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Len Pascoe: There was a hospital ward named after Jeff Thomson and me

Len Pascoe © Getty Images
Len Pascoe © Getty Images

Len Pascoe, one of the most feared tearaways of the era, had a surprisingly short career due to injuries and a stint with World Series Cricket. Abhishek Mukherjee speak to him about cricket from his era, opening bowling with Jeff Thomson and fast bowling in general.

Had he played in an era when speed guns were a regular feature, Len Pascoe would have been remembered as one of the fastest ever. Despite that, he had carved out a niche of his own during his 14-Test career, not allowing to be overshadowed by giants like Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

Just like his great mate Thomson, Pascoe did not have the model fast bowler’s action, but just like Thomson, he could generate incredible pace. The sight of Pascoe steaming in, the white shirt doing its best to contain his tanned, muscular torso, was a terrifying sight for batsmen and a delight for spectators.

Excerpts from the interview:

CricketCountry (CC): You were a Macedonian by birth. Did you face problems growing up as a “first-generation kid” (or a “separatist”, as they said in those days) in Australia?

Len Pascoe (LP): It was not much different to other kids growing up. We got teased for having a big nose and big ears. But that was mostly about just kids being kids.

CC: You were born Leonard Stephen Durtanovich: how did you get the surname Pascoe?

LP: Pascoe is my grandfather’s name. My dad felt it best we go that way. It was his decision. I was about 15 then.

CC: What made you take up cricket?

LP: I played it as a kid on the Farm in Bridgetown with my cousins at a very early age (I was in primary school) on Saturdays. It was how we grew up: football in the winter, cricket in the summer, fishing, swimming, bike-riding, surfing, and catching tadpoles and frogs down the creek.

CC: You went to Punchbowl Boys High and played for Bankstown High Club with Jeff Thomson. He was also your new-ball partner on your debut Test. Both of you were extremely fast. What was the contest like?

LP: There was no rivalry: just mutual encouragement.

CC: What kind of impact did you and Thomson as a pair have on the opposition batsmen while growing up? Please take us through a few incidents.

LP: It was scary. We did not know what we were capable of. There was a ward named after us at Bankstown Hospital. It was usually used during home games.

One day, while playing snooker at the local club, our captain Dion (uncle of the Waughs) and a guy named Mike challenged us in the nets: “you guys might be better pool players than us but we are better cricketers was the challenge”. Next day I had two overs, and Thommo two more at Mike in the nets. After a bruising session Mike said, “your turn now, Dion”. He replied, “I’ve just declared.”

CC: Yet another aspect that is common to both Thomson and you was the action. Neither of you had the most perfect fast bowler’s action. Thomson generated his pace from his shoulders with the famous slinging action? How did you generate pace?

LP: Both of us generated pace with brute force and never-say-die attitude. We were never coached. It was all natural. My dad was a brick carter and I’d go on the truck with him 2,000 bricks on and off a truck four times a day. That puts muscle in the body. Jeff’s Dad was a fibrous plaster manufacturer, and Jeff would cart heavy sheets we grew up on work.

I was to later to see Dennis Lillee and the great West Indian quicks in action and modified my game.

CC: There have been many tearaway bowlers, but few could sustain their pace over long spells. Once again, you were one of the select few. What was the secret?

LP: I never hated the batsmen. I worked out what I wanted in life and how was I going to get it. Then it was simple: the batsmen was in my way and had to be got rid of; plus I would say the more tired I get the more dangerous I was, because the batsmen was dropping his guard in that case.

CC: You had famously bombarded Viv Richards with a bouncer barrage the moment he walked in to bat in the Adelaide Test of 1979-80. What had triggered that?

LP: It was simple. He would hit your best ball for four (or worse). My theory was a bouncer early in the innings would result a shot (the hook, for example) in the air, and you only had an over or two or when he would hit fours on the ground; then it would become too late. The idea was to get him before he got you. Funny thing in Adelaide I bowled him on a yorker.

CC: Take us through the morning of the Lord’s Centenary Test of 1980 when you wanted to relinquish your spot to Thomson by “pulling a hamstring”.

LP: People often ask what the meaning of the Baggy Green is. Well, when you go through the gate you can relax as you have the ghosts of the past on your shoulders — The Don Bradmans, the Keith Millers…

The Centenary Test was an opportunity to play the famous pairing of Lillee and Thommo. When I was told that morning Jeff was 12th man going up the stairs at Lord’s I said it’s wrong, and I have just pulled a hamstring. Thomson said, “if you do I will do mine (fake a pulled hamstring) as well”. I was prepared to give my spot in history to Jeff, but he refused. I went on to take five wickets, and my name is on the board at Lord’s.

CC: Take us through that lethal bouncer to Sandeep Patil. What went through your mind when he collapsed at the crease? Did it affect you later?

LP: It was to signal that I had lost the will to bowl aggressively anymore and I was to retire soon after. The way Sandeep went down was frightening. He later come into the dressing-room. He went on to score a great century. All said and done, that’s Test Cricket.

CC: You once called Kim Hughes the Fred Astaire of batting, and were never really anti-Hughes; despite that you famously bowled him a beamer (that even wicket-keeper Steve Rixon missed). Where did that come from?

LP: Let’s get this straight: it was never a beamer. I had a dual knee operation only 3 months earlier, and I collapsed while bowling after he me for hit two fours. I tried too hard and went hip-high wide down leg side.

I enjoy Kim’s company and sympathised with his difficulties in captaincy. He is fun to be with. Australians are a competitive lot. Did Brett Lee not deck Shane Warne recently? It’s in the DNA. Fortunately we never hold grudges and friendship is always bigger than what ever happened on the field.

CC: What triggered the iconic line “a tiger never changes its spots”?

LP: Rod Marsh once said “I thought you were not going to bowl more bouncers”. That was when I said it.

CC: Barring a handful of ODIs in New Zealand, you have never played in any country barring Australia and England. You also never got a chance to play South Africa…

LP: I played on the mattress decks of the West Indies and things went okay. I held my own. I did not take up tours of India or Pakistan. My view was that I had to work harder than others as I was not as talented: if you cannot do your best for your country let someone else have the opportunity. I guess the selectors were using a rotation system (before it became a policy).

As for South Africa, I felt at the time you cannot play normal cricket in an abnormal society. Thankfully, that is all in the past, and the world is richer for South Africa playing in the Big Shows.

CC: Had you not signed up with Kerry Packer, you may have emerged as one of the Australian fast bowling champions. Do you regret that?

LP: The only thing I regret was we did not negotiate shares in PBL Marketing Packers company ($22K plus $22k of shares). We created the modern game, and within two years we were all gone and were treated like ghosts.

CC: How difficult was it for you to get back to the Test side in the post-Packer era?

LP: I had confidence I would. I was at my peak. Packer honed me to be the professional, and the players I played against the best in the world sharpened me.

CC: Fast bowlers are often known for their fiery temper. Do you think they should be handled any differently from others?

LP: It is about respecting bad decision by umpires, or batsmen goading you; fast bowlers need understanding from others that it is often physically and mentally exhausting, often in extreme conditions. Yes, we are different.

CC: What is your take on the role of bowling coaches in shaping fast bowlers?

LP: There is too much science: it is like people want to be involved in the game when the game is between the players only. A good fast bowling coach is someone who instils confidence, knows what not to say, and maintains a low profile. In other words, he should be wise and be a good mentor.

CC: Why are the contemporary fast bowlers, especially Indians, so prone to injuries? What should be done to keep them fit?

LP: It is simple. As a muscle strengthens it shortens. As a result it pulls the skeleton out of place or tears muscles. The solution lies in understanding the bowlers’ biomechanics, make him do subtle stretches light weight training in repetition in sets of three with correct isometric exercises. Make them do these every day.

CC: While the television drama Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War credited John Cornell as the man behind day-night cricket, you have mentioned that it was you who had first proposed the idea to the Chappell brothers. Can you take us through that?

LP: I asked Max Walker about this to see if my memory was correct. Our Super-Tests were getting no crowds at all. In a players’ think tank in a lounge of the hotel we (Ian Chappell, Greg Chappell, etc) were discussing what we could do.

I asked, “Why can’t we play cricket under lights? Baseball, soccer, etc are all played under lights!” Then one of the other guys said, “What about this?”, and so on. It became a collaboration by all player. Strop (John Cornell) was standing behind us. The next night we went to VFL park and trained under lights. Later Austin Robinson painted red balls with white shoe polish. Later the only reason white balls were used is they did not flare on the TV Screens.

CC: What has been the most important aspect of your career?

LP: If asked what do I regard as the most important thing that come from my career, I would say the development of the cricket helmet. Ian Davis took me along to guy in Ashfield who made artificial limbs and helmets. I looked up and saw a horse-riding helmet. Ian tried it on and requested changes. It is incredible to think an opening batsmen and a fast bowler would come up with has become an icon in the game, and how many serious injuries has it saved. Yes, I think Ian and are very proud of that.

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

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