Tony Greig's stump flies out as he's bowled for a duck by Andy Roberts

The West Indies sides with the great quicks played out more draws than the post-2000 Australian team

© PA Photos

Stats feature

Pace unlike fire

The great West Indian bowling attacks were ferocious, ruthless, and storied. But were they as incisive and effective as the great Australian attacks?

Kartikeya Date |

From March 10, 1976 to March 30, 1995, West Indies lost two Test series out of 36. They lost in India in 1978-79, when most of their first team was playing for Kerry Packer. They lost in New Zealand in 1979-80 with their first team minus Viv Richards. Since then, as Michael Holding pointed out at the end of Stevan Riley's award-winning documentary Fire In Babylon, the West Indies Test team did not lose a series for 15 years - a record unrivalled by any top sports team. Under Clive Lloyd and Richards, West Indies were one of the greatest teams in history.

The great West Indians captured the popular imagination like few other teams. How often have you heard older fans say: "Those West Indians would have sorted today's batsmen out in 20 minutes. Batsmen wouldn't have planted their front foot against them!" Or the more general, "There are no real fast bowlers these days, batsmen have it too easy." When Mitchell Johnson was terrorising England and South Africa in the 2013-14 season, more than one devotee of Test match cricket brought up the halcyon days of Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Holding and Colin Croft.

The great West Indians stand for more than just cricketing excellence. They have become icons for a specific type of brutal, manly dominance. They were the team from the colony that made the team from the metropole fearful for its physical well-being. They were invincible. They not only defeated opponents, they also made them uncomfortable.

Fire In Babylon embodies the iconology that has built up around that West Indian side. An endless assembly line of fearsome fast men allied with brilliant batsmen and proud captains makes a compelling picture. To some extent, this is even true. I understand the temptation to ignore facts when one is caught up in telling a good story but several premises that underpin Fire In Babylon's core argument are simply wrong.

© Revolver Entertainment

Though the film would have you believe otherwise, West Indies were already a great team in the 1960s. They won more than they lost between the end of World War II and Lloyd becoming captain. For large parts of this period they were better than England and as good as the Australians. They won four out of six series in England, a time when England were far stronger than they were in 1976. The film also ignores the fact that the top players in Lloyd's and Richards' teams were products of two elite cricketing finishing schools - county cricket and, to a lesser extent, World Series Cricket. Many of these players played county cricket before being picked for West Indies.

Nevertheless, judging by the numerous favourable reviews and awards, Fire In Babylon was warmly received by cricket writers and fans, and by film critics. This was largely down to two reasons. First, the film reinforced the popular stereotypes about fast bowling and the great West Indian teams. Second, it was a superbly paced documentary. It was widely reviewed in the United States, and as many critics noted, one did not need to know cricket to understand the story.

For me, the cricketing story is far more interesting. Out of a total of 2139 Tests played as of October 1, 2014, 730 were drawn. That's about one in three. From March 1976 to August 1991 - when West Indies were led first by Lloyd and then by Richards - they won 59 out of 111 Tests and drew 39. The greatest array of fast bowling talent in history appears to have played in draws at a marginally higher rate than the rate in all Test cricket. If we were to take only Tests played until 1991, the great West Indies played in just 4% fewer draws than the average. In contrast, the other great dynasty in modern cricket - Australia under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting - won 89 out of 134 Tests from 1999 to 2010, and drew only 20. That's 19% fewer draws than the average across Test history.

The great West Indians stand for more than just cricketing excellence. They have become icons for a specific type of brutal, manly dominance

Why did the great West Indies draw every third Test despite their relentless pace attack? Why, if opposition batsmen feared for their well-being, were they able to withstand the West Indian attacks far better than they were able to withstand Australian attacks? How could so many batting line-ups resist the West Indian attack in the third or fourth innings of Tests? What follows is an attempt to answer these questions. It is the story of the limits of pace like fire.

Fast bowling is the most difficult art in all of sport. It requires a rare combination of power, endurance, concentration and precision. Pace was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the dominance of bowlers like Holding. Control, accuracy, endurance and support at the other end were essential. Very few specialist batsmen can be scared out at the Test level, even by Holding or Dennis Lillee or Jeff Thomson (not even the 45-year-old Brian Close backed away to leg in 1976). Yes, there is an element of physical danger, but most batsmen have a method to cope. The challenge for the bowler lies in beating the batsman's method.

In a poll featuring one question - Which team had the better bowling attack: West Indies from 1976 to 1991 or Australia from 1999 to 2010? - the majority of respondents would probably vote for the former. Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie were quick and took 569 Test wickets between them. But compare them to Holding, Roberts, Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose or Courtney Walsh. Would any of these bowlers not replace Gillespie or Lee in an Australian XI in most eyes?

From this point, "West Indies" should be taken to mean West Indies under Lloyd or Richards from March 1976. "Australia" should be taken to mean Australia under Ponting or Waugh. I've excluded Lloyd's early years as captain, since the idea of the pace quartet took hold only in 1976. I have included Australia's record until the very end of Ponting's term for the sake of completeness, since all Tests Richards captained in are included as well. Also, I have set aside the six Tests where Adam Gilchrist led Australia, and Tests when West Indies were led by Alvin Kallicharran, Deryck Murray, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes.

Let's look at how these teams performed with the ball innings-wise.

Bowling figures by innings
Team Result type First innings Second innings
WI under Lloyd or Richards (1976-1991) All Avg: 27.19
SR: 55.8
Avg: 25.61
SR: 56.2
Aus under Ponting or Waugh (1999-2010) All Avg: 30.63
SR: 57.4
Avg: 27.46
SR: 53.1
WI under Lloyd or Richards (1976-1991) Draws Avg: 32.86
SR: 66.6
Avg: 37.68
SR: 85.3
Aus under Ponting or Waugh (1999-2010) Draws Avg: 42.41
SR: 74.9
Avg: 43.56
SR: 83.5

The first two rows tell us that West Indies and Australia took wickets at almost the same rate. Why then did West Indies win about half their Tests and Australia two-thirds of theirs? The last two rows give us a glimpse into one possible reason: the average first-innings total conceded by West Indies in draws was 329. Against Australia, teams had to score on average 424 in their first innings to have a chance of a draw.

Inclement weather may explain West Indies' larger share of draws to some extent, though it would be difficult to argue that they were exceptionally affected by rain. The nature of pitches played a part. West Indies drew six out of 14 Tests in Trinidad and five out of six in Guyana. They won 11 out of 12 in Barbados and seven out of ten in Jamaica. They never won at the Sydney Cricket Ground. But they always won in Brisbane and Perth.

It is true that on the whole there were more drawn Tests in the West Indian era than in the Australian era. Between March 1976 and September 1991, 46% of Tests not involving West Indies were drawn. The corresponding figure in the Australian era (excluding Tests involving Bangladesh or Zimbabwe) is 34%. Other factors could have also played a part in the larger number of West Indian draws. Bowlers in their era conceded 2.7 runs per over, compared to 3.1 runs an over in the Australian era. Also, West Indian over rates under Lloyd and Richards were so poor that it prompted administrators to introduce new regulations. (See sidebar)

With these caveats out of the way, let us see how long it took these teams to take 20 wickets in Tests that did not end in a draw. I have included both wins and losses here because at least one team managed to take 20 wickets in these matches. (Note: these numbers include run-outs).

Strike rate in Tests that ended in a win or loss
Team Result type Strike rate
WI under Lloyd or Richards (1976-1991) Win or loss
(72 out of 111 Tests)
(983 balls for 20 wkts)
Aus under Ponting or Waugh (1999-2010) Win or loss
(114 out of 134 Tests)
(1054 balls for 20 wkts)

If we take this as a guide, West Indies bowled more than 983 deliveries in 26 drawn Tests (out of 39). If we apply the same standard to Australia, we find that they bowled more than 983 deliveries in 13 drawn Tests (out of 20). West Indies held opponents to first-innings totals of 300 or less 77 times. They won 49 of these Tests, lost five, and were held to a draw 23 times. By comparison, the Australians in the Waugh-Ponting era held the opposition to a first-innings total of 300 or less 76 times. They won 62 Tests, were beaten seven times, and held to a draw seven times.

There is a pattern to many of the West Indian draws. Pakistan made 540 in Georgetown in 1977 after conceding a lead of 254. New Zealand made 386 for 5 in Wellington in 1987 after falling behind by 117. England made 391 for 7 after conceding a lead of 110 at Old Trafford in 1980. India made 469 for 7 after trailing by 219 at the Queen's Park Oval in 1983.

Pakistan batted out 129 overs at the Queen's Park Oval in 1988. England made 301 for 3 after conceding a lead of 203 at Trent Bridge in 1988. England declared at 302 for 6 after falling 157 behind at Sabina Park in 1981. Australia made 299 for 9 in 112 overs after trailing by 213 at the Queen's Park Oval in 1984; they would have lost if there weren't stoppages for rain earlier in the match, but in the end they survived 112.1 overs after being 115 for 5. This was Allan Border's Test. He made 98 not out and 100 not out.

I wonder what the Twitterverse would have made of this West Indian tendency of letting teams bat out overs in the second innings. I imagine there would have been tweets about Richards being a reactive captain with no tactical imagination.

Vicious when ahead: Australia's pace attack was adept at driving home the advantage of a first-innings lead

Vicious when ahead: Australia's pace attack was adept at driving home the advantage of a first-innings lead Hamish Blair / © Getty Images

West Indies were heavily dependent on first-innings leads to win Tests. Of the 82 matches when they had such leads, they won 56, lost three, and drew 23. In the 29 Tests when the opposition led on the first innings, West Indies won three and lost ten. The Australians, too, lost more than they won when they fell behind (won 11 and lost 16 out of 37) but they were perhaps more capable than the West Indians of winning from difficult situations. And they were lethal when they were ahead - in 96 matches where they had a lead, they built a 78-8 record. They drew only ten of those games.

Results based on first-innings totals
Team Wins Losses Draws
WI, Bowling first, Leading after first innings 32 2 13
Aus, Bowling first, Leading after first innings 36 2 3
WI, Bowling first, Trailing after first innings 3 6 9
Aus, Bowling first, Trailing after first innings 5 7 7
WI, Batting first, Leading after first innings 24 1 10
Aus, Batting first, Leading after first innings 42 6 7
WI, Batting first, Trailing after first innings 0 4 7
Aus, Batting first, Trailing after first innings 6 9 3

What did each side prefer to do at the toss? West Indies bowled first in 29 out of 55 Tests when they won the toss. Of the 26 Tests where they chose to bat, they won 11. It is reasonable to say that they decided to bat only in good conditions. Good batting conditions on the first day rarely develop into good fast bowling conditions on subsequent days. This was when they were least successful.

Four-pronged, one-dimensional: West Indies relied on one plan - to dominate early on fresh pitches with their fast men

Four-pronged, one-dimensional: West Indies relied on one plan - to dominate early on fresh pitches with their fast men © Getty Images

In contrast, Australia's success was more evenly spread. When the winner of the toss batted, Australia won 65 and lost 22 out of 102 Tests. In conditions where bowling first was favoured, Australia won 24 and lost three out of 32. When Glenn McGrath played, and Australia were asked to field, their fast bowlers' record was comparable to West Indies' (273 wickets at 27 with a strike rate of 56). In the years after McGrath their fast bowlers struggled, especially on the subcontinent.

Pace bowling figures based on decision at toss
Team, Toss W L D Wkts (Pace) Ave (Pace) SR (Pace)
WI, Won toss, Bat first
(26/111 Tests)
11 4 11 332 23.7 53
Aus, Won Toss, Bat first
(55/134 Tests)
36 14 5 626 27.8 57
WI, Win toss, Field first
(29/111 Tests)
18 2 9 488 23.9 52
Aus, Won toss, Field first
(13/134 Tests)
12 1 0 168 24.2 48
WI, Lost toss, Bat first
(20/111 Tests)
13 1 6 301 22.1 50
Aus, Lost toss, Bat first
(19/134 Tests)
12 2 5 235 24.5 52
WI, Lost toss, Field first
(36/111 Tests)
17 6 13 579 23.7 52
Aus, Lost toss, Field first
(47/134 Tests)
29 8 10 531 31.4 60

Australia showed a marked preference for batting first, doing so 55 times in 68 Tests when they won the toss. When they chose to field, they won 12 out of 13. The one time they lost, they chose to field despite losing McGrath just before the start of play, at Edgbaston in 2005. They lost by two runs.

All of this suggests that Australia could win Tests in different ways, with their fast bowlers, with their spinners in the fourth innings, and with the bat on flatter pitches. West Indies relied heavily on one plan: to dominate early with their fast men.

Crucially, Australia won at about the same rate irrespective of how many overs they had to bowl in a Test. They won 15 out of 32 Tests in which they bowled more than 200 overs. West Indies won seven out of 23.

In the 21 Tests in which West Indies were kept in the field for at least 100 overs in the second innings, they won eight, lost three and drew ten. Australia won 19, lost six and drew three times in 28 such Tests. This comparison, taken together with the fact that West Indies conceded fewer runs in the first innings in draws, suggests that the West Indian pace attack could be resisted, especially once the early assistance for fast bowlers was negated. Unlike the great West Indians, the great Australians could not be played to a standstill. They had to be beaten.

Australia won more also because they were a more versatile team compared to West Indies. Shane Warne was the obvious lynchpin, but their batting helped them recover from a number of sticky situations. They conceded first-innings leads of 91 and 161 to Sri Lanka in 2004 and won both Tests. They conceded 532 against India in Sydney in 2008 and won. They won after England declared at 551 for 6 in Adelaide in 2006. They conceded a lead of 206 to Pakistan in Sydney in 2010 and won. They chased 300 or more successfully three times under Ponting or Waugh.

Why were opposition batsmen able to withstand the West Indian attacks far better than they did the Australians?

Why were opposition batsmen able to withstand the West Indian attacks far better than they did the Australians? © Getty Images

The seven matches that Australia lost after batting first and not trailing in the first innings produced some unforgettable performances from the opposition. There were two 400-plus run chases (from West Indies and South Africa), Brian Lara's match in Barbados in 1999, Rahul Dravid's match in Adelaide in 2003, and a Test in Durban in 2002 where South Africa chased 340. Interestingly, seven of Australia's nine defeats after leading in the first innings, whether batting first or second, came when they were at their peak, between 1999 and 2004.

As Holding tells us, West Indies lost two series out of 36 from 1976 to 1995. But also consider this: McGrath and Warne played together in 37 series from 1993 to 2007. When they were in the XI, Australia lost three series - in Pakistan in 1994, in Sri Lanka in 1999, and in India in 2001. (When they lost the Ashes in 2005, England won the two Tests that McGrath didn't play.)

In their undefeated 15 years, the West Indians won 59 and lost 15 out of 115 Tests. In the Tests that Warne and McGrath played together, the Australians won 71 and lost 16 out of 104 Tests. Warne and McGrath took 1271 wickets at 23.74. Marshall, Garner, Holding, Roberts and Ian Bishop combined for 1247 wickets at 22.68. Gillespie, who won't make many all-time great lists, took 259 wickets at a strike rate of 54.9 and an average of 26.1. That's as many wickets as Garner at Roberts' strike rate and average.

A series between the best of the West Indies and the best of the Australians from the Lloyd-Richards and Waugh-Ponting eras would probably pit the following XIs against each other:

Australia: Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Steve Waugh, Michael Hussey, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Glenn McGrath.

West Indies: Gordon Greenidge, Roy Fredericks, Viv Richards, Richie Richardson, Alvin Kallicharran, Clive Lloyd, Jeffrey Dujon, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts.

The Australians have the deeper batting. Mark Waugh and Michael Clarke miss out. West Indies have more fast bowling options. Ambrose and Croft miss out, but perhaps more significantly, the wily Walsh misses out too.

If I had to choose between the best West Indian pace quartet, and an Australian line-up of Warne, McGrath, Gillespie and Lee at their peak, I would pick the latter without hesitation. They would be a threat in a wider range of conditions, for longer periods of time, with the new ball and old. Lee and Gillespie at their peak would provide Australia's attack with serious pace. And I suspect McGrath's accuracy and deceptive pace, and Warne's guile would outlast pace like fire.

*Australia's figures in the box item titled "Result percentages based on number of overs bowled" were corrected shortly after publication, on December 3, 2014

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here