Joel Garner – the head and toes were both under threat when batsmen faced this Barbadian giant

The “Big Bird” Joel Garner is about to swoop on another victim © Getty Images

Joel Garner, born on 16 December 16, 1952, was a dangerous-looking bowler and a thorn in the flesh of many an opposition. The “Big Bird” went on to play 58 Tests and 98 ODIs for West Indies and was one of the most economical bowlers ever. Karthik Parimal highlights the heroics of this stalwart.

Almost three decades ago, Joel Garner was a part of the dreaded West Indian battery of pace bowlers that terrorised multitude of batsmen irrespective of the kind of wicket or conditions. Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, Malcolm Marshall and Wayne Daniels were his companions, and while most of them towered over six feet, “Big Bird” Garner was a menace to the batsmen at 6 feet 8 inches with a deceptively graceful action.

Unlike his fellow teammates who bowled at blinding pace to leave batsmen flabbergasted, Garner bowled a good ten miles slower than the rest, but he was equally effective because of the high release point of the ball. The then English captain Mike Brearley aptly summed up a batsman’s experience when he said, “The trouble is that Garner’s hand delivers over the top of the sightscreen, which makes him impossible to sight early. When you have one ball getting up chest height and another coming in at your toenails, it is jolly difficult to survive.”

Despite the fact that Garner was one of the most respected Test cricketers of his generation, he was feared in the limited-overs format, primarily because he was capable of unleashing a toe-crushing yorker at will that made scoring runs off him at the death overs virtually impossible. He played 98 One-Day Internationals (ODI) and had 146 scalps to his name, but what makes for an interesting read is his economy rate and average. An average of 18 runs per wicket and an economy rate of 3.09 is the best ever for any bowler who took more than 100 wickets in ODIs.

Below is the table featuring the top five bowlers in that ODI list

Player T Wkts Avg ER
Joel Garner 98 146 18.84 3.09
Richard Hadlee 115 158 21.56 3.30
Michael Holding 102 142 21.36 3.32
Curtly Ambrose 176 225 24.12 3.48
Malcolm Marshall 136 157 26.96 3.53

One of Garner’s best-ever bowling performances came during the 1979 World Cup final against England. The defending champions were the firm favourites and a score of 286 for nine confirmed that fact. In reply, England reached 129 for the loss of no wicket, but Brearley and Geoff Boycott took an appalling 40 overs to score those runs. “We were grateful to England for their tactics,” Garner snidely remarked.

And it was apt, since he was the destroyer-in-chief. Garner bowled out Graham Gooch and David Gower, before blasting evicting Wayne Larkins, Chris Old and Bob Taylor. In 1.5 overs, he’d taken five wickets for four runs and finished with astonishing figures of five for 38. Obviously, the lower-order were under pressure to score at a frenetic pace, but surviving against Garner was arduous in itself; scoring quickly next to virtually impossible.

He was named Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year the following year.

Like most adept cricketers of his generation, Garner spent his summers in England playing County and League cricket. His heroics with the ball for Littleborough won him a contract with Somerset, a club he stayed with for the next decade. Alongside Ian Botham and Viv Richards, Garner helped Somerset scale peaks on the domestic front. Visiting teams that played against Somerset always had their task cut out, and there have been quite a few players who’ve heaped praises on Garner’s work ethic there in their respective autobiographies.

Wisden vividly highlights his stint with Somerset: “His part in Somerset’s double success during 1979 admits no arguments as to his potent and continuing ability to swing matches. In the four games in the Gillette Cup, which Somerset won, Garner’s 43 overs brought a total of seventeen wickets for 92 runs. This included the best return for a final of six for 29. In the John Player League, which Somerset also won, the West Indian played in thirteen of the 16 and ended with 16 wickets for 296 in 96 overs.”

His limited-over exploits apart, Garner was a force to reckon with in the Tests as well, with 259 wickets to his name. Surprisingly, he has 18 four-wicket hauls, but just seven five-fors. However, this was more to do with the rest of the quartet around him, since the damage was more often than not already done before he bowled with full effect. Like former England Test cricketer Derek Pringle noted, “For the first half of his Test career, from 1977 to 1982, he was part of the greatest pace quartet the world has ever seen. Sharing the stage with fast bowlers as deadly as Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Colin Croft inevitably meant the spoils were shared around. In any case, his role – as the Lomotil that blocked up the scoring-rate – rarely afforded him the luxury of mopping up the tail.”

It’s been more than 25 years since Garner’s retirement, and although he still sometimes serves West Indies cricket as a manager and administrator, the sight of him playing T20 cricket would have been a treat. With his pace, bounce and toe-crushing yorkers, he would have been an asset to many a team.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)