre away, the place where he's backed away. Leg and middle stumps are out of the ground. Colley sees nothing - too quick - hears nothing, and seconds later will remember nothing of this. Still, now, he cannot find the memory, and nearly 40 years have gone.
Lying on a stretcher in the corridor between the teams' change-rooms, Bush hears a roar, and knows: Colley out, first ball.
Colley returns, looks around, thinks that's strange - three batsmen, all of them out, have not unbuckled their pads. The three sit still, smiling, but not happy smiles, or normal.
One, Pym, is having hazily philosophical thoughts, like what are we doing here, this is supposed to be a game, and another, Jeffery, is thinking he does not want to bat again today, over and over he thinks this, aware that the thought is surely futile, such is the speed of batsmen's comings and goings.
Sandy Morgan, at No. 7, once a Queensland all-rounder, is next in. He feels no nerves. He has clarity. Thomson shuffles up to bowl and Morgan steps away two paces to leg. Morgan is like a flashing neon white flag. But he does not get paid for cricket, he is fresh-embarked on a stockbroking career that is shaping up promising, and the Test aspirations he had he has left behind. So he steps away two paces, bat waving, "There are the stumps, Jeff, knock 'em over, don't hit me." Morgan survives a ball but not many.
Bush, still on the corridor floor, hears the excited shouts.
Once, on a terrace outside Roselands Shopping Centre, schoolboys Thomson and Durtanovich had a disagreement about who had broken more batsmen's fingers lately.
All day a complicating fear has dangled over proceedings. A year ago at this ground Barry Knight bowled a beamer at Thomson's head from 16 yards and everyone's been wondering if Thomson is plotting retaliation. Knight had his reasons: Thomson had earlier flung at the head of Mosman's last man Bill Carracher two that bounced plus another that didn't. Also, Knight did not (the long version goes) mean it - simply tore in off the long run thinking bumper, until the realisation hit him that an ageing Englishman's attempted bumper might provoke mere laughs, which was when drifting into his subconscious came a seething Trevor Bailey, his idol, beaming a New Zealander from the front creaseline, and Knight decided good idea, front creaseline, still thinking bumper, but then five or six strides from delivery his thinking got scrambled, bumper turning to beamer, and in his distraction he skipped past the umpire, past the front creaseline, and staggered several yards on accidentally. Anyhow, Thomson ducked.
Knight is the new batsman. Thomson does not retaliate. Knight gets behind the ball, protecting his stumps. The fieldsmen, noticing this, are impressed. But before Knight can think of a run he pops up a catch.
Since first learning cricket, aged eight, on London's Wanstead Flats with some older boys, and in the street against a lamp-post, and with his friend George Catchpole on a wooden pitch his dad built from disused doors, Knight has either practised his batting or batted in actual matches, be it at street, net, club, county, Test or grade level, virtually every dry day. Conservative estimate (Barry's): 200 balls a day, 73,000 balls a year, which makes, pushing 36 years of age, 2.04 million balls faced in a cricket-devotional lifetime so far. Not one of the two million-plus compared with facing Thomson, that creeping-hysteria sensation of having no reaction time, of hoping and trying to bob on the back foot and somehow pick the ball out of your swimming line of vision - actually, thinks Knight, as he slopes off Bankstown Oval, a tremor of recognition, "I've had this feeling before." On a drab day in Peterborough, 1956, a teenaged Knight passed Essex team-mate Geoff Smith on his way to the wicket. Smith was whimpering, on a stretcher. The ball had struck him under his pad's knee-roll, the jolt shifting the knee out of alignment: Smith lbw b Tyson 0. Knight faced five Tyson balls, none straight. Two bumpers, a beamer, one pitched up outside off, another pitched up and scudding leg side - Knight knows this because he turned and looked, afterwards. When the five balls were flying at him he could make out only the faintest shadow, or no shadow. Exact same thing facing Thomson.
Frank Tyson managed five or six overs at that top velocity. Thomson, word on the circuit has it, is good for a dozen or 20.
The ambulance driver, trying to reach Bush in the corridor, cannot get through the gates. It is New Year's Eve and Bush has a date with the girl who lives next door. He wonders about stitches; if they are needed, what might his face look like? The ambulance driver gives up. Bush is carried out to the street. At Bankstown Hospital he is X-rayed and let go. The date is off, Bush and the girl next door stay in, but there is more cricket to look forward to, a one-dayer, and he'll play if he gets the all-clear in the morning from his nearest hospital. There, an eye specialist interrupts his holidays to say: "Look up. Look right. Look left." Bush obeys, or thinks he does. The eye does not budge. The bone beneath it, the orbit bone, is smashed - that was the crack team-mates heard - and also sunken, rendering his two eyes crooked. Trapped and tangled in broken bone are the surrounding muscles. The eyeball's a blood clot. Bush will recover and play on, for decades. But first, a delicate operation, then a month in a bed in an old people's annexe of Royal North Shore Hospital, lying perfectly still, lest the eye bleed and he blind himself, listening to every ball of Australia and New Zealand on radio.
Pym is laying bets with team-mates on whether Thomson can bowl six byes - can actually bowl a cricket ball out of the ground.
Thomson has a strained calf, or groin, maybe slipped in his run-up again. Might have figures of six for four. No full scorecard is available. Four men bowled, one caught, one hit on the shoulder and out hit wicket; one more hit in the eye and hospitalised. But, now, Thomson must stop.
He will bowl many more fast spells. But on December 13, 1975, something - something inside, and barely traceable - changes. A flatmate of Thomson's, 22-year-old wicketkeeper Martin Bedkober, is batting in a Brisbane grade match. He lets a short ball hit his chest. The bowler is a medium-pacer. Bedkober waves help away, then falls. Not long after, he is dead: a blood clot, in the spot where the ball struck, the hospital doctor cannot push oxygen through. Thomson will think, after this, "There's no point trying to knock a bloke out."
On the afternoon before Christmas, 1976, Pakistan's Zaheer Abbas spoons up an attempted pull shot in Adelaide. The bowler Thomson dives for the catch, midwicket Alan Turner dives simultaneously, and they crash. Neither man gets up for a while - and Thomson's right shoulder bone is wrenched five centimetres away from the joint. He will bowl again in his life, many times, but with a longer run-up, and without the same serene elasticity in the moment before delivery. Seldom will a ball, neither full nor short, leap with the steep menace of old.
First, his psyche; a year after, his shoulder. He is reduced, cut down - this man who on the last day of 1973 bowled faster probably than anyone in the universe ever has, and faster, perhaps, than the universe wanted him to bowl.
Christian Ryan lives in Melbourne, writes and edits, and is the author of Golden Boy. His latest book is a pictorial collection of essays, Australia: Story of a Cricket Country