December 4, 1974: Jeff Thomson was a terrifying sight with his intimidating, sling-shot action. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the Brisbane Test of 1974-75 in which he destroyed England with some of the fastest bowling ever witnessed in Test cricket.
He appeared like a meteor that singed the English batting and left them scalded and scorched. He was a fast bowler who redefined speed. He was 24 and the quickest anyone had seen. He loved the beach, the bush and the Brisbane Cricket Ground. That’s Jeff Thomson.
Mike Denness and his men had little idea about the ordeal awaiting them. Dennis Lillee had fought his way back from three stress fractures of the lower spine. And Thomson was a largely unknown phenomenon, only loud whispers made rounds about his blinding speed, hard-to-pick-up bowling action and lust for batsmen’s blood. The Englishmen perhaps dismissed the rumours as pre-tour terror propaganda. But, all it took was a torrid half an hour on the second day to realise that whatever they heard had hardly scratched the surface.
The Alderman on the Pitch
The First Test at Brisbane got under way amidst ridiculous controversy. The regular groundsman at The Gabba had produced some of the best wickets seen in Brisbane for years. And 10 days before the Test, he was given marching orders for ‘good and sufficient reasons’ by the Queensland Association.
In stepped Alderman Clem Jones, Lord Mayor of Brisbane, deposed member of the Australian Cricket Board, leading light in the Queensland Cricket Association and self-appointed curator of the Woolloongabba Cricket Ground. The civic pride of Brisbane was rocked in some quarters by the sight of their leading citizen, apparently turned horticulturist, hard at work with roller and mower.
A flash storm hit the Gabba two days before the Test and the temporary curator, dragged out of bed at three in the morning, enlisted his aldermanic groundsmen, employing dredgers to dry soggy areas. They were actually washing mud off the already saturated pitch area. At a civic reception to the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) party on the eve of the Test, the mayor conceded that the wicket was a ‘bit crook at one end’. Alec Bedser, manager of the touring side, remarked through the diplomatic niceties that it looked a little underprepared.
Eventually Clem Jones abandoned his planned mud-patch in favour of a wicket some two or three metres to the left, a strip that virtually coincided with the one previously used for the Queensland-Western Australia Sheffield Shield match. At the end of all the furore, it turned out to be an uneven pitch, especially unreliable at the southern end where England lost 16 of their 20 wickets and Australia eight out of 15.
The Terrible Twins
Thomson, who had been left in wilderness ever since his disastrous debut against Pakistan two years earlier, got his first feel of the match when he walked in to bat at 257 for nine. He made 23 sensible runs, adding 52 with Max Walker as Australia finished at 309.
And after lunch on the second day, as Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller sat watching in the Press Box, Lillee and Thomson started to write one of the game’s most dramatic chapters. The crowd was hushed by the rate at which the balls hurtled through, and cheers and gasps rang out in equal proportions as terrifying bouncers, yorkers and lifters from a length tortured the batsmen into submission.
“Thomson even frightened me sitting 200 yards away” wrote Miller. He added, that even though Thomson bowled into the wind, Lillee was made to look only in second gear. Rod Marsh behind the wicket however thought that Lillee was a yard slower from his early days before the back injury.
The breeze was stiff as Thomson ran in, but the burst of his opening spell was as quick as anything ever seen. A pure slinger who changed feet two strides out, pulling back his right shoulder to get into position for a long swing of his arm, he showed the batsmen the studs of his left boot and a large area of his back in his delivery stride. His control was still erratic, and wides and no-balls were aplenty as he tore in. But, the batsmen never quite knew what to expect. The balls exploded waist or chest high from almost full length.
With the roaring adulation of the home-town fans behind him, the Queensland opening thunderbolt produced a barrage of stinging deliveries. One kicked venomously at Brian Luckhurst, and the batsman could only manage a brush down to Marsh behind the wicket. A run later, Dennis Amiss got a brute of a ball that cut in at his chest at length, and somehow he managed to transfer the direction of the ball to Terry Jenner at gully. He walked back with seven runs and a broken thumb.
Denness was rattled by a bouncer which screamed past him head high, and soon fell to Max Walker. And Fletcher played on to Lillee. England were reduced to 57 for four. John Edrich and Tony Greig counterattacked with bravado to double the score by the end of the day’s play. And on the third morning Thomson started with a vicious lifter and Edrich could only edge to Ian Chappell at slip.
The innings Greig played sparked of bravado. It was bold, cheeky, with attempts to rattle Lillee by shadow boxing under his bouncers. They were punctuated by some brilliant off-side strokes. It was his 110 that kept the deficit down to 44, and when Australia declared at 288 for five on the fourth evening, it was just about a day that England needed to survive.
But, survival was not really the easiest of tasks — physically and otherwise. It started when Luckhurst snicked Lillee into the hands of Ian Chappell and then Thomson took over.
Edrich, batting with pain-killing injections after a fracture to his hand, failed to move into line quickly enough to counter a thunderbolt and lost his off bail. Amiss got another one rearing into his face from length, and his best attempts to play it down resulted in a superb catch at third slip by Doug Walters. Denness was smacked on the shoulder on arrival, and after a few flashes of defiance guided Thomson for Walters to take another blinder.
Greig entered, the English hopes resting on an encore of his first innings heroics. Thomson charged in with the north-easterly now behind him, and produced the most devastating delivery of the game. The yorker pitched in the blind spot, ricocheted off the pads of the blonde giant and shattered the stumps.
Allan Knott batted with characteristic guts and grit, and ultimately it was a rather poor wide half-volley from Thomson that he dragged to his stumps. And finally Mike Hendrick found the pace too hot to handle and missed the line. England were bowled out for 166, Thomson capturing six for 46, finishing with nine for the game. Australia won with an hour and 20 minutes to spare.
A battered and bruised England line up winced at the thought of facing Lillee and Thomson again. And back in England, following an emergency call for a reinforcement batsman, 42-year-old Colin Cowdrey was requested to fly out to Australia to add calmness and solid technique in the face of furious pace.
When Thomson heard he was coming, he said, “He’ll cop it as quick as anyone!”
Australia 309 (Ian Chappell 90, Greg Chappell 58; Bob Willis 4 for 56) and 288 for 5 decl. (Greg Chappell 71, Ross Edwards 53, Doug Walters 62*, Rod Marsh 46*) beat England 265 (John Edrich 48, Tony Greig 110; Max Walker 4 for 73) and 166 (Jeff Thomson 6 for 46) by 166 runs.
(Arunabha Senguptais a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)