Len Pascoe was your quintessential fast bowler. Tall, burly, barrel-chested, and dusky, he tore down the turf at the batsman with the velocity of a sprinter, his unruly mane of hair ruffled in the afternoon breeze; then, just before the release of the delivery, he leapt suddenly towards his left and released the delivery at brutal pace at the batsman.
Every now and then he hurled a bouncer – often unnecessarily – at the batsman; at his pace he was very difficult to hook. He often topped the 145 kmph barrier (he often reached 155), and had troubled batsmen with his raw, primal ferocity whenever he bowled. In his own words, he “liked to see fear in a batsman” (albeit not wanting to injure him).
Unlike most great fast bowlers, Pascoe’s speed was not generated from a scientifically measured run-up; it was sheer beastly power, and his broad shoulders helped him generate much speed. What makes it even more spectacular, though, is the fact that he could deliver at this pace for hours on shirtfront tracks against batsmen of the highest pedigree.
Pascoe believed that a good bowler should be able to take wickets on any track. He thought that “to be a really, really good player there needs to be an element of the maniac about you”.
Pascoe had modeled himself on Fred Trueman, and had lived up to his hero in terms of both pace and stamina (and certain off-the-field nocturnal activities). He did not play as much, though. He went on to play only 14 Tests. Yes, you have read it right: 14.
He took 64 wickets in those Tests at 26.06. Additionally, in 29 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) he took 53 wickets at 20.11 — second on the all-time list if we put a 50-wicket cut-off, after Joel Garner — and an economy of 4.07. Despite all that, Pascoe seems to be a forgotten name, having played cricket in the era of the Dennis Lillees and Jeff Thomsons.
Len Pascoe was born of Macedonian parents – though the country was called Yugoslavia back then. He was originally called Leonard Stephen Durtanovich, but due to his surname he was the target of many a taunt from his friends. This was half a century back, and racism was still prevalent in Australia. The budding cricketer also realised that a surname like that would probably reduce his probability to make it to the highest level. He decided to change it to Pascoe.
Later, he has often talked about the difficulties that he, along with many other ‘first-generation kids’ (also called ‘separatists’, especially by his English opponents) in Australia, had to go through. They were often alienated by the ‘bonafide Australians’, and received a ‘dud rap’ in the media.
Born six months before Thomson, the two went to the same school (Punchbowl Boys High). This meant that life was miserable for the kids turning up to face them at school level. As they grew up, both of them turned out for Bankstown Club, and matched each other for raw, lethal pace.
After making his way through grade and First-Class cricket, Pascoe burst into the international scene, making his debut in an Ashes Test at Lord’s in 1977. Opening bowling with his old mate Thomson in the absence of Lillee, Pascoe bowled his heart out, taking two for 53 and three for 96 on debut. He played two more Tests on that tour and picked up eight more wickets, but England went on to claim the Ashes. He also played two ODIs on that tour — and was claimed by World Series Cricket for two and a half years.
Pascoe returned in the home Ashes series against England, picking up 10 wickets at 24.10 from the two Tests he played in. Australia whitewashed England in that series. He did even better in the triangular Benson and Hedges World Series Cup that followed, picking up 12 wickets from five ODIs at a staggering 13.91. His strike rate was an astonishing 24.7, but despite his heroics Australia could not make it to the final.
The Centenary Test
On the morning of the Centenary Test at Lord’s in 1980 the selectors told Pascoe that he would get the new ball with Lillee. Pascoe, always one with a great heart (and one to realize the grandeur of the occasion), met Thomson and told him “Mate, it is not right. You and Dennis should be opening the bowling in a Centenary Test. I’m going to pull a hamstring, so put your boots on.” His mate responded “if you pull one I’ll pull one too”.
Pascoe reached the pinnacle of his career in this Test: he took the only five-for of his short career as he (five for 59) and Lillee (four for 43) blew England away for 205. Pascoe actually had a spell of five for 15 in 32 balls.
Later days and the injury
Back home, Pascoe ran into the Kiwis (he took 12 wickets from three Tests at 22.67) and the Indians (16 wickets from three Tests at 18.68). At 30, Pascoe was looked upon as one of the world’s most formidable fast bowlers.
He kept on taking wickets in ODIs as well. In the 1980-81 Benson and Hedges World Series Cup Pascoe claimed 19 wickets from 12 ODIs at 22.21 (strike rate 31.4); and went another step next season, when he could play only five ODIs – all against West Indies – and picked up 12 wickets from five ODIs at 15.25 (strike rate 22.9). However, during this period Pascoe picked up a knee injury that made him pull out of the 1981 Ashes.
Terry Alderman made his debut in that historic series and took an astounding 41 wickets. Geoff Lawson also made a name for himself, and when Thomson, Rodney Hogg, Lawson and Carl Rackemann all managed to injure themselves, Australia had to draft in the young Mike Whitney, who was playing for Gloucestershire.
All of a sudden a lot of fast bowlers had sprung up on the horizon. Pascoe, despite his form, now needed to fight his way back to the Test side.
The abrupt end
Despite his tremendous form, Pascoe was omitted from the Australian squad, but was brought in for Alderman to play the final Test of the Frank Worrell Trophy of 1981-82. West Indies required 236 for a victory, and Lillee was ruled out of the Test after bowling just four overs.
Pascoe bore the burden; he ran in hard, and after Thomson removed the openers, Pascoe ran through the defenses of Viv Richards and Larry Gomes, before removing Faoud Bacchus with West Indies on the verge of victory. He bowled more overs than anyone in that innings, but West Indies leveled the series.
Little did he know that it was going to be his last Test. The niggle in his knee came back, and though he went on to play three ODIs in New Zealand later that season, the injury turned out to be too much for Pascoe. Then, all of a sudden, he retired from international cricket altogether. He had probably realised that it was time to allow the youngsters to take over. Within a couple of years he had quit domestic cricket as well.
Pascoe is a classic example of a ‘what-might-have-been’. In 27 of the Test innings he bowled, he went wicketless in only two; and despite the solitary five-for, he picked up four wickets four times and three wickets eight times – which means that he picked up 3 or more wickets in almost 50% of the innings he bowled in.
Unlike most cricketers, Pascoe was never one to hog the limelight. He went on to coach New South Wales, and currently runs Len Pascoe Sports Entertainment.
Last year, though, he made it to the news. When the television drama “Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War” credited television John Cornell as the mastermind behind day-night matches, Pascoe protested. He claimed that it was he who had suggested the idea to Ian and Greg Chappell after the initial disaster of World Series Cricket: “I distinctly remember saying to the Chappells in a hotel bar that we play soccer under lights and we play baseball under lights, so why not play cricket under lights?” Soon afterwards, the balls were then painted with white shoe polish (they did not make white cricket balls in those days), and the players practiced under lights at the VFL Park – and world cricket was revolutionised in no time.
(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in)
First Published: February 13, 2013, 8:09 am