Who can claim credit to have hurled the cricket ball at maximum speed in an international match? Old timers would vouch that there never could be a faster spell with the red cherry than the ones unleashed by a “typhoon” named Frank Tyson during England's tour of Australia in 1954-55. The fans of the game belonging to the younger age groups would swear that no one could ever have bowled faster than Shoaib Akhtar, the mercurial Pakistani, who could beat even the best of batsmen by sheer pace. But for those of us from the 1970s generation, none could ever come close to Jeff Thomson, when it came to the sheer speed at which the cricket ball was bowled in a Test match.
Jeffrey Robert Thomson (Thommo) burst onto international cricket during the Ashes series of 1974-75 when England toured Australia. He had made his debut a couple of years before that against Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in December, 1972. However, he failed to make much of an impression as he went wicketless while conceding 100 runs in 17 overs in the first innings and bowled only two overs in the second. It was later revealed that he had played with a fracture on his foot, which he did not disclose to the authorities. Hence, it did not surprise anyone when he was dropped from the side after this inauspicious beginning.
Too good to be ignored
But Thommo’s talent and the pace that he could generate could not be ignored for long. His nature and attitude did not make him amenable to imposition of discipline nor did he believe in too much of conventional methods of physical training. Once, during the 1970-71 season, when his club found that his focus on the game was wavering, he was sent to play a third division match in the the local league as punishment. Thommo did not wish to play the game as the “weather was more suited to fishing or fooling around on the beach”. But his mother stepped in and ensured that he played the match, where he let it rip and picked up all 10 wickets in an innings!
Thommo had serious differences of opinion with cricket authorities of his home state of New South Wales (NSW) so much so that he had decided not to play for them after the 1973-74 season. In the last match of that season, NSW played Queensland, who were led by Greg Chappell. The younger Chappell was so astounded by the pace at which Thommo bowled that he immediately ensured that this tearaway fast bowler was signed by Queensland from next season onwards. “I told them to move heaven and earth and get him because I don't want to bat against him again”, was how Greg Chappell remembered the incident years later!
When England, under Mike Denness, landed in Australia for the Ashes series of 1974-75, they were more worried about Dennis Lillee, who was returning to international cricket after a two-year lay off due to back injury. In a tour match against Queensland, they had their first glimpse of Thommo but did not think much about him as the bowler had been advised by Greg Chappell to “not show the Poms what he could do”.
So the touring side was caught unawares when Ian Chappell, then leading Australia, threw the ball to Thommo, after Lillee had finished the opening over, in the first Test at Brisbane. Max Walker was expected to share the new ball with Lillee but the skipper asked Thommo to bowl the second over, “on an instinct”.
The elder Chappell watched in amazement from his position at first slip as the first couple of balls delivered by Thommo whistled past the nose of a shocked Dennis Amiss, the opening batsman, and thudded into the gloves of wicketkeeper Rodney Marsh, who had to leap to collect them. “Thommo was the fastest into the wind bowler I had ever seen,” Ian Chappell would say later.
Thommo picked up 3/59 in the first innings and followed up with six scalps in the second as England crashed to a 166-run defeat. Keith Miller, the great Australian all-rounder of yesteryear, who was reporting the match for a newspaper wrote “ Frightening is the operative word…..Thommo even frightened me sitting in the press box with his nasty rising deliveries”.
England did not merely lose the match, they emerged bruised and battered after the encounter, completely unnerved about the prospect of facing the thunderbolts released by this new fast bower during the remaining four Tests.
England were forced to recall veteran Colin Cowdrey from retirement to bolster their side but this did not have any impact as Australia won four out of the first five Tests comfortably, with the third match ending in a draw. However, they were in for a stroke of good fortune when Thommo injured his shoulder while playing tennis during the rest day of the fifth Test. This ruled him out of the last Test, where Lillee also cried off after bowling only four overs, due to an injury. England batsmen capitalised on the absence of these two tormentors and made merry to help their side win this game by an innings and four runs.
Thommo bagged 33 wickets in the five Tests that he played in the series and looked on course for breaking the Australian record of 36 scalps for highest number of dismissals in a series, which was held by Arthur Mailey, before the injury happened. This performance made him an instant celebrity and it came as no surprise that he attracted the maximum media attention during the inaugural World Cup in 1975, where the Aussies finished runners-up. In the four-Test series against England that followed, which Australia won 1-0, Thommo was not at his best. However, he still ended up with 16 wickets, which was a significant achievement as these were obtained on pitches that were designed to blunt the extra pace he could generate.
The tour of West Indies to Australia in 1975-76 was widely touted as the battle for the title of world champions as two of the strongest sides in Test cricket were pitted against each other. West Indies came back strongly after the defeat in the first Test to win the second match comfortably. However, their performance went downhill after that as their batsmen could not cope with the Aussie bowling. Thommo, who had a slow start to the series, struck top form from third Test onwards and ended with 30 wickets.
However, tragedy struck Thommo soon afterwards, when he collided with Alan Turner while going for a catch, in the first Test of the series against Pakistan in 1976-77. Zaheer Abbas had been dropped once by Turner off Thommo and when the batsman skied an attempted pull, the bowler did not wish to let the same fielder have another try. But in the process, he collided with Turner so badly that it caused a severe dislocation of his right shoulder, causing the bone to be wrenched off the joint. When he left the field in pain, little did anyone present realise the injury was serious enough to leave a permanent scar on Thommo’s career.
Though the damage was treated by surgery, Thommo was never the same bowler again. He could not generate the blistering pace that he used to, ever again, except for an occasional brief spell. Further, the ability to raise the ball from just short of good length spot, which was unique to him, also left him. He still continued to bowl fast, faster than the other speedsters, but the frightening pace that used to leave batsmen shaking became a thing of the past.
When Kerry Packer lured top Australian players into his World Series Cricket (WSC), Thommo was among those who signed first. But he had an ongoing contract with Queensland Radio that he did not wish to cancel. Hence he stayed back with Australian Cricket Board (ACB) and played for the national side when India toured in 1977-78. All the Indian batsmen who faced him, including the great Sunil Gavaskar, rated him as the fastest bowler they ever faced. That this happened when Thommo had dropped down in pace after injury would serve as an indication of the speed he was capable of generating at his peak. During the tour of West Indies in 1978, Thommo led the Aussie attack. His spell on the first day of the second Test at Bridgetown, Barbados, was rated by veteran commentator Tony Cozier as the fastest he had seen. Thommo dismissed Gordon Greenidge, Viv Richards and Alvin Kallicharran, all three among the top 10 batsmen in international cricket at that time, in the course of this spell.
Thommo returned to WSC in its second year and played the Super Tests in the West Indies. He was a regular in the Aussie side till the beginning of 1980s. But poor form and differences of opinion with ACB and management saw to it that he did not play in too many matches. He took his 200th Test wicket during the last Test of the Ashes tour of England in 1985, which also turned out to be his last appearance in international cricket.
Statistics do not tell the whole story of the impact that Thommo had on international cricket during the 24 months from December, 1974, till injury laid him low towards the end of 1976. In an age when protective equipment were limited to thigh guard and abdominal guard, Thommo unleashed terror and spawned fear on account of raw pace and lift that he generated. Many batsmen were found shaking and trembling long after they were back in the comforts of dressing room after being struck by the thunderbolts sent down by him. He tended to stray in line and length, which made it extremely difficult for the wicketkeeper as the tally of byes conceded went up with each delivery which missed the mark. The psychological impact that his mere presence created can never be described in words.
Thommo was a supreme athlete whose favourite method of physical training was to chase wild boars and wrestle them with bare hands! His run up to the wicket, which was relatively short, created an eerie feel due to lack of noise on account of his habit of running on his toes. His practice of keeping the ball hidden from the view of the batsman by holding it behind his body, till he hit the delivery stride, made it even more difficult for them to see it.
He was a javelin thrower in his school days, which explains the tremendous strength of his shoulders, and he could transfer that power into speed while hurling the cricket ball. Above all, the tremendous lift that he was able to get off any surface, especially from near the good length spot and the yorkers, which struck the stumps even before the backswing was complete, made him an incredible force that demolished all techniques of batsmanship.
At his peak, Thommo was a phenomenon. There will never be another fast bowler like him again.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)