Joel Garner was not mean, but he was deadly © Getty Images
Joel Garner was not mean, but he was deadly © Getty Images

Joel Garner, born December 16, 1952, was one of the most terrifying bowlers ever, certainly among the tallest ever seen in the game till then. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this essential part of the famous West Indian arsenal of the 1970s and 1980s.

A terrifyingly tall tale

He used to deliver from the heavens. And facing him could be hell.

Joel Garner was 6’8”. The tallest Test cricketer from the earliest days of the game till the bean-pole thin Bruce Reid inched past him. But there was nothing skinny about Garner. Extremely proportionate, when he ran in many a batsman had the eerie and distinctly disconcerting feeling that the bowler would trample him on his follow through.

Andy Roberts was expressionless and ruthless, Michael Holding silent and explosive, Malcolm Marshall small and deadly, Colin Croft mean and nasty. Garner could be brisk, although his pace never really touched the Mach-one levels of Marshall and Holding. But from some angles, primarily vertical, he was the most intimidating of them all.

His endless arms rose above his gigantic frame as he prepared to hurl the ball down in his delivery stride. The eye line of the cowering batsman met the small red cherry nestled in those enormous fingers, and inevitably the angle carried the sight way beyond the sightscreen. And then he delivered.

The ball could be just about short of good length, but would rear up and make for the ribs and throat. Else there would be a toe-crushing yorker, the best in the game since the thunderbolts of Charlie Griffith if anecdotes are anything to go by.

Not for nothing was he known as the ‘Big Bird’. The indigenous Caribbean species Doctor Bird, the national bird of Jamaica, is remarkable for its stilt-like legs. Garner was quite naturally named after this curious avian variety.

Garner was quite often unplayable, and almost always unhittable. It was well-nigh impossible to get him past the square. His figures of 259 wickets in 58 Tests at 20.97 apiece are incredible, the lowest average among the 200-plus club but for Marshall’s marginally better 20.94. The economy rate of 2.47 is one of the best in the post-1970 era, and the most miserly among the great West Indian quartet he was a part of.

However, even more mind-boggling are the statistics Garner toted up in ODIs. His 98 forays in the shorter version of the game got him 146 wickets at 18.84, the best bowling average for anyone with more than 35 wickets in the format. The rate of leaking runs was restricted to a near-ridiculous 3.09 per over, the best among all those who captured 20 or more wickets. To put matters in perspective, the closest in this regard among bowlers with more than 100 wickets is Richard Hadlee, and his economy rate was 3.30, a good 10 per cent worse.

Yes, it was almost impossible to score off Garner. When a debutant Dean Jones was busy fending balls off his rib cage at Port-of-Spain, the towering bowler reminded him, “The only drive you get here is to and from the ground.” No idle metaphor that.

In glorious footsteps

The island country of Barbados, its sunny expanse brimming with the legacy of great cricketers, saw the birth of Garner in 1952. At school he was coached by the Bajan greats Seymour Nurse and Everton Weekes. From time to time, Manny Martindale, the express bowler of the 1930s, dropped by and offered tips.

Later on, as he was making his way through the higher grades of cricket, two other Bajan fast bowlers took him under their wings. The names could not have been more impressive — Wes Hall and Griffith.

Hall was his first captain when he finished school, and his role model. As for Griffith, the fearsome speedster played perhaps a greater role in the development of Garner the fast bowler. A young Garner used to have a round arm action with double swing of the arms. Griffith frowned and shook his head. “That won’t do,” he said. Within a few months, the immensely tall bowler was delivering correctly, from a stratospheric height.

Griffith also taught him the benefits of keeping it simple. In a match against Jamaica in the Shell Shield, Garner was bowling to the legendary Lawrence Rowe. The resulting duel had been a stalemate of an hour and a half. Neither could Rowe make runs, nor could the young bowler get him out.

At the end of the day’s play, Griffith approached his protégé with the words, “Boy, you’ve just wasted a whole hour and a half. This game could have been over today and now you’ve got to come back tomorrow.” He proceeded to explain: “You tried too hard. What you should’ve done is bowl a straight ball!” The following morning, Garner ran in with an in-swinger, then an out-swinger, and delivered the third one straight. Rowe was caught off bat and pad.

This lesson in delivering fast and straight deliveries stood him in good stead all his career. Apart from batsmen of the calibre of Rowe, this proved an asset in getting rid of tail-enders.

Can he bend?

Apart from domestic cricket in West Indies, Garner’s formative years also saw him playing a lot in England. In 1976, he turned out for the first time for Littleborough in the Central Lancashire League, capturing 110 wickets at a bit over 12 runs apiece. His run of success continued in the next couple of seasons, the 100-plus wickets coming at even cheaper rates, the almost ridiculous 8.54 to 6.70.

He could also hit the ball hard, and topped 500 runs for the summers. It was not long before his feats with the ball caught the attention of Somerset. An official saw his gangling height and awkward movements off the field, and then watched him run in to bowl. The only question he asked was, “Can he bend?” Surprisingly, Garner could, with remarkable agility. He grew into a specialist gully fielder. With Littleborough proving flexible, Garner was soon handed a county contract with Somerset.

Joel Garner was no mug while batting © Getty Images
Joel Garner was no mug while batting © Getty Images

But in between there were higher honours. In February, 1977, West Indies prepared to take on a strong and spirited Pakistan side in the first Test at Bridgetown. It was Garner’s home ground, but he was not really in the original squad. There were injuries to two stars of the pace attack, Holding and Wayne Daniel. Hence, two greenhorns made their debuts together. Joel Garner and Colin Croft. Perhaps the greatest replacements in history since Ringo Starr.

It was a batting track, and produced a thriller with West Indies ending the Test 9 down, 55 short of the target. Garner captured 4 for 130 and 2 for 60. He also hit his way to a crucial 43 in the first innings. Croft did not do too badly either, with 7 wickets in the match and hanging on to his wicket in the end in the company of Roberts to force a draw. By the end of the series, Garner had 25 wickets, Croft 33. The West Indian pace arsenal had been enhanced by two-pronged annihilating artillery.

A month after his Test debut, Garner played his first ODI at Albion. His figures read 9-3-27-3, and that would more or less define how his career in the shorter format would shape up.

The summer of 1979 and a regular

Success followed in subsequent Test appearances, albeit the exploits stopped short of running through the sides single-handedly. He took 4 for 48 and 4 for 100 at Guyana against Pakistan. The following season, he took four wickets in each innings against Australia at Bridgetown. However, the five-wicket haul remained elusive.

In fact, with the four pronged pace attack tearing in like a pack of hungry predators, he would never capture a ten-for in his career, and it would not be till early 1980 that he picked up his first five-wicket haul, in his 13th Test, at Auckland. But, by then Garner had already entered the folklore of West Indian cricket due to a number of fascinating performances.

First there was the parallel world of Packer circus, which saw some of the most fascinating feats of fast bowling. Garner, a relative rookie, fitted in seamlessly with the greatest exponents of the speeding ball in the world. And then there was the wondrous summer of 1979.

Yes, his 5 for 38 in the World Cup final has become stuff of legends. That included an inspired 11-ball spell amounting to 4 for 4, including Graham Gooch and David Gower off. After the blockathon by Geoff Boycott and Mike Brearley, there was little that the Englishmen could offer in response to the gigantic Barbadian bowler. It remains the best figures in a World Cup final till this day. Yet, the World Cup triumph was not the only highlight of Garner’s fabulous limited-over summer.

Somerset won both the Gillette Cup and the John Players League. In the four games in the Gillette Cup, Garner’s 43 overs reaped a harvest of 17 wickets for 92 runs, including 6 for 29 in the final. In the John Player League, he played in13 of the 16 matches and captured 16 for 296 from 96 overs. He ended the summer with 47 wickets in List A matches at 12.23 apiece at an economy rate of 2.68! One has to blink and make sure that the numbers are authentic.

After the summer, Garner was a regular of the West Indian attack, the looming figure in the periphery of the batsman’s vision at the start of the innings, ready to run in as first or second change. His 14 wickets in the three Tests in Australia, 1979-80, went a long way to ensure the first Caribbean series triumph Down Under. Apart from his feats with the ball, there was the remarkable 60 with four sixes against Dennis Lillee and Rodney Hogg in the first Test — his only half century in the highest format of the game.

He performed even better when the champions of the world crossed the Tasman Sea and took on the puny New Zealanders. In one of the most shocking of results, the Kiwis won the series 1-0, but Garner’s 14 wickets came at 16.78, including 6 for 56 at Auckland, his first five-wicket haul in Tests. That was achieved while battling disgust for umpiring decisions and a severe headache due to the circumstances.

And when the team travelled to England, he did still better, capturing 26 wickets at 14.26, allowing runs at a measly 1.74 per over. Garner was by now one of the feared names in world cricket. Mike Brearley voiced, “When you have one ball getting up chest height and another coming in at your toenails it’s jolly difficult to survive.”  He was named one of the Wisden cricketers of the year for his exploits in the old country in 1980.

A glittering sidelight of that tour was a swashbuckling 104 against Gloucestershire, which, along with his four second-innings wickets, engineered a 58-run win for the visiting West Indians. It remained his solitary hundred in First-Class cricket. The following year, playing for Somerset against the same opposition, he came close to repeating the feat when he was dismissed for 90. The value of his innings can be ascertained from the fact that both the century and the 90 were by far the highest scores in the innings. The runs were not belted on placid wickets.

The new ball that came late

The fearsome foursome: (from left) Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, and Joel Garner © Getty Images
The fearsome foursome: (from left) Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, and Joel Garner © Getty Images

However, even though Garner hardly had an off game, picking up wickets against England, Pakistan and Australia with metronomic regularity, the West Indian think tank refused him the new ball. Roberts, Holding, Marshall and Croft all had their share of starting the operations, but not Garner. He played valuable roles, such as the 5 for 56 at Adelaide that helped West Indies square the 1981-82 series. But, it was always faster men with the new ball.

In between there were some injury problems. His shoulder gave away by 1983, and then his comeback was derailed by dodgy knees. After another characteristically stingy spell of 12-4-24-1 in the unsuccessful World Cup final at Lord’s, he was out of action for half a year. And then he returned during the annual Benson & Hedges World Series tournament in Australia, taking 10 for 89 from 29 overs in the three finals.

It was the turn of the men led by Kim Hughes to visit the Caribbean. And a rejuvenated Garner took them on in March 1984. With Holding absent from the line-up, for the first time in his career Garner opened the bowling in a Test. He rose to the occasion with 6 for 75 and 3 for 67 at Georgetown, 6 for 60 at Port-of-Spain and 5 for 63 at St John’s. The 31 wickets in the series came at under 17 apiece with three of Garner’s 7 career five-wicket hauls and a Man of the Series award. It was obvious that he relished flinging down the brand new ball from that incredible height.

He opened the bowling in every Test after that till his penultimate match. In 26 Tests with the shining new cherry he captured 127 wickets at 20.22 with 5 five-wicket hauls.

There followed the 5-0 ‘blackwash’ of England in the summer of 1984, and Garner headed the wickets tally again with 29 at 18.62. He was at it right from the go, 4 for 53 and 5 for 55 at Edgbaston. That remained his best Test match bowling figures.

A force till the end

Wickets continued in a flurry when West Indies visited Australia in 1984-85, and then hosted England in 1985-86.He remained a potent force till the very end. When he called it a day at the age of 35 after the New Zealand tour of 1987, he had captured 12 wickets at 17 in the series, topping the averages yet again.

In between there were some splendid performances for Somerset as well. In the days when the standards of county cricket were totteringly high, the Garner vs Marshall showdown at Bournemouth, 1982, was a feast for the gods. Garner captured 11 wickets and scored a crucial unbeaten 40, Marshall toppled eight batsmen. Hampshire won by 10 runs in one of the most memorable county championship matches ever.

That same year, Garner had a famed duel with Sylvester Clarke when the two crossed swords with Somerset meeting Surrey at Bath in the John Player League.

Before falling out with captain Peter Roebuck, Garner enjoyed a fascinating stint with Somerset, collaborating with Ian Botham and Viv Richards to make the team one of the most enthralling outfits in the land. He captured 338 wickets for the county side, at 18.10, with 22 five-wicket hauls and 5 ten-fors. He did enjoy his time in England, hobnobbing with friends, quite a lot of them girls, and playing quaint pranks on the younger players.

Joel Garner was rarely honoured with the new ball early in his career © Getty Images
Joel Garner was rarely honoured with the new ball early in his career © Getty Images

Garner played his final game in early 1988, taking 3 for 95 against Leeward Islands at Bridgetown. Anyway, there was a young towering fast bowler making his presence felt by then, in whom the Garner spirit, including the penchant for hitting the toes and ribs, seemed to have passed miraculously unblemished. Curtly Ambrose was already there, to carry on the role of the giant fast bowler of West Indies. Fittingly, he would earn the moniker of ‘Little Bird’.

Garner ended with 881 wickets in First-Class cricket at 18.53. He did play a few useful innings in Test cricket, and the hundred in First-Class cricket did underline certain potential with the bat. In the field, he gave the impression of a hulking giant, but could move surprisingly quick for a man of his size. He was a specialist at gully and 42 catches in 59 Tests speaks for his abilities as a catcher. Yes, he could indeed bend.

Unlike many men of his size, Garner was not uncomfortable of his height and dimensions. It is rumoured that once in an Australian hotel a group of young ladies approached him, with one of them asking, “You are Joel Garner, aren’t you? We’ve noticed how tall you are and what big hands, big feet, long arms and legs you’ve got; what we’re dying to know is, is everything else in proportion?” The fast bowler’s reply supposedly ran, “Lady, if I were built in proportion I’d be eight foot ten!”

He attributed his size simply to eating ever since he was a small kid.

During his playing days, his approach to tactical thinking was simple. The plan was for Marshall, Holding and himself to bowl out the opposition cheaply, while the magnificent batsmen would get a sizeable lead. In spite of that, Garner did get a chance to captain a West Indian side, but that was the veterans team when they visited India in the early 1990s.

Later he performed the role of manager for the West Indian side.

For those who have seen his gigantic form making the quick paces across the turf to send down the terrifying bouncer-yorker combination in the late-70s and most of the 80s, Garner continues to remain one of the most breathtaking memories in cricket.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)