Duncan Spencer was quick enough to impress Viv Richards and Ricky Ponting © Getty Images
Duncan Spencer was quick enough to impress Viv Richards and Ricky Ponting © Getty Images

Duncan Spencer, born April 5, 1972, was hailed as one of the fastest bowlers, and troubled some of the greatest batsmen of contemporary cricket with his hostile pace and bounce. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a career nipped in the bud by the drug menace.

September 19, 1993. Kent were playing Glamorgan in a Sunday League match at Canterbury. Carl Hooper, Matthew Fleming, and Nigel Llong took Kent to 103 for 2, but wickets kept falling at regular intervals, and all Kent could manage was 200 for 9 from 50 overs. It was not a huge total — especially since the Glamorgan line-up boasted of Steve James, Hugh Morris, Matthew Maynard, and above all, playing what would be his final List A appearance, Viv Richards.

Kent opened bowling with Alan Igglesden and Mark Ealham, and followed up with Dean Headley and Hooper. Duncan Spencer, their almost-unheard-of-tearaway, was held back. Morris and Adrian Dale took the score to 81 for 1 from 24 overs when Spencer was given a bowl.

Spencer did not look fast. The run-up was relaxed with a flourish towards the end with an outward movement just before the release. The first ball was a bouncer that Dale somehow evaded. The next was pitched up; Dale tried to drive through cover, but the ball was too fast for him. A yorker followed. The sixth ball of the over thudded into Dale’s chest. The blow “was to leave a bruise for about a year,” Ian Botham later wrote in Beefy’s Cricket Tales.

Seldom had England seen such searing pace. At the other end, too, Morris failed to put bat to ball. Once again there was a bouncer that missed Morris’ helmeted face by an inch. Dale fell to Headley shortly afterwards.

This brought Maynard to the crease. He had scored two before Spencer sent down one that was too fast for him. It rapped him on the pad, sending him back to the pavilion. 98 for 3. The crowd stood up as Richards walked out in coloured gear for one final time.

The first ball from Spencer was outside off and it rose steeply. He played it to point. The next one was closer, and faster off the deck. Richards was hurried on to the stroke, and tried to fend it away; the ball hit his ribs. If the great man was in pain, he did not show it.

Come next over, and Spencer bowled another scorcher off a length. It was Richards’ immense experience that saved him; he took his hand off the bat at the last moment. Then came another bouncer; Richards went for the pull, but the ball was too fast for him: Viv top-edged, square-leg ran in to take the skier — but Spencer had overstepped.

There was another appeal as the ball hit the pad, but the umpire probably thought it would have missed leg-stump. Richards’ face broke into a smile as he crossed Spencer on his way for a single. As Spencer walked back, Richards greeted him as he high-fived with Spencer before going on to pat his head. Seldom has an acknowledgement been as big.

Richards called him “possibly the quickest bowler” he had faced. Ricky Ponting said that barring Shoaib Akhtar, no one has bowled faster to him. Ronnie Irani, in No Boundaries — Passion and Pain On and Off the Pitch, wrote that Spencer was “seriously quick,” adding that “his bowling was once timed at 98 mph”. That translates to 157.7 kmph. Even if accounts for the discrepancy, he may have been the fastest of the era.

Despite the brutal pace, lethal bounce, and hostile aggression, Spencer never came close to international cricket. In fact, he only played 16 First-Class matches and finished with 36 wickets at a rather ordinary 39.22. The List A numbers, 23 wickets from 20 matches at 29.56 and an economy rate of 4.83, were better, but certainly not exceptional.

It was Nandrolone that curtailed Spencer’s career, but more of that later.

England and Australia

Spencer was born in Nelson, Lancashire, but he moved along with his family to Perth when he was five. It was a coincidence that he went to Kent Street Senior High School, Perth — given that he would later play for Kent. He made it to Western Australia Under-19s, and when England A toured Australia in 1993, he was picked for the tour games.

He got a Kent contract next season, and soon proved to be too good for the Second XI — especially when he routed Leicestershire Second XI for 119. His figures in the match read 10-1-26-6 before smashing 95.

He was soon picked for Sunday League two days later. The First-Class debut against Essex at Maidstone was wicketless. Zimbabwe toured England that year, and Spencer (after scoring 75) blew the top-order away. His 4 for 46 included wickets of Grant Flower, Alistair Campbell, and Guy Whittall. The tourists were bowled out for 83.

Spencer had a stint for Western Australia that summer, but could not create an impression. There was a 4 for 85 against Southern Australia at Adelaide Oval, but little else of note. A season tally of 20 wickets at 37.50 did little good to his reputation. He also claimed 4 for 31 against Leicestershire at Grace Road the next English summer, but his season tally read 10 wickets.

Pain; and further pain

Spencer continued to play for Kent Second XI till 1996 and for Western Australia Second XI till 1996-97, but injuries — especially a persistent back-pain — restricted him to grade cricket. In fact, things often got so bad that he played as specialist batsman.

It was not until 2000-01 that he resurfaced, and did so with 4 for 43 against Victoria and 4 for 35 against New South Wales (NSW). His List A figures that season read 11 wickets at 22.36. It seemed Spencer was back on track. Unfortunately, he never played another List A match.

Keen to find a solution to the persistent back pain, Spencer resorted to the pain-killing anabolic steroid Nandrolone. Unfortunately, it was on the list of banned drugs as per Australian Cricket Board’s (ACB’s) list. He had violated clauses 8.1 and 8.2 of ACB’s Anti-Doping policy.

Following a seven-hour interrogation session with a three-member committee at the ACB office on April 19, 2001 at Melbourne, Spencer became the first Australian cricketer to be banned for doping. The exile lasted 18 months.

Spencer later told John Polack of ESPNCricinfo: “These injections were prescribed to me to improve my everyday life as I had been suffering from chronic pain for the last six years. The medication was not prescribed for sport. At the time I did not believe I would be able to bowl again, let alone to do so at the First-Class level.”

Comeback

Spencer made a return in 2002-03 for Melville in Perth First Grade cricket. He continued to play, and earned a Sussex call-up out of the blue in 2006. He claimed two wickets from two matches, but one of them was Kumar Sangakkara’s in Sri Lanka’s tour match at Hove.

He also played for Buckinghamshire in the Minor Counties Championship the same season. He played a crucial role in their qualification for the final with 3 for 76 against Lincolnshire at Burnham and 3 for 41 and 3 for 33 against Northumberland at Jesmond. He also claimed 4 for 71 in the final against Devon at Exmouth, but chasing 308 Buckinghamshire folded for 127.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)