'I never feared the ball'
At a time when batsmen the world over broke into a sweat at the thought of the West Indies' quicks, Graeme Wood relished the challenge
In the '80s you brought in Woody to face West Indies. Graeme Wood was a bit of a West Indies specialist in an era when Australian cricket was going through hell, and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse were at their dominant peak. There weren't many batsmen in that decade who averaged better against West Indies than they did overall. Wood did - 33.65, against 31.83 overall.
Clearly Wood didn't master them; not many could. But he fought valiantly. He relished the challenge. So much so that he can now matter-of-factly say that he didn't mind Malcolm Marshall. You won't find many batsmen saying that.
Wood didn't mind Marshall because he was an outswing bowler, and thus brought the ball back into him. And also, being a swing bowler, Marshall didn't bowl as many bouncers.
Only halfway into his career did Wood get himself a helmet, but one without a grille to cover the face. He says he never felt scared of the ball. "If you did, you just wouldn't survive."
More than a few of Wood's many comebacks occurred when a West Indies series was around, and because West Indies were a popular team, there series against them were frequent back then. If it wasn't Tests, it was ODIs, and the idea that an ODI must be a runfest hadn't quite struck the curators, or the West Indies fast bowlers, then. If it wasn't an ODI, a fast bowler would pop up in Shield cricket or for one of the counties helping the Australians warm up for the Ashes.
To hear from Wood is to believe how difficult it was to face the champion fast bowlers of that age. Especially if all you have seen of them is brief footage in cricket documentaries. Facing four out of Marshall, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Colin Croft in one match, on spicy pitches with variable bounce, was a nightmare.
One such pitch in 1988-89, when Marshall was joined by the younger crop of Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson, ended Wood's career. Dean Jones and Ian Healy took blows on that dodgy MCG track, and Allan Border - tough as they come - said there was absolutely no pleasure in facing that barrage. Wood fought for 130 minutes for 12 runs. "Twelve singles," he reminds you.
That was the thing about West Indies back then. You didn't know when a run, or respite, would come - if it ever did. "The great thing about West Indies was that they always had four in the team," Wood says. "And they tended to bowl 12 overs an hour at that stage. So someone like Malcolm Marshall, who opened the bowling, would bowl 36 deliveries in an hour, have an hour off, have lunch, and then come back after a 100-minute rest and bowl another six overs flat out.
"And if you speak to someone like [Sunil] Gavaskar, that was the thing - it was hard to get momentum. Because you just weren't facing the number of balls. Whereas now, when you are facing 90 overs a day the bowlers get tired. They know they have to bowl those 90 overs."
Once in a while West Indies made it even more interesting. "I remember playing a one-day game in Sydney, and Greg Chappell was captain," Wood says. "Those days you had to try to get 50 off the fifth bowler. That sometimes was Viv [Richards] or [Larry] Gomes. On that day the team was Roberts, Garner, Croft, Holding, Marshall. I said to Greg, 'Who is the fifth? Who are we going after?'"
Adding to it was the competition within the West Indies unit. "When he [Garner] was given the new ball, he would grow an arm," Wood says. "When he was bowling first- or second change, I noticed an enormous change between that and when he opened the bowling. He was a lot quicker, and from a left-hander's perspective, he used to go across you towards slip, and it was hard work. Especially with his height."
Marshall wasn't far behind. Once, at the WACA, West Indies batted 11 hours, leaving the Australia openers an hour to survive on the second day. Imagine their plight. "Malcolm bowled very, very fast," Wood says. "I sort of looked back at the keeper and Clive Lloyd, and thought, 'You have got to be kidding me.' About 50 metres back."
Wood once hooked Roberts. He then found the legend of Roberts' two bouncers wasn't a myth at all. It wasn't even a serious competitive game. Western Australia had beaten West Indies inside three days and arranged a one-day game on the fourth. "I hooked Andy Roberts here at the WACA. It went for four. Didn't have the helmet on," he says. "And the next one he bounced me and just got the back, and it brushed past there. That was his second, quicker, bouncer. I didn't hook anymore in that game.
"I remember playing a one-day game in Sydney, and Greg Chappell was captain. Those days you had to try to get 50 off the fifth bowler. That sometimes was Viv or Gomes. On that day the team was Roberts, Garner, Croft, Holding, Marshall. I said to Greg, 'Who is the fifth? Who are we going after?'"
"He didn't say much at all. It was like he was there to do business. He was a champion bowler. Because he had that variation. He definitely had one, two, three bouncers. The third one was very, very quick. He could hit you at will. Crofty didn't mind hitting blokes either."
Wood, though, didn't shelve the hook. It was the only way out. In the century he scored at the WACA, against Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh and Patterson, he hooked and pulled well. He says, though, that it didn't always work.
"I thought I was a good hooker," Wood says. "I got criticised for getting out at times. But also got a lot of runs with it. Just picking your mark. Unfortunately, the Windies developed a strategy that if I hooked them and got a four, they'd put two back. That then made it very, very difficult because you had such quality bowlers bowling. You can't really hook them. You had to put it in the closet."
If you couldn't hook well, you got hit. Wood remembers two big blows he took during his career. "I got hit once by Jeff Thomson at Lord's. He was playing for Middlesex. Just a tour game. I was hit another time by Winston Davis at Headingley, in a World Cup match on a pretty green wicket. I can honestly say I was never intimidated."
You couldn't plan how to face those bowlers. "It was just about survival for the first few overs," he says. "Get in and blunt the new ball, and try to make it as easy as you could for the middle order. We didn't intentionally get out thinking we will take somebody on today. You just say you have got to survive, got to hang in there. If they did bowl a bad ball, you have got to try to dispatch it. Otherwise you weren't going to score at all." Try telling that to today's batsmen.
There also was the pressure of knowing that the last four wickets would amount to nothing. "They could really intimidate the lower-order batsmen," Wood says. "It's hard enough for the guys at the top of the order. It was real intimidation. That put extra pressure on the guys on top. You knew if you were five or six down, there weren't too many more runs coming. I think the guys were just shell-shocked in the end. And they were very, very concerned not only for their wicket but for their lives."
Wood never had to conquer that fear, he says. "I think it never arose," he says. "You have fear of failure, fear of getting out, but never of the ball. Never feared the ball. Just get in behind it. It's like fielding at short leg without a helmet."
He did get two centuries against West Indies. Both are among his three favourite innings, the third being his hundred in the Centenary Test, at Lord's in 1980. One of his two against West Indies came in Guyana against a World Series-weakened attack, but it was a chase of 359 after Australia had been 22 for 3. The third was in Perth, after which he flipped the bird to the Channel 9 commentators. That was his penultimate Test. In his next Test he scored 12 singles over 130 minutes.
What was it about Wood and West Indies? "Used to get the call-up all the time," he says. "Probably being brought up in WA. We had got very good district wickets at that time that were quite quick and bouncy. We had a strong district competition. Each grade side tended to have one or two grade players who played first-class cricket. You are playing at the WACA consistently, so you learn to play off the back foot. That held you in good stead. And I enjoyed playing against fast bowling.
"Another one was Bruce Laird. He was always called up to play against the Windies because he played well off the back foot. Had a good technique. Those were very tough days, tough cricket, but I enjoyed playing against them because they used to just play their cricket. There was no talk, they let the ball do it. Tough times."
Australia could give it back through Lillee and Thomson. "We had a very good side," Wood says. "[Len] Pascoe was mad as any fast bowler. We had Greg Chappell, Hughes, Thommo, Lillee. Overall it was tremendous cricket. They were great times."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo