The art of fast bowling: Test cricket's greatest
The ability to consistently take wickets at the highest level of the international game is one craved by many but achieved by very few. Two men who have this ability are James Anderson and Stuart Broad. It was the impressive milestones reached by England’s two greatest fast bowlers this summer, which inspired me to consider a question debated by cricket badgers of all ages, and one which prompts some long anecdotes from blokes in their 50’s reminiscing about Curtly Ambrose’s 7/25 vs Australia or Bob Willis’ 8/43 (An individual performance I consider to be England’s second best in Ashes tests at Headingley, behind Stokes’ mind boggling innings last summer).
Before I continue on my quest to uncover history’s greatest seamer, I’d like to just go over some of the terminology that I’ll be using throughout the article, as I am aware that not all readers will be as much of a cricket freak as am I.
A brief glossary of strange cricket language:
Bowling average – the number of runs conceded by a bowler per wicket taken. You will notice that throughout the article I will say so and so took X number of wickets at Y. In this case Y refers to the numbers of runs they conceded per wicket taken. For example, James Anderson has taken 600 wickets at 27. For every 1 wicket he takes he concedes 27 runs (on average). The lower the number, the better the average.
Bowling Figures – Throughout the article you should see some slightly odd-looking fractions, for example 7/25. This means that in a single innings said bowler has taken 7 wickets and conceded 25 runs. These are their bowling figures for the innings.
Conventional swing – If one side of the ball is rough, and the other side is shiny, the ball can move laterally, in the direction that the rough side faces, because the speed in airflow over both sides is different (I quite enjoyed flicking through the Wikipedia page for this one, good reference to scandals involving sandpaper made at the end).
Reverse Swing – When the ball moves laterally in the air, in the direction the shinier side of the ball faces. Only possible with an old ball. Very difficult. Requires rapid pace.
So, technicalities aside, who is the greatest fast bowler in the history of test cricket? Strangely, by considering bowling averages alone the majority of names that would usually spring to mind can be discounted from the discussion. George Lohmann of England played 18 test matches between 1886 and 1896, taking 112 wickets at 11, giving him the best test match bowling average in the recorded history of the game. What makes his achievements even more impressive is that Lohmann was highly prolific during a very different era of test cricket, one defined by dreary, slow, high-scoring encounters. Therefore, to have this knack of taking wickets with extreme regularity is quite simply outstanding. Only a lack of time at the crease keeps him out of the running and had Lohmann been born about a century later he may well have gone down in history as the greatest. Unfortunately, we will never know his full potential.
However, if it is career longevity that we’re after, look no further than James Anderson, a bowler who has aged better than a bottle of Myra Cabernet Sauvignon. The Burnley born seamer has played 156 test matches spanning 18 years, and during this time he has taken 600 wickets at 27, the most of any fast bowler. Perhaps the most impressive stat amongst a small library of them is that since he turned 33, Anderson has taken 194 wickets at 21, a figure very well analysed by the Wisden twitter account with a single word: “Absurd”. And I think that it’s Andersons freaky ability to vary deliveries in the most high-pressure situations that sets him apart from other bowlers and has allowed for such prolific wicket taking capacity. He can produce genuine swing both into and away from the batsman, can seam the ball when new, and has developed a ‘wobble seam’ delivery and a reverse-swinging delivery, two weapons that have proved to be vital when playing overseas. The only mild criticism that can be mustered is his poor form away from English soil at the beginning of his career, which is proven by his poor statistics between 2003 and 2009. Anderson had 44 wickets at 46 during this period, a figure which fails to line up with the credentials of a great fast bowler. But another key credential of a great fast bowler is the desire, commitment, and ability to improve, and is a credential that Anderson has in bucket loads. In his next 44 away matches Anderson would go on to take 150 wickets at 30, with highlights including a match winning figures of 6/127 in Kolkata (2012) and being the leading bowler on both sides during England’s Ashes winning tour of Australia in 2010-11, with 24 wickets. Overall, it is difficult to dispute that James Anderson is close to, if not at the summit of fast bowling’s Everest.
James Anderson holds the ball aloft after taking his 600th test wicket (Sky News, 2020)
One of the beauties of cricket is that the art of fast bowling is searched for from the rolling countryside of little England to the white sandy beaches of Antigua, and it is this small Caribbean island, where on the 21st September 1963, one of the most intimidating seamers in history was born. He was named Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose. The 6’ 7” frame of a
charging Ambrose gave even the most respected batsmen a torrid time at the crease, with a lethal cocktail of extreme pace and bounce making batting close to impossible on many occasions. It is these traits that resulted in the West Indian international taking 405 wickets at 21 in 98 tests, statistics that clearly vindicate his inclusion in the discussion. The most impressive ability possessed by Ambrose is his maintenance of form when playing away from home, to such an extent that his overseas average is about 20.50, about 0.50 less than his home average, 21. His remarkable ability to produce lift off a good length due to his freakish height was key to his success on a range of surfaces, and allowed him to dominate on all southern hemisphere pitches, including in Australia when they were at the peak of their powers. Perhaps the best indication of Ambrose’s quality is summed up by his rivalry with Steve Waugh, whom he dismissed some 16 times, and also tried to fight in 1995. He is the only man to dismiss Waugh over 10 times. But I’m sure he’s not the only player who’s wanted to fight him. Nevertheless, to get the better of the ‘flinty eyed one’ (an eloquent description of Waugh by Marcus Berkman in ‘Ashes to Ashes’) on such a regular basis is testament to Ambrose’s supreme capability.
Curtly Ambrose and Steve Waugh face off in 1995 (YahooSport, 2020)
And as Curtly Ambrose tore batting orders to shreds in the Caribbean and down-under, the Pakistani, Wasim Akram was busy conducting similar activities on the sub-continent (and occasionally getting his 50 pence piece out to aid his work). Akram is widely regarded as the greatest left arm seamer to play the game, with an armoury of variation balls that famously gave the English top order nightmares during Pakistan’s tour in 1992. He had 21 wickets at 22 in the four tests he played and his bowling partnership with Waqar Younis exploded into what became the best in the world at the time. Unfortunately, allegations of ball tampering against Akram slightly marred this good form. Nevertheless, his prolific nature was certainly still a result of an exceptional ability to swing and seam the ball in both directions, and with a useful back up in the form of an effective short and slower ball, Akram became practically unplayable on his day. Between January 1990 and December 1997, he was the best test bowler in the world, with a bowling average of 20 during this seven-year period. It’s also critical to consider that Akram dominated during an era where Curtly Ambrose, Waqar Younis, Alan Donald, Glenn McGrath and the mighty Shane Warne were nearing or in their prime. Clearly Akram was blessed with bucketloads of class and must be considered as one of crickets’ all-time greats.
Wasim Akram steams in (2GB 873AM, 2019)
Another man who was blessed with similar levels of class was the relentless Glenn McGrath. In a career spanning 15 years, the New South Wales born seamer took 563 wickets at 22 and was dominant both at home and abroad, his metronomic nature simply proving too much for any international batting order. The b*stard (I only call him this because of his annoying talent of taking wickets against England, he seems like a really good bloke when I tune in to TMS) would run in, almost nonchalantly, and guide the ball at that nasty area just back of a length, a fraction outside off-stump. He would then give the batsman, who had promptly played and missed, a little glare, walk back to his mark and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. This build-up of pressure would get too much, and the batsmen would waft one to 2nd slip. Glenn would then whoop in delight after sending Mike Atherton back to the hutch for the 17 millionth time. I mention Atherton because he got out so regularly to the ‘Pigeon’ (McGrath’s nickname because of his lanky legs). The former England opener and skipper was removed 19 times and averaged just under 10 in the 17 tests facing McGrath, a record that poor old Athers has struggled to live down. Another impressive thing about McGrath is his record in India, a country famous for being a rather difficult environment for any visiting seamers. However, despite lacking the electric pace possessed by the likes of Akram, Ambrose, Waqar and Lillee, which is often a necessity to a seamer on the subcontinent, McGrath managed 33 wickets at 21 in 8 tests. His unbelievable ability to bowl so accurately was almost fool proof (I say almost because he did struggle a bit in Pakistan), and places him amongst some of Test cricket’s greatest bowlers.
A Familiar sight for England fans as Glenn McGrath dismisses Michael Atherton at Lord’s (Wisden, 2020)
Sadly, it must be stressed that I have failed to include some bowlers who should certainly be discussed in extensive detail. I’d be required to publish a book to do that, which would require the time I unfortunately don’t have. South Africans Dale Steyn, Alan Donald and Shaun Pollock all have over 400 test wickets. Kapil Dev of India has been described by Wisden as the greatest all-rounder ever and “deceptively effective” with ball in hand. Wasim Akram’s bowling partner Waqar Younis is seen as almost, if not equal, to the great Akram. The iconic West Indian side of the 80s and early 90s included the likes of Courtney Walsh (519 test wickets), Michael Holding (249 test wickets), Joel Garner (259 test wickets) and Malcom Marshall (376 test wickets), and they are all bowlers in with a shout. England’s Stuart Broad recently passed the milestone of 500 test wickets, and at the age of 34 has the potential to surpass Anderson’s record as the leading fast bowler in terms of wickets taken. And who could forget the terrifying figure of Australian Dennis Lillee, who became all too familiar to players throughout the 1970’s, his moustache and barnet brisling as he steamed in, striking fear into even the most established test batsmen. Hopefully, if I play my cards right in the next few years, you’ll come across a smallish paperback in Waterstones in the sport section where the lads above get a full chapter.
And some further bad news is that there is no conclusive answer to the question I have asked. Every bowler mentioned had different advantages and disadvantages which may or may not have impacted their own success. McGrath had the pleasure of Shane Warne spinning the ball three feet at the other end. Jimmy Anderson was able to exploit favourable English conditions far more regularly than most other bowlers. I could go on forever describing different variables which differentiate the greats from each other, but instead, in the style of a 2000’s film with mediocre ratings on rotten tomato, all cricket fans (including myself) should simply learn to appreciate the greatness of every player mentioned above. They all ooze class with the red ball in hand.
Geography student at University of Liverpool. Loves sport, especially
cricket and golf