Who is the greatest fast bowler of the last 40 years?

Date: January 18, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Recently on Twitter I was asked who I thought the best fast bowler was since 1970.

It got me thinking, so here is what I reckon – and yes I am expecting to be challenged, significantly, by all of you out there in the ‘Roar-iverse’

Given the wealth of nominees in the past 42 years it is a little like being asked to nominate which one of your five children you love the most.

First of all, let’s discount some high quality bowlers who boast very fine records but in my estimation all fall short of the top-10. I should point out that I am assessing players on their Test performances only.

Interestingly, I don’t think there is a true candidate from England despite the claims of the likes of Bob Willis (325 wickets), Ian Botham (383) and James Anderson (288).

Chaminda Vaas (355), Mkaya Ntini (390), Brett Lee (310), Zaheer Khan (295), Jason Gillespie (259) and Jeff Thomson (200)  have all put up very solid numbers, but again, I can’t see them being inside the top-10, with the biggest no-show in my opinion being Kapil Dev (434).

Of the current quicks, Dale Steyn is the only contender, but having said that I am leaving him out as he is still going around. I am limiting my selections to players have finished their careers. His record is superb – 312 wickets at 23.7.

He is an old-fashioned fast bowler in that he genuinely swings the ball, old or new. His strike rate is the best of any bowler to have claimed 300-plus wickets, a staggering 42. Having 19 five-wicket hauls from just 62 Tests underlines his outstanding abilities. At the age of 29 he has the potential to capture over 500 Test wickets.

He has two countrymen who had stellar careers – Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock.

Donald, dubbed ‘White Lightning’, bowled with a beautiful high action at genuine speed. He was 25 by the time he debuted, honing his skills in both South Africa and England as his country of birth saw out the last years of its international ban.

He could move the ball both ways and struck at a rate a wicket every 47 balls, capturing 330 at 22.3 in his 72 Tests, including 22 five-wicket hauls. On the sub-continent, he averaged a superb 20.3 while against the powerful Australian line-up in his day his 29 wickets came at 28.4.

Pollock was a bowler very much in the Glenn McGrath mould, bowling almost exclusively stump to stump. Hailing from a famous South African cricketing family he relied more on seam than swing.  Early on he was extremely miserly, averaging under 21 after his first 78 Tests before ending up with 421 wickets at 23.1.

Australia was a thorn in his side with his 32 wickets coming at 34.3. In 108 Tests he captured 16 five-wicket hauls and ten in a match just the once.

It is impossible to talk about pace bowlers of the past four decades without reflecting on the astounding array put forward by the West Indies. Of those to terrorize opponents in the 1970s and ‘80s, I have four candidates for the top-10, with apologies to Andy Roberts in particular.

Malcolm Marshall is a stand-out. Unusually short for a Caribbean quick he broke one of the major tenets of fast bowling, namely that you can’t bowl effective out-swingers with a front-on delivery action. Marshall destroyed that theory with a wonderfully controlled out-swinger delivered at genuine pace and given his height his deliveries appeared to skid onto the bat.

In 87 Tests he notched up 376 wickets at 20.9, striking every 47 balls. He was an all-surface bowler, averaging 20.1 at home and 21.6 away. He was particularly successful in the sub-continent, capturing his 71 wickets at 23.0.

Joel Garner was a giant in every way, standing 203cm he made life at times near impossible for batsmen. Whist not express, what was a driveable length to most bowlers was played off the chest when facing Garner. His pin-point yorker proved a test for any batsman. Through 58 Tests he captured his 259 wickets at a miserly 21.0 with a strike rate of 51.

Interestingly, he played 29 Tests both home and away with an average of 22.3 in the Caribbean and 19.7 on the road, although his average in Australia was 34.3. He very seldom opened the bowling given the wealth of talent, and pace, among his teammates. That fact contributed significantly to the fact that he took five in an innings on just seven occasions.

Curtly Ambrose was another extremely tall West Indian quick at 201cm. Like Roberts before him he was largely a silent assassin, save for a highly publicized verbal altercation mid-pitch with Steve Waugh. Like Garner, one of his main weapons was the height from which he delivered the ball, although he did at a far greater pace than ‘Big Bird”. When on song he was virtually unplayable.

This was never better illustrated than his amazing spell of 7 for 1 at the WACA Ground in in 1992-93. Late in his career when his blistering pace deserted him he became an expert in subtle nip off the pitch. In all, he captured 405 wickets at 21.0 from 98 Tests with a strike rate of 54. Against England his 164 wickets came at 18.8, while he averaged 21.2 across his 128 scalps against Australia.

Michael Holding was simply poetry in motion as he glided to the crease off one of the longest run-ups in the game. ‘Whispering Death’ was a true express bowler who could maim just as efficiently as he captured wickets. At The Oval in 1981 he delivered what is widely regarded as the most menacing over in history when he pummelled Geoff Boycott. He played 60 Tests and snared 249 scalps at 23.7, striking at 51. He was Mr Consistency averaging the same away as he did at home, even though 163 wickets came on foreign soil.

Courtney Walsh was cricket’s version of the Eveready Bunny. He seemed to be perennially on a cricket field in both domestic and international cricket. In the latter he churned out over 30,000 deliveries through 132 Tests, capturing 519 wickets at 24.4.

He was another of the long line of tall West Indian quicks with his high delivery action from wide of the stumps a perilous mix for batsmen. He shared a successful opening partnership with Ambrose although late in his career he was forced to shoulder much of the work himself.

When it comes to the Black Caps quicks there really is only one through their history in the international game – Sir Richard Hadlee. He was an almost fanatical character with many believing cricket was on his brain 24/7.

No great bowler has ever had to shoulder his team’s fortunes in the field more than Hadlee. Without being disrespectful to his teammates, none held a candle to the man who retired with a world record 431 wickets at 22.3 from 86 Tests. He struck at 51 and on 36 occasions he captured five in an innings and nine times ten in a match.

On the 1985/86 tour of Australia he was devastating with the highlight being a haul of 9/52 at Gabba and 15 for the match. He was genuinely quick early on but over time he lessened his pace and bowled his out-swingers very much stump-to-stump with great effect. He mastered sub-continental conditions with his 68 wickets coming at just 21.6 and captured his 51 wickets against the might of the West Indian line-up at 22.0.

Pakistan has a trio in the mix for the top-10 – Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.

Imran was a champion all-rounder and with the ball he was superb – 88 Tests, 362 wickets at 22.8. He played in an era when the West Indies were the dominant force in the game although looking at Imran’s figures against them you wouldn’t think so as he claimed his 80 wickets at just 21.0. Bowling with a front-on action from wide of the crease he hooped the ball back into the right-handers at pace.

Wasim generated tremendous pace, thanks in the main to his broad shoulders as his run-up was one of the shortest around for a man of his pace. For many batsman the ball seemed to arrive before they were ready for it. He is the most lethal left-arm quick of all-time with 414 wickets at 23.6 from his 104 Tests. His ability to swing the ball back to the right-handers late in his trajectory was often unplayable.

His partner in crime, although not in life given their often tumultuous relationship, Waqar was perhaps the finest exponent of old ball swing. His in-swinging yorkers delivered at considerable pace often shattered the batsman’s stumps, if not their toes. His 87 Tests produced 373 wickets at 23.6 with a top-notch strike rate of 43. He struggled in Australia however, with his seven Tests producing just 14 wickets at 40.5.

And what of the Australian candidates? I think there are two certainties – Dennis Lillee and McGrath.

The Lillee name is legend. His approach to the crease in his prime was a delight to watch a combination of balance and power. Broad of shoulder and strong of heart he was the quintessential macho man of the 1970s. He went from outright express to medium fast thanks in the main to ongoing problems with stress fractures in his back.

A master of away swing, he played 70 Tests and retired as the world record holder with 355 wickets at 23.9. He made the then often low and slow MCG his own. Buoyed by a chanting crowd he captured 82 wickets there at 21.9 in 14 Tests with seven five-wicket hauls. One downside during his career was his performances in the sub-continent where he played just four Tests, capturing his six wickets at 68.

McGrath, I believe, will be looked upon in an even greater light in years to come. A total of 124 Tests produced a world best for pace bowlers, a mountainous 563 wickets at 21.6. From a substantial height he nipped the ball off the pitch with a very much stump-to-stump mentality.

He was a master of line and length with batsmen often drawn to play more deliveries than they would like. At his best and with a pitch that suited he could single-handedly destroy a team – 8/24 against Pakistan in Perth and 8/38 at Lord’s classic examples. He was extremely successful on the sub-continent, playing 17 Tests for 72 wickets at 23.

OK, now the tough bit, my top-10. Cue the music and sharpen the knives!

  1. Malcolm Marshall
  2. Curtly Ambrose
  3. Glenn McGrath
  4. Dennis Lillee
  5. Richard Hadlee
  6. Wasim Akram
  7. Joel Garner
  8. Imran Khan
  9. Allan Donald
  10. Michael Holding

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 18 January 2013

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