Jeff Thomson, one of the fastest bowlers of all time, made his Test debut on December 29, 1972. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the man who had formed one of the most fearsome fast bowling pairs with Dennis Lillee.
Nearly all fast bowlers had one attribute in common: they all had picturesque run-ups. Some of them were even poetic, some mysteriously silent, some intimidating, some forceful when they ran in to the wicket. Not Jeff Thomson. With him it was always a slow, almost absent-minded amble to the wicket; you could almost sense a pause as the torso faced the mid-on just before the release of the ball; then, with a violently rapid action that sliced the air like a hot knife passing through butter, the ball crashed into the batsman’s toes or often hit the sight screen on the bounce. In Thomson’s own words, “Aww, mate, I just shuffle up and go wang.”
He was easily the fastest bowler of his time. Additionally, he had an accurate yorker, and thanks to his action, could bowl steep, lethal bouncers from a good length. In a fast bowling contest in 1978 Thomson was clocked ahead of Michael Holding and Imran Khan. He had often gone past the 160 km-mark; many batsmen have mentioned him as the fastest they had seen; and Greg Chappell had actually refused to bat against him.
Thomson was never short on aggression: he was famously caught saying that he’d rather see a batsman’s blood on the pitch than his stumps lying on the ground. The sheer quote had intimidated Lance Gibbs so much that he had pleaded Ian Chappell to keep Thomson from hitting him.
Thomson had picked up 200 Test wickets from 51 Tests at 28.00. It must be remembered, though, that unlike Australia’s other major stars, Thomson did not play World Series Cricket, and had to bowl largely unassisted in a depleted side. However, even in those troubled times, Thomson’s numbers did not take a toll: he was as furious and menacing as ever. He helped win the Test series against the Indians, taking 22 wickets from five Tests at 23.45.
And then, up against the West Indians at Bridgetown, bowled one of the most irate spells ever displayed in Test cricket: against a line-up boasting Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Viv Richards, Alvin Kallicharran and Clive Lloyd, Thomson bowled with insane aggression, picking up six for 77 in 13 overs, including knocking off Richards’ cap. When Greenidge was given not out when the ball had hit his glove – probably because Greenidge had rubbed his shoulder as a reaction – Thomson said “that was gutsy, the way Gordon rubbed his shoulder, because his broken hand must have been hurting like hell.”
A few seasons earlier, in a World Cup match against Sri Lanka, Thomson had made his presence felt against the minnows. When Sunil Wettimuny and Duleep Mendis were launching a counterattack, Thomson bowled a furious spell, hitting both batsmen all over the body – aiming mostly at the ribcages and the boots. He finally hit Mendis on the head, and he had to be taken to the hospital. He then went on to hit Wettimuny on the instep, and when the batsman was hobbling around in pain, warned him that it’s still not broken, but it will be if he hung around for another over. He kept his word, and Wettimuny soon followed Mendis. Later, with the bat, he had almost won the World Cup for his side with a 41-run last wicket stand with Dennis Lillee.
However, Thomson is mostly remembered for his ruthless fast bowling in partnership with Lillee in the 1974-75 Ashes. Till then Thomson had played only a solitary wicketless Test – one he played with a broken foot without knowing he was doing the same. Greg Chappell had hidden him well from the visiting tourists till the Tests began. And then, he was unleashed.
England survived Thomson in the first innings (he still took 3 for 59), thanks to a hundred from Tony Greig. To his credit, Greig had bounced Lillee, and when the Australian fast bowlers responded, he counterattacked brilliantly. However, set to score 333 for a victory, Thomson hit the English line-up harder than they could have imagined. The six for 46 announced Thomson’s presence in the world of cricket. England were dismissed for 166, and Keith Miller, watching the game, confessed that he was scared himself. Jim Laker at Sydney had the same reaction later that series.
England were so disintegrated that they had to recall Colin Cowdrey out of his retirement to face Lillee and Thomson. At Perth Thomson apparently bowled faster than he had done at Brisbane and took five for 93 to demolish England again. He bowled one that hit David Lloyd in his ‘box’, as a result of which, in Lloyd’s own words, “it cracked open and what I had inside fired through before the box snapped shut again like a guillotine coming down.” Later in the innings, Fred Titmus thought that Thomson had knocked off his cap, as he couldn’t actually see the ball himself.
Then, just as he was heading towards breaking Arthur Mailey’s Australian record of 36 wickets in a series, Thomson injured himself playing tennis during the Adelaide Test. He still managed to take 33 wickets from five Tests at 17.93, and along with Lillee, had disintegrated England’s morale to such an extent that they slumped to a 4-1 defeat.
He followed this with excellent performances in England (16 wickets in four Tests at 28.56) to retain the Ashes and in the ‘Official World Title Clash’ against West Indies at home (29 wickets in six Tests at 28.65), but injured him against Pakistan yet again. He came back again successfully in the 1977 Ashes (23 wickets in five Tests at 25.34), and though injuries kept affecting him, he kept on coming back.
The selectors dropped him from the 1981 Ashes squad. Thomson, in the last years of his career, was playing for Middlesex. He had a point to prove against his touring home country. In the match against the touring Australians at Lord’s, he took his vengeance by hitting Graeme Wood.
After a string of ordinary performances Thomson’s career came to a slow end. He had partnered Allan Border in the famous valiant 70-run last wicket partnership at Melbourne; but then, touring England for one last time, Thomson bowed out with pedestrian exhibitions of 2 for 174 at Headingley and 1 for 101 – his 200th wicket – at Edgbaston amidst an injury (spotting a most singular bleached mullet during the series).
And yet, despite all this, Thomson was unbelievably soft-spoken. He never turned down an autograph request from a kid, though he himself had admitted that it might have been because the kid “might have a good-looking sister”.
In Pictures: Jeff Thomson’s cricketing career