There are different breeds of fast bowlers. Contrary to the popular myth, there has not been a complete bowler, no alpha male that will prevail over everyone on every pitch.

Speed, Swing (Conventional and Reverse), Bounce, Accuracy and that rare naked wild Aggression- take your pick and you can end up with different bowlers. It is important to note that statistics don’t really do justice to the Malcolm Marshalls, Joel Garners, and Michael Holdings of the 70s who only had 10 wickets among themselves to share, and also to the poor subcontinental bowlers whose figures were muddled by dull pitches custom made for spinners. Still, each of the WI quartets averaged under 21 and raked in nearly 4 wickets per match.

On each of these attributes, let us find some contenders-

  1. Speed:  Jeff Thompson >> Shoaib Akhtar > Brett Lee > Shaun Tait

Jeff Thomson by a long shot (notice the double >). Not even a fair competition.

My words might mislead you to believe that I have a huge man-crush on Thomson. I also risk my reputation for bringing out that at his peak, Thomson was rated at 180 KMPH by Rod Marsh (kept stumps to both Jeff and Lillee), Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Michael Holding himself. Though Viv Richards, Martin Crowe, and Sunil Gavaskar shied away from putting a number to his pace, they agreed he was a league faster than Lillee, Marshall, Hadlee, Wasim, and Donald.

Importantly, Martin Crowe faced Jeff in 1982- three years before Jeff’s retirement and played Donald (155k maximum), Wasim (150+ max) and Waqar Younis (150+) at their peak. I WOULD NOT DOUBT these credentials.

Jeff Thompson generated quantum speed not from his run-up or jump (unlike Shoaib and Lee) but an intense action that started with a knee jerk, leaned into a svelte wavy spinal flow and finished with a wild slingshot release. Imagine the skid, bounce and pace.

He had the most quirky and to me the most beautiful action ever that will shatter the spine, the clavicle and hamstring of any other athlete. A more intense Shaun Tait action with a shorter run up, quicker release but higher speed.

Compare Jeff’s whole body slingshot with Lee’s jump and shoulder release, and Shoaib’s wide chest release action.

What he did with his pace can never be replicated. Unlike Shoaib and Shaun, he did not bowl two loose deliveries every over and unlike Brett Lee, he could keep distance from pads consistently. However, his pace was a nightmare for the entire slip cordon and the poor keeper as well. He had a reputation and a knack for bouncing balls regularly over the keeper and his edges will elude slip too. Explains an average of 28. By the way, his bouncers were reported to jump over back screens too.

A typical Tommo field setting: 9 men slip

I started by rubbishing claims about how great an Australian from 1970s can be but then I watched his videos, read testimonials on him and I want to see him bowl again. I am most surprised not by claims about his speed but by the fact that the only time he injured himself severely was while attempting a catch and not while bowling. A demigod indeed!

Unfortunately, he wasn’t measured in his prime to quell doubts over his fastest ever tag. Even though he was clocked at the batting end in his 30s, he still raked in 155 kmph. At his prime, he could be anywhere between 165 to 180. Shoaib, Brett and Shaun will always be after Jeff for me exactly in that order for speed.

2. Swing: Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan

There will be other contenders as well but I am siding with Imran Khan. He swung both ways, taught the world how to reverse swing and averaged 22.8! And yes, over 50% of test matches he played were in sub-continent.

Waqar comes a close second with his beautiful banana loop, but Imran mastered conventional swing and pioneered reverse wing to the point that it sparked a major controversy. Wasim is tied with Waqar after Imran although he didn’t run through line-ups with Waqar’s aggression. He was a thinking bowler- a magician with the swing and was a safer bet to pull a wicket when Waqar would give up. Waqar had lull episodes in between when he will wait for the reverse swing to turn up. Wasim had a reputation of persistence. And that is why the great batsmen of 90s (Tendulkar, Gilchrist, Ponting, Dravid) rated him higher. They have nearly identical statistics although Waqar has higher wickets/test.

Dale Steyn does not have the swing range that Wasim and Imran had. And those who ever kept stumps at even club cricket will know that you don’t need snake swings or double loops to take a nick. Steyn’s swerve is sometimes too much to take a nick though it looks beautiful on HD TV screens. Steyn however has bowled with better support seamers, more precision (especially that center-pitch outswinger to a right hander) and higher pace. And he tries even on dry wickets.

James Anderson is probably smarter with his control and range but when he finds the right wicket. Has a reputation of shying away from tours (latest- 2016 Indian tour) to “maintain’’ his stats. Such manipulations can’t be a sign of the greatest bowler and especially for this reason, he falls below Steyn regardless of his career haul. Lillee could do precision, control and range at express pace even without the “right” pitch. Hadlee played half of his tests on NZ’s greentop pitches with an amazing mountain wind running in (best swing conditions) and he exploited them consistently with swing, pace and bounce. Probably explains his unusually high 36 fivers in just 86 test matches.

Hadlee’s typical NZ cricket stadium

But Lillee and Hadlee will always be the once in a generation legends that will find mention in any top 10 bowling list.

Ideal swing should be unpredictable (range helps) and should be as late as possible at suitable pace.

Imran Khan > Waqar = Wasim > Hadlee = Mcgrath= Ambrose = Marshal> Lillee = Steyn > Anderson = Kapil Dev = Courtney Walsh

in that order with some honorable mentions in no order: Holding, Roberts, Pollock, Srinath, Asif, Javed, Gillespie etc.

3. Bounce: I am not talking about the bounce Gavaskar can duck under or Ponting can hook over. Imagine a bounce that happens so late that your spine is writhed into a painful contortion as you close your eyes and move away from the ball.

Who did that best?

Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Curtly Ambrose, Andy Roberts, Allan Donald and briefly Mitchell Johnson.

Sadly the swing hype of the 1990s and one bouncer an over rule killed this art of bouncing the ball close to the pitch. Mcgrath kept it alive but only in a narrow corridor outside off.

Bounce is as important as swing if not more but the viewing angle change around 1987–90 made it look like a nondescript factor.

This angle (first two images) reveals bounce as a beauty when cricket was still a bowler’s game and you can see the ball climb towards you.

The umpire back view (prevalent now) undermines vertical movement as the camera looks down on the climb which also moves away from the camera. It is a simple optic illusion. No wonder current generation does not understand the beauty and mechanism of bounce due to a simple perception issue!

I am not arguing against the numerous advantages of umpire back angle- swing is clearly visible, pitch of ball easily visible and you can see for yourself where the ball hit the pad in case of LBW. But bounce is less distinctly visible on screen.

But, no batsman wants to play a ball beaming into the rib cage or the skull after bouncing from good length especially if swinging too. No one did that better than Garner, Holding, Ambrose and Roberts. Malcolm Marshall, considered the best bowler of all time by many could not bowl them as good at only 5′10′’.

At 2.03m, Garner could. Ambrose too. If you consider that Garner special toe crusher tying batsmen across the crease against the bouncers, Joel Garner wins over Holding and ties with Ambrose.

4. Accuracy: No one even comes close to Joel Garner, Glenn Mcgrath and Curtly Ambrose on landing red cherry on a coin entire day for that entire week on any pitch. Tie between the three.

5. Naked Aggression: Dennis Lillee, Griffith, Garner, Richard Hadlee, Jeff Thompson, Allan Donald, Waqar Younis, Mitchell Johnson, Dale Steyn, Ambrose.

Caution: Not every man on this list would qualify as a gentleman cricketer.

I am not talking about chest thumpers or sledging wimps. I am talking about beasts that ran riots on the pitch. The X factor in their bowling made batsmen cower and feel their overs down to every millisecond. They all tore through English batting line-up so frequently in the 80s and 90s that the perception of an English batsman changed from that of an accumulator to a target duck very quickly.

Verdict: Ask yourself if Steyn, Waqar gave terror-filled sleepless nights to an entire team. Griffith, Garner, Donald and Johnson did. When you toured WI in 70s, your families prayed for your safe return. Donald came for your skull at 93mph with a high jump release and had no qualms about it. Contest between Griffith, Garner, Ambrose and Donald! Actually Garner wins with Donald following.

VERDICT:

I can’t take you seriously if you pick outside

Marshall, Akram, Imran, Thomson, Donald, Lillee, Ambrose, Hadlee, Holding, Roberts and Garner

Donald had express pace, aggression and skidding bounce but lacked swing range and could be played on full. It is a shame that he debuted at 26 in 1992 due to the apartheid ban on SA, peaked at 28–29 and missed all-time greatness by a whisker. Waqar, Imran, Wasim could not extract stinging bounce like Donald and WI greats did consistently. Not entertaining Dale Steyn, Anderson, Chaminda Vaas, Kapil Dev and Botham for the lack of bounce, aggression and/or express pace.

If the bowler can’t swing both ways, averages over 25, can’t bounce NORMAL pitch (not short pitch) into ribs and doesn’t have a reputation for running through entire line-ups, he can’t be the GREATEST fast bowler.

My ideal all-pace attack (5 seamers) has Imran Khan/ Wasim Akram with Lillee/ Donald/ Hadlee with a certain Malcolm Marshall and a Jeff Thomson.

But the first bowler on my team is

Joel Garner aka The Big Bird

258 test wickets in 58 matches with pace, bounce and swing at 20.97.

That is 4.5 wickets per Test match in an all-time great bowling line-up! Not known for swinging like Imran or Wasim but did I talk about that toe crusher? And that bouncer at 150k+ with a nagging accuracy hinting a swing that no one bothered to notice because everyone closed their eyes fearing the worst for the batsmen.

Oddly enough, he deliberately under-bowled. He reserved his enforcer best performance only when you bowled bouncers to WI batsmen. Garner alone was the reason no one dared bodyline bouncers to Sobers, Richards and Co. Great bowlers change the way batsmen bat. He is the only bowler who dictated how opposition bowlers will bowl to his team. He was a threat that no one wanted to face. Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding didn’t hold back. Garner did, because when he didn’t, he was a league more lethal (literally). Marshall bowled and troubled many, so a lot remember him as a bigger threat than Garner. They don’t realize that Garner was the reason Marshall could go crazy and still Viv could walk in without helmet, munching a mint gum. For this exact reason, I count Garner higher than Malcolm or any other bowler. The only bowler asked by his captain to under-perform!

Add to this his credo- Garner never bowls bouncers to tailenders, and now take a look again at his figures. His cruise alone fetched 258 wickets at under 21. His supercruise was the nuclear ICBM that you shielded for rare occasions. Convinced enough?

A pure attacking bowler who did not tie himself to a corridor outside off (unlike Dale Steyn, Mcgrath, Hadlee, Imran). He would come straight for your stumps or chest and walk away with your wicket. And he would not leave that corridor too. You could survive him with some pluck and a lot of luck, but could never thump him. Your only chance was to play on pads when he didn’t bounce looking for that inswinging LBW or nudge him softly to square off. Gavaskar and Greg Chappel did that brilliantly. He had a career economy of only 1.8 and never sledged a single batsmen. He just smiled and you would immediately forgive him for that last delivery.

All bowlers try bowling that bouncer or that inswinging yorker. He tried not to and others prayed he didn’t.

Incoming from 11 feet at 150kmph. Impossible to pick that length. Btw this will crash at batsman’s left toe. And yes it will swing too!

I have excluded some obvious greats like Dale Steyn, Sidney Barnes, Kapil Dev, Courtney Walsh and Glen Mcgrath from the final contender list for good reasons (not to offend someone or dim a player’s credentials).

For Indians, I think Kapil Dev was a fantastic all-rounder but he was not even the best bowler of his own time. He took 434 wickets from 131 tests (3.2 wickets per test) in 50 additional tests than Richard Hadlee at an average of nearly 30 and mostly bowled at 135–140 kmph. Honestly, he was not even the best all-rounder of his time (age of Sobers, Hadlee, Imran, Kapil and Botham). Try comparing his stats with Kallis’ to get an idea. Definitely, the greatest Indian all-rounder though.

For Pakistanis, I did consider Akram, Imran and Waqar very carefully. They were all very lethal, gifted and successful, but they lack Garner’s sting.

I did the trio a justice by not even including Shoaib Akhtar (fast, inconsistent, occasionally brilliant) in the same sentence with them. He shared Wasim’s and Waqar’s dressing room but not the application, commitment or shrewdness. An underachiever considering what he could have become.

For Mcgrath, Hadlee and Steyn fanboys, I rank acid-tipped aggression that induced error and created doubts, higher than containment with skill and patience in a narrow culvert heading to slip cordon. There is a difference between hunting and ambushing. If you were okay with maidens, great batsmen negotiated these three greats very well.

Finally, I stand by my claim that Thomson was a whole league faster than other pace bowlers. Bowlers lose at least 10–15 kmph between muzzle end and the batting end and even more as they head into 30s. 155 kmph at batting end and at 32 years of age? My guess (also claimed by Tony Greig) would be 165 kmph+ at peak for Jeff. Even that is not enough to be the best ever, unless you can make the ball climb in or dart off like Big Bird did.

Let me know in comments what do you think about this list of all time greatest fast bowlers.

Notes:

I will ignore ridiculous comments and respond only to sincere and/or intelligent responses. Loving cricket and understanding cricket can be two different things. I am somewhere in between. If your cricket jargon is borrowed from IPL commentators, you never actually read Wisden Almanac and you pride yourself for the following cricket since only 1996 or even 1992 WC, it is highly unlikely that you will get a response from me.