25th November 2020

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Which is the most terrifying spell of fast bowling ever bowled?

In this edition of Rabbit Holes, Andrew McGlashan, Karthik Krishnaswamy and Osman Samiuddin pick the spells of fast bowling that have scared the pants off the most intrepid batsmen, and viewers as well.

Andrew “Gnasher” McGlashan, deputy editor: Who takes the new ball?

Karthik Krishnaswamy, senior sub-editor: Where’s Osman?

McGlashan: Picking the new cherry from the box and making sure his hair looks like Wasim Akram‘s.

Osman Samiuddin, senior editor: Right, I’m going to start with two pics. Sorry, Brighton library but I “borrowed” this book back in the day, and it was actually the first book I read on fast bowling.

McGlashan: What are the fines usually, 50p per day?

Samiuddin: Give or take. Simon Wilde at his peak here, in actually broadening the definition of scary fast bowling. Until then, scary fast bowling was short, fast, bouncers. By the time he wrote this, reverse swing at high pace had come in.

Krishnaswamy: I’ve got this quote, from Frank Tyson: “To bowl quick is to revel in the glad animal action; to thrill in physical prowess and to enjoy a certain sneaking feeling of superiority over the other mortals who play the game.” But I also wanted to ask: are we talking about batsmen being scared, or the viewer, cowering behind the sofa?

Samiuddin: Probably both… I was going to say that on certain days, the prospect of Jimmy Anderson bowling to you is scarier than a faster bowler.

McGlashan: Does a big ‘tache help?

Samiuddin: Interesting point about the ‘tache. Merv Hughes had it, and played fully to the stereotype of scary fast bowler, but he wasn’t really, was he? Sarfraz Nawaz too had the hair and the moustache, but actually not the pace at all. Even though he fully tried to get into the bouncer wars in the ’70s. I mean him running in, he looked like a penguin on fire and then he bowls a bouncer at, I don’t know, 126kph probably.

Krishnaswamy: Sarfraz Nawaz had the ‘tache, Imran Khan never did, and Waqar Younis ditched his very early.

McGlashan: I think if you asked the average cricket follower what scary was, it would be the physical danger side of it.

Samiuddin: Yeah, so I think the point Wilde makes in his book is that the batsmen were scared (at the time he wrote it) of their toes being crushed. Though I don’t think that would compare to a proper mortal threat of getting hit on the head.

McGlashan: Mitchell Johnson. That [Ashes] series in 2013-14 was among the most consistently hostile performances I’ve seen.

Krishnaswamy: Yeah, I was watching that video an hour or so back, and it’s amazing how many batsmen are so clearly worried about the threat of the bouncer – they’re so often getting out to other balls, but they’re all the way across their stumps sometimes, or not getting forward at all. And then he carried it forward into the South Africa tour that followed. In that 2013-14 season, he took 59 wickets at 15.23. Rest of his career, he averaged 31.46.

McGlashan: As a small aside – think we might have a few! – Akram bowled one of the spells of short stuff that Alec Stewart said was the fastest he ever faced: Oval 1996.

Samiuddin: Akram actually did this quite often. For all the skills that he had, when he wanted to crank it up, he could get properly nasty.

Krishnaswamy: Isn’t there a photograph of the ball passing Stewart’s head when he’s utterly contorted by Akram? Or was that Michael Atherton?

McGlashan: Yep

Samiuddin: There’s a famous, famous spell that he bowled to Steve Waugh in Rawalpindi I think, in the 1994-95 series. Waugh says it was the nastiest spell he’d faced – everything up into his armpit. I think he said it was the fastest spell he’d faced.

McGlashan: Plenty of Atherton doing the same, mind… usually to Curtly Ambrose or Courtney Walsh. Or famously to Allan Donald, Trent Bridge, 1998.

Krishnaswamy: The most visibly terrified person on the field that day seemed to be Mark Boucher. Who was 20 or something but looked 15.

Samiuddin: I’m going to drop this video in here just because the title of it is what should be the title of this rabbit hole: Akram just wants to kill: “He [Waugh] didn’t middle a ball in my spell – I was beating him and he was leaving a lot of balls. But he stood there and got 98 and that was very, very impressive. I just wanted to kill him, as a bowler. That was probably the quickest I’ve ever bowled.”

McGlashan: While we are on Pakistan fast bowlers (and when aren’t we?) how soon does Shoaib Akhtar feature?

I don’t think Brian Lara has ever said as much but could he have faced a scarier bouncer than the one Akhtar felled him with? Or the one Akhtar hit Gary Kirsten with?

And if we are talking about the feet being in danger, Ashley Giles was never playing that one in 2005.

Samiuddin: The thing about Akhtar was his action as much as the pace. He used to bring his arm through from weird angles and there was that whole whippage, not unlike Jasprit Bumrah actually, which made it difficult to pick up. Like Brett Lee’s classical, beautiful action made his bouncer at least easier to pick, if not play. But with Akhtar, it was on you before you knew it because you saw it so late.

McGlashan: There was also this spell vs Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting at the WACA that they talk about being as quick as they faced.

Krishnaswamy: That tour, he often threatened to concede four byes without the ball bouncing a second time.

Samiuddin: I’ve just gone down a Akhtar rabbit hole here, but I remember hearing about this spell, to Matthew Hayden, in a tour game. Check the bouncer at 1:19. He doesn’t have time to move. But Hayden being Hayden, doesn’t even flinch after getting hit. But then Akhtar gets him out with a slower ball (lolz) later.

McGlashan: I’ve always quite enjoyed the fact that when he broke 100mph at the 2003 World Cup, Nick Knight just tapped the ball to the leg side.

Samiuddin: Haha, it was like the least scary ball Knight had ever played.

On unusual actions, though, the daddy of all the scariest I guess was Jeff Thomson. One of the pics I love the most is of Thommo.

Here’s Mark Nicholas writing about that delivery to Tony Greig: “I watched in awe as Thomson made the ball fly from the hard pitch and Rodney Marsh took off to catch it. Marsh and the slip fielders appeared to be miles back, near 30 paces at a guess. There were no helmets or chest guards, just flimsy thigh pads, basic gloves and pink, plastic abdominal protectors. Men were battered, bruised, bloodied and broken.”

Man, Greig must have been at the receiving end of some scary-ass spells.

Krishnaswamy: Look at the slip cordon (plus short leg) at the start of this video.

Samiuddin: Looks at the start like he’s just bowling some nice, gentle floaters. Mark Ealham-esque.

McGlashan: I suspect David Lloyd found that spell from Thommo that still gets played nowadays quite scary.

Krishnaswamy: There’s a real physical danger to fast bowling that we were reminded of when Phillip Hughes died, but the game seems to have gone back to a pre-2014 state in terms of bouncers being bowled frequently, even to lower-order batsmen. I thought that might change, but it really hasn’t. During the pink-ball Test in Kolkata last year, I thought India’s fast bowlers went overboard with the bouncer, and thanks to concussion subs, the game ended with Bangladesh’s second-innings scorecard featuring 12 batsmen and two DNBs: I think umpires do need to step in more when fast bowlers constantly bounce tailenders. One of the least edifying things in cricket is spectators cheering when fast bowlers go overboard against the tail. Video titles with the word “kill” in them are part of the same problem.

Samiuddin: Does it happen to the degree it was happening in the ’70s, though? In fact, Wilde’s book is especially good at documenting the kind of moral crisis that gripped cricket around that time. Cricket just couldn’t figure out what to do with bouncers, and especially a sustained barrage vs tailenders. Bob Willis rearranged Iqbal Qasim’s jaw once, famously, and that was at the centre of the whole debate at the time.

Krishnaswamy: I don’t think it happens as often as it used to, but I’m not sure that’s been figured out even after Phillip Hughes.

Samiuddin: Part of the discussion around bouncers, though, filtered into this attitude of painting the great West Indies pace attack as thugs, which was completely unfair and a little racist.

Krishnaswamy: Oh yeah. As if crowds never chanted “Lillee, Lillee, Lillee, kill, kill, kill.”

McGlashan: I do think some umpires these days have quite a liberal interpretation of the two bouncers per over. Neil Wagner, for example, is outstanding at what he does and gets so many just on the spot, but it’s a fine line to judge at pace.

Samiuddin: I feel Wagner is actually just a freak, right, in his control over that length?

Krishnaswamy: Yup. It’s amazing how much control he has over the height it gets up to.

Samiuddin: I can’t remember a bowler like him, who so specialises in that particular length. And I think, though umpires know better, he doesn’t cross the line.

McGlashan: Yes, you are probably right.

Krishnaswamy: Even the rest of the New Zealand attack now bowls like him when the ball is old and nothing’s happening. Though they do it to control runs rather than scare batsmen, which is one of the weirdest tangents in the history of the bouncer.

Samiuddin: So true. “Hi, I’m the slower-ball bouncer and I hate myself.” On bouncers at tailenders, though, Aaqib Javed did it to Devon Malcolm also in 1992 at Old Trafford. Gnasher do you have memories of that? When Roy Palmer intervened and there was the whole bust-up with the umpire as well?

McGlashan: That might be the one I’m thinking of, actually.

Samiuddin: But we’re speaking here of Malcolm as batsman, without recalling his great scary spell…

McGlashan: Yes, I was going to bring him in. Obviously 9 for 57, but two others as well: 1993 at The Oval vs Australia, only a handful of overs but very rapid to Slater and Taylor, and then Perth 1995. England dropped ten catches, but Malcolm broke Slater’s thumb and it was flying everything.

Samiuddin: I loved Malcolm’s action. In a very different way to Michael Holding and Jofra Archer, he also cranked up serious pace without looking like he was putting that much into it.

McGlashan: The dismissal of Cronje at The Oval in 1994 remains one of my favourite – Cronje playing the perfect forward defence with the stumps splattered.

Samiuddin: I wonder, with all the advances in the game and the training, if batsmen still get scared by a really quick bowler? I guess after Phil Hughes there’s been a little bit of a rejig in how they think.

Krishnaswamy: The helmet’s changed techniques, though, so they get hit more often.

McGlashan: The reverse is, we have no evidence of how scary some spells from earlier decades were. Graham Gooch said the only time he ever feared for his life was facing Patrick Patterson in the 1986 series. There’s no footage anywhere. But there is this amazing piece by Rob Smyth.

Samiuddin: Apparently, from the mid-’70s until England’s tour in 1990 – broadcast on Sky – Tests in the Caribbean were never broadcast in full. Local broadcasters would only use clips for their news that evening. Even that famous Michael Holding over to Geoff Boycott is probably shot from the members’ area at the old Kensington Oval, and it doesn’t really tell us what it was like. The only way we know how special that over is is because the people who were there tell us.

Krishnaswamy: Speaking of camera angles, the BBC’s behind-the-batsman angle made Malcolm Marshall appear even more skiddy than he was. The ball to Gooch genuinely seems to speed up off the pitch.

Samiuddin: I love the line from Allan Donald further down the rail on the right there – from one of our interviews, actually: “Marshall was outthinking you all the time.” How do you beat that?

McGlashan: Before they turned the square at Old Trafford, the dressing rooms were side-on. Imagine watching a quick spell like that.

Samiuddin: The worst.

McGlashan: Actually, who was the West Indian cricketer they said was faster than anyone but never/barely played? John “The Dentist” Maynard:

“Maynard, to this distant long-wave listener of Test Match Special, typified an era when a tour of the West Indies was the ultimate examination of body and soul. The arrival of a Test team in the Caribbean, particularly if it had come from England, was a call to arms for every aspiring cricketer in the region. Long before Duncan Fletcher turned tour games into a 12-man-a-side glorified net session, Maynard and his cronies were cranking up the pace and injecting the venom, eager to advance their claims to Test selection, but equally determined to crush the tourists’ morale before they embarked on the main event.”

Krishnaswamy: But our topic is scary fast bowling in Test cricket, no?

Samiuddin: I think we can be loose and fluid. To the point where I’m going to foray briefly into “scariest batsman”. There’s a famous Akram story from his first tour of the West Indies in 1987-88, when he started roughing up Viv Richards with some short balls at one stage, on the insistence of Imran Khan, and then sledged him a bit too. And Richards walked up to him and just said, “I’ll see you outside at the end of play.” Back in the dressing room, post-play, Akram was, ahem, a little scared and had to enlist Imran’s help in dousing the situation when Richards came knocking.

McGlashan: Bit like his line when he said to the England captain – can’t remember off the top of my head which one – that the team sheet didn’t matter.

Krishnaswamy: I’m willing to bet 90% of the Viv stories are apocryphal.

Samiuddin: Cautiously 90%. While we’re on West Indies batsmen, the quickest bowler Lara faced was one of the biggest what-ifs: Mohammad Zahid.

McGlashan: Mohammad Zahid, there’s a good one to pluck out.

Is Brett Schultz worth a mention?

Krishnaswamy: Definitely.

McGlashan: Him and Donald together, albeit very briefly, was quite a pairing.

Samiuddin: Look at us, talking about Donald’s partners and opponents and not Donald himself.

McGlashan: Indeed 1994-99 (ish) was there anyone quicker? Good era for quicks, mind you.

Krishnaswamy: Younis wasn’t so quick anymore in that phase.

Samiuddin: Donald’s length was a killer

McGlashan: But if we keep it on spells, there was one he bowled to the Waughs (Sydney, I think)

Samiuddin: Uff, he’s so on it right from the start. Love the Benaud line in that link, after Lawry says: “Donald has given him the tickle up.” Benaud deadpans: “Wasn’t a tickle.”

McGlashan: Great fast bowling needs great commentators.

Krishnaswamy: Okay, so let’s each nominate the scariest spells we’ve seen, then wrap up.

McGlashan: A single spell, or can we stretch it to a “performance”?

Krishnaswamy: Either.

Samiuddin: Shoaib Akhtar to MS Dhoni, Faisalabad 2006. Also because he threw in a beamer and was just losing it. Dead pitch on which both sides made 6000 or something in their first innings. Akhtar, probably in his fittest stretch (in terms of lack of injuries), playing his fifth Test in a row, just ruffled up Dhoni so bad, hitting 95mph.

McGlashan: And ruffled Dhoni’s hair.

Samiuddin: Dhoni won it, though, and ended one of the spells with a magnificent hooked six that sounded properly like a gunshot off his bat in the open-air press box.

Krishnaswamy: It remains one of the most spoken-about sixes of his career!

McGlashan: I’m going to stick with my earlier mention (and maybe still a hint of recency bias, which I know KK loves) but Johnson 2013-14 Ashes. Five Tests, never slowed down. Albeit England never batted that long.

Krishnaswamy: Ha! I’m going even more recent. Jasprit Bumrah got 5 for 7 in the second innings in Antigua last year, bowling mostly outswing (inswing to the left-handers). Then he got 6 for 27 in the first innings in Jamaica, including a hat-trick, bowling mostly inswing. It was a very average West Indies line-up, but it was the kind of scary where you don’t expect any batsman to survive too long.

McGlashan: Anyway, we’ve done well to end this talking about MS Dhoni [runs for cover].

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