There’s a story of a tail ender fending off a ferocious 95mph bouncer in front of his face, and the ball looping just short of the ring of close catchers.
Off strode the batsman towards the pavilion, and when the fielding captain shouted: “Hey, where are you going? It didn’t quite carry!” the reply came back: “It was close enough for me mate. I’m off.”
It’s no doubt apocryphal, but the bowler most associated with this anecdote is Sylvester Clarke, the brutally quick West Indian who played for Surrey between 1979 and 1989, and had more friends on the county circuit than any other player in history. Before the game got under way at any rate.
“Morning Sylvers!” an opposing batsman would chirrup as the players went through their warm-up drills before the toss. “How’s things? Wife and kids alright? Fancy a pint at the Dog and Partridge after play? Drinks are on me, of course.” It never worked, though. Clarke was impervious to all forms of flattery when he had a batsman in his sights, and in an era of some of the fastest bowlers ever to come out of the West Indies, he was regarded as meaner than any of them.
David Gower played against them all at one time or another, and will tell you that Clarke was the fastest bowler he ever faced.
Gower was once caught behind playing for Leicestershire against Surrey at the Oval, with the ball flying through to the wicketkeeper, and the thumb protector on the glove that Clarke’s delivery had torn off travelling to first slip. Geoffrey Boycott had a theory for how best to play this type of bowling: “From t’other end.”
Watching a genuine fast bowler ripping it down at 90 mph plus is one of the game’s most exhilarating experiences, even more so when the bloke doing it is one of yours. Which is why we’re all hoping that Mark Wood, after making the West Indies top order hop around in St Lucia, can do something similar against the Australians in this summer’s Ashes series.
Who knows why some people can bowl very fast while others can’t? Sylvester Clarke was a giant of a man, who generated even more pace from a suspiciously bent arm, but Harold Larwood was about ten stone wet through with a text book action when he put the fear of death into the Australians, Don Bradman included, on the 1932-33 Bodyline Tour.
Trying to bowl as fast as possible is every schoolboy’s first instinct. When I was in primary school we used one of the wastepaper baskets for the stumps, and one boy, who started his run up from somewhere inside the chemistry lab, could knock it flat to the playground with a tennis ball. We were all jealous of him. And I don’t remember anyone trying to bowl spin.
Everyone wants to be a fast bowler, and nothing’s more frustrating than bursting several blood vessels in the attempt, only to see the ball float out like piece of confetti. Even if you’re taking lots of wickets at county and Test level with high class swing and seam bowling, it’s not always enough. For some, there’s a little man permanently perched on their shoulder whispering: “Go on. Stick one up his nose.”
Remember Ken Higgs? Such a master of his craft that he was still showing the youngsters how to do it at the age of 49. As Leicestershire bowling coach, an injury crisis saw him called up for a county game against Yorkshire on a Grace Road green top, and after watching Jonathan Agnew and Les Taylor fail to take a wicket with the new ball, he came on first change and knocked five over before lunch.
But Ken’s real ambition as a bowler was not so much to get people out, as to pin them to the sightscreen. Opposing batsman would learn how to wind him up, and as Ken’s fuse grew shorter and shorter so did his bowling. One batsman who always did well against him was John Shepherd, of Kent, who only had to trot past Higgs for a single and mention that his off-spin wasn’t turning very much to then cash in with a flurry of hooks and pulls.
Ken really wanted to be Andy Roberts, who also played for Leicestershire around that time, and was fearsomely fast. Shannon Gabriel, among others, might benefit from knowing that Roberts never felt the need to engage the batsman in conversation, and the fact that he never spoke made him even more menacing to face.
As it happens, Roberts was an engaging character off the field, as was the fellow Antiguan who followed him into the Leicestershire side, George Ferris. And although Ferris didn’t have Roberts’ skills and cricketing nous, he was even quicker, inflicting a shocking injury on Roland Butcher in a county game against Middlesex at Lord’s.
Butcher was just unlucky, but some batsmen have something about them which appears to wind fast bowlers up. Michael Atherton, for example. Maybe it was the cherubic expression, especially when he got away with nicking one, but no-one got more up Alan Donald’s nose than Athers. Or indeed Courtney Walsh’s.
Both of them bowled at 90 mph, and both of them appeared to have more interest in removing Atherton’s head from his shoulders than the bails from his stumps. In turn, the England opener not only never took a sideways step, but considered it a point of honour to meet glare with glare, and it all made for riveting theatre.
Let’s hope this summer’s Ashes produces more of these classic confrontations, Wood versus Smith, maybe, or Root v Cummins, because there’s nothing that quite takes the breath away more than a Test batsman facing up to a fast bowler.
In some cases literally. “Don’t send for a doctor,” gasped Bumble after a Jeff Thomson delivery resulted in his private bits being squeezed through the cracks in his splintered plastic protector. “I need a welder.”
MARTIN JOHNSON / Photo: Getty Images