Tony Greig fends off a ball from Jeff Thomson

Thommo v Greig in Melbourne, in the 1974-75 series

© Patrick Eagar/Getty Images

The Jury's Out

The greatest ball

Four fast bowlers, one spinner; two deadly yorkers, a bullet, an arm ball, and magic from Waz

Jeff Thomson to Tony Greig
Brisbane, 1974

By Mark Nicholas

Rather than go for the greatest delivery, I am going for the one that made the most impact on a young fan. These things are entirely subjective, though Shane Warne had a good crack at contradicting the point. Any amount of his wizardry is enough to make an argument for both a gift and a performance that seemed supernatural. Warne to Gatting, Warne to Strauss (twice), Warne to Chanderpaul, and so on.

Others that captivated me were Dennis Lillee to Viv Richards in a famous one-day match between Western Australia and Queensland in Perth; Malcolm Marshall to Mark Waugh in a one-day match in Southampton; Michael Vaughan to Sachin Tendulkar (the perfect offbreak) at Trent Bridge; Andrew Flintoff to Ricky Ponting at Edgbaston in 2005; Mitchell Johnson to Faf du Plessis at Centurion little more than a year ago. These were all deliveries that shocked, surprised and thrilled in close to equal measure.

But for those of us of a certain age, no cricket series quite caught our attention like the one between Australia and England in 1974-75. Madly, England had travelled without their two best players, Geoffrey Boycott and John Snow. Australia had Dennis Lillee fit again after back trouble and a fellow not much thought of at the time, Jeffrey Robert Thomson. "Thommo" or "Two-up" - call him what you will - used his unusual, catapult-like action to bowl at the speed of light, or so it seemed. He was erratic, aggressive and loved to see blood.

England were a colourless lot, meek of spirit and quiet of intent. The only man on whom a youngster could hang his hat was Tony Greig, the South African, who at least looked up for the fight. This is not to say that David Lloyd, John Edrich, Alan Knott and others did not fight, just that Greig boldly carried them.

At the Gabba in the first Test, he made a magnificent first-innings hundred, winding up Lillee and taking on Thomson as if he were born from the combined stock of Sir Lancelot and Henry V. The pitch was fast but uneven. It took the Chappells to make runs for Australia and Greig to bowl bouncers at them, saying you're in a contest here boys. He bounced Lillee too and Lillee told him to remember who had started it.

I watched in awe as Thomson made the ball fly from the hard pitch and Rodney Marsh took off to catch it. Marsh and the slip fielders appeared to be miles back, near 30 paces at a guess

In the second innings, after Ian Chappell set England 333 to win, Thomson cranked it up. Watching in his duties as a pressman, the mighty Keith Miller announced he was terrified from 100 yards away. In England we had news clips, in grainy colour, and legend has it that county cricketers hid behind their sofas.

I watched in awe as Thomson made the ball fly from the hard pitch and Rodney Marsh took off to catch it. Marsh and the slip fielders appeared to be miles back, near 30 paces at a guess. There were no helmets or chest guards, just flimsy thigh pads, basic gloves and pink, plastic abdominal protectors. Men were battered, bruised, bloodied and broken.

Only Greig could save England.

But not even Greig could save England.

He had made just 2 when Thommo yorked him with, as Richie Benaud might have said, the perfect sandshoe crusher. This ball was so fast and so perfect and so breathtaking that it was heard around the world. Even now, watching on YouTube, the magnificence of its flight, speed and effect takes your breath away.

From it - from Thomson and Lillee in that series, which Australia won at a canter - the game changed forever. The level of intimidation and the impact of the brutality is one of cricket's most riveting stories. Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust…

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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Wasim Akram to Rahul Dravid
Chennai, 1999

By Rahul Bhattacharya

To write this piece I decided on a foolhardy course. I would not look up the video, scorecard or any writing about the match, trusting fellow editors to rectify heinous errors and Marquez that the important thing is "what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it".

Some facts I am sure of. It was 1999, it was January (possibly February), it was around the time of Vajpayee and Sharif's ill-fated romance, and it was the first Test series between India and Pakistan in ten years. In Mumbai there would have been the usual Sena-type vandalism and in Chennai, venue of the first Test, a report said that a pig's head was placed somewhere provocative. So let's acknowledge that the context in which a Pakistani bowls a ball in India is more loaded than when, with reference to nobody in particular, an Australian bowls his first ball in a Test in England.

Left-arm poetry: it's what you use to breach walls

Left-arm poetry: it's what you use to breach walls © Getty Images

During the day we watched on television, through the evenings we discussed it on the telephone, at night we dreamt about it, and early on the fourth morning we gathered, a friend and I, at a third friend's house. That friend may be familiar to Indian readers as the actor Kunaal Roy Kapur, a joyously committed cricket lover who would join the college nets on the greyest mornings or filthiest afternoons and bowl high, hearty googlies, some of them possibly still circling over Azad Maidan. That morning he introduced us to the wonders of kaali dal-on-fried-egg-on-toast. This unexpected preparation somewhat calmed our tension. India were almost certainly chasing 271. Maybe 272.

Wasim Akram's delivery to Rahul Dravid must have arrived a little after (or a little before) lunch and it would have been the second half of the over. The ball was ripened in the Chennai humidity, Sunny Gavaskar embarked on a spree of Vaseline-tampering accusations on commentary at some stage of the afternoon; Wasim remained peerlessly Wasim. He swung them in, late, sharp, on that wretched full-of-good length. At least one of those deliveries, maybe one, maybe two, before the greatest ball in cricket, rapped Dravid on the pad in a way that was, as the saying goes, missing leg and missing off. If Imran Khan had been captain, he would have installed and institutionalised DRS mid-over.

Wasim was the captain. In those days, before the spectacles and perma-smile, Wasim had a '70s Bachchan thing about him, smouldering with heroic intensity, with a hint of Gulshan Grover thrown in for bad intentions. His eyes would have burned with indignity, he would have briefly taken the teapot stance, then slowly walked back, glancing perhaps at the pitch and shooting daggers at the umpire, considered yelling at an out-of-position Pakistani or two on the way, contemplated a bowling change at the other end, and decided to rectify the entire huge injustice of the bowling business with a single delivery, as he had done a thousand times before from Lahore tape-ball to World Cup final.

In those days, before the spectacles and perma-smile, Wasim had a '70s Bachchan thing about him, smouldering with heroic intensity, with a hint of Gulshan Grover thrown in for bad intentions

As the hustling, shuffling run-up, led by the nose, the masking hand, the cunning wrist, gathered once more towards its left-arm-over-the-wicket spot, did the maestro tell himself, let me now bowl the best ball it is possible to ever bowl in cricket? One that will start by swinging in like my previous ones, suggest that it may veer down leg side, and just when this young exemplar of defensive batsmanship before me has activated the Deep Blue in his brain and run it once, twice, thrice over to conclude "Safe Ball!", mmm, kyon na main tabhi last moment pe make it change direction to swing the other way, a width of maybe eight inches, to make a figure of 8, short-circuit his processor, baffle his prod, and plant a kissing, hissing sting to the top-most, tip-most outer bail? Is that what I should do just about now, as this extraordinary Test match lies on an excruciating edge before a rapt full house and two riveted populations comprising a fifth of humanity, some of them resorting to kaali dal-on-fried-egg-on-toast?

Well, why not.

Exhausting hours later, after the splendour and tragedy of Sachin's greatest innings, the Test was over. Wasim's team took a lap around the ground to a beautiful standing applause, a lap not of victory but mutual respect. The truly great Test match is a cultural milestone, the realisation of something essential in its participants and watchers. The S-shaped red ribbon to Dravid's bail was an expression of staggering magic and scientific precision that was neither fragile peace nor war by other means; it was its own poetry and it is ours to bestow meaning upon it.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket book Pundits from Pakistan and the novel The Sly Company of People Who Care

****

Michael Holding to Geoffrey Boycott
Bridgetown, 1981

By Patrick Eagar

The greatest delivery? That's easy. Shane Warne bowling Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993. Not many people know this, but when I was young I used to bowl demon legspin. I took 55 wickets in schools cricket in the summer of 1956, including an 8 for 4. So I identify with all legspinners, and more so with the greatest proponent of the art. But it was such a remarkable ball that I think it is too obvious a choice.

Speed is the ultimate weapon. Everyone wants to see stumps being ripped out of the ground, and that is something leggies don't do. There is one ball I will never forget. It was bowled in 1981 at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados. The ground was fringed with palm trees that swayed in the tropical breeze and the stands were topped with old corrugated iron roofs. Those who arrived early got seats in the shade on hard wooden benches. Those who were late climbed onto the sunny iron roofs.

Blink and you miss it: Boycs' reflexes were not strong enough to get bat behind bullet

Blink and you miss it: Boycs' reflexes were not strong enough to get bat behind bullet © Patrick Eagar

West Indies were dismissed on the second day for 265. Graham Gooch and Geoffrey Boycott opened for England, Gooch facing the first over from Andy Roberts. Roberts twice found the edge of Gooch's bat. I was positioned at midwicket and I realised my cameras were set up in the wrong place for wickets, and that I should think of moving at the next interval.

Michael Holding's first ball to Boycott was spectacularly fast - hitting him on the gloves and dropping just short of the slips - and I knew there was no chance of capturing a series of brilliant batting shots. I set aside the longest lens and fitted my camera with something shorter to include Desmond Haynes at short leg, at least one of the four slips, and some of the crowd assembled on the rooftop opposite me. That way, if a wicket fell, I would at least be covered for a couple of the possibilities.

The second ball seemed to be even faster; Boycott clearly saw nothing as it whizzed past his off stump and I felt the wicketkeeper David Murray and the slips had edged backwards. After three more deliveries, each appearing faster than the previous, I realised I was watching something very special and very, very fast. The crowd spurred Holding on with wild cheers as each delivery swept past Boycott's bat.

Boycott's off stump disappeared out of my camera's view in less than a blink. The stump was later recovered 20 yards away, while one of the bails was eventually found not far from the boundary

I felt all the more urgently that I was sitting in the wrong place. But I did not get a chance to shift my spot. The final ball of the over was so quick that Boycott's off stump disappeared out of my camera's view in less than a blink, certainly before Geoffrey was able to attempt a stroke. The stump was later recovered 20 yards away, while one of the bails was eventually found not far from the boundary. The crowd on the rooftop started to dance, which did wonders for my photographs.

I have seen other superfast bowlers, notably Jeff Thomson, who, when bowling against England in 1974-75, was able to get the ball to lift alarmingly off a length. Shoaib Akhtar was just very quick. The delivery that blasted out Boycott was, without doubt, the fastest ball I ever photographed, and if watching stumps fly is your scene, it must surely rank as the greatest delivery.

Patrick Eagar is cricket's pre-eminent photographer and has covered the game for over 40 years

****

Waqar Younis to Brian Lara
Rawalpindi, 1997

By Fazeer Mohammed

This was the sort of billing typical of the garish razzmatazz of professional wrestling: "The Prince of Port-of-Spain meets the Sultan of Swing."

Unlike that laughable made-for-the-gullible charade, though, Brian Lara versus Waqar Younis was serious cricketing business, especially with the West Indies team, already thrashed by an innings in the first encounter in Peshawar, relying on their champion batsman to pull them out of a hole on the first morning of the second Test in Rawalpindi in November 1997.

There's a word for when you lose your stumps and your footing: Waqared

There's a word for when you lose your stumps and your footing: Waqared © Getty Images

Chastened by a double failure in the opening fixture and amid speculation over his level of commitment after being overlooked for the captaincy (veteran fast bowler Courtney Walsh was retained despite heavy official and unofficial lobbying in Lara's native Trinidad & Tobago), Lara looked to be in the mood to dominate.

Waqar, inexplicably omitted from the series opener, already had the scent of blood in his nostrils as he bustled in from the top of that distinctive long run-up, after removing Stuart Williams cheaply.

An inswinger just short of a good length was pushed defensively to mid-on before Lara unfurled two majestic cover drives that sped to the boundary and left Waqar looking more than a little perturbed and discussing tactics and field placings with his captain, Wasim Akram. Sensing a bit of vulnerability in his rival, Lara launched himself at the next ball, looking for a third four in a row to emphasise his dominance. But his eagerness caused him to lose his shape, dragging the full-length delivery angled across him through mid-off for a couple.

Even if he was not at his wit's end to curb his opponent, Waqar needed to do something really special to redress the balance in what was becoming a one-sided skirmish. And he did, concocting the perfect blend of fearsome pace and lethal late inswing to have the pre-eminent West Indian batsman of his time not just comprehensively beaten and bowled but literally knocked off his feet by a delivery that redefined the adjective "unplayable".

It left him so unbalanced, a rarity for such an elegant player, that he fell forward and remained on all fours as the timber took flight behind him

Whether or not it was all part of Waqar's master plan - feeding a succession of half-volleys in Lara's favoured area before unleashing the yorker - the batsman certainly wasn't expecting it. His flourishing high backlift threatened another silky drive and rendered him powerless to abort in mid flow as the ball, which initially seemed set to follow the appetising trajectory of the previous three, curled back in alarmingly like a heat-seeking missile locked on to the leg stump.

Left with a mere millisecond to save himself, Lara tried to get his feet out of the way, to somehow get the bat in the path of the searing projectile in a desperate attempt to preserve his wicket and dignity. It left him so unbalanced, a rarity for such an elegant player, that he fell forward and remained on all fours as the timber took flight behind him.

In that brief moment, as he remained bowed and beaten while Waqar celebrated with his delighted team-mates, it appeared as if Lara was reassessing the situation before conceding there was nothing, absolutely nothing, he could have done any differently to deny his worthy foe.

Some moments have atmosphere to complement the incisive strike: Michael Holding to Geoffrey Boycott in fierce midday heat at a ram-crammed Kensington Oval in 1981 or Shane Warne's first delivery of an Ashes Test to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993 come immediately to mind. But on a cold, grey morning in Rawalpindi, with just a few hundred spectators braving the elements, Waqar Younis produced his best to conquer the best with the sort of strike that is sustained in the memory long after so much else of this quirky game is forgotten.

Fazeer Mohammed is a Trinidad-based broadcaster and journalist who has been covering West Indies cricket for 25 years

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Murray Bennett to Viv Richards
Sydney, 1985

By Christian Ryan

"Pressure," said Viv Richards at the presser after a 208 he hit, another blast by the master, more carats to his necklace, "what's that, man? Pressure gives you headache. I hate headaches."

But ten days after that he was batting in Sydney, gum in mouth, and to the Australian fielders stealing glances it looked like his teeth had stopped chewing.

It's not every day you get the better of Viv Richards

It's not every day you get the better of Viv Richards © PA Photos

Murray Bennett, one of the bowlers, learned most of his bowling several suburbs southwest of Sydney Cricket Ground. Hurstville Oval's pitch was unpromising straw for spinners. But who ever hoped like a left-arm orthodox slow bowler? Bennett focused on variety. Of flight, of pace. Until - straw turns electric. He made himself absolutely reliable. Balls went where and how Bennett intended, and he seldom repeated the same one consecutively. The ball mightn't be a ball that was in any way special. All those weekday evenings in the nets - first there nearly, last gone. The all-day Saturdays. He did not toil them away in vain longing of some magic-striped ball that pitches outside leg and clips the off bail's right edge. In photos you see him in the T-shirt or cap or both of the sponsor, Tooheys beer. Team-mates as disparate as Boonie, Whit and Mo Matthews joyed in his company. Smiley, self-effacing. He bowled in cola-tinted prescription glasses. His run-up was an amble-up, no tricks, or superfluous tics. In his bowling action was him. The left hand was high at the point of release, his back arched in the aftermath, body hunched over a little, poised to monitor whatever ensues - usually nothing off the wall.

Viv was star bat and vice-captain of a West Indian team grown legendary thanks to violent fast bowling. But this SCG track spun - sharp; the Windies batsmen appeared blinded; they flailed and heaved, gormless; unanticipated embarrassment loomed. The follow-on had been enforced. Fourth afternoon, four wickets down. Now though the fightback was on and Viv's teeth had resumed mashing his chewie.

Fourteen was Bennett's age when he took up left-arm orthodox spin, and in his 14th year at the craft he reached the Test team. He only ever bowled for love of bowling. A Test match was in no one's script. When it happened he went wicketless and saw three catches dropped off his bowling. Two were easy catches: chest-high, ballooning. That was about a fortnight ago. He retained his spot. So, two Tests, neither of them predestined, both coinciding with an uncomfortable patch for Bennett personally. Bowling by day, he was troubled and restless at night; he'd signed on for a sanctions-flouting rebel tour of apartheid-time South Africa. For the money. Which wasn't Murray. When he pulled out they posted him the sign-on cheque next day and he tried to send it back but they said not yet so it was sitting, uncashed, on the sideboard at home.

He bowled Viv an arm ball, Viv didn't pick it, keeper Steve Rixon said wait four overs then bowl him another one, Bennett really was such a great listener

There was sleeplessness. He bowled Viv an arm ball, Viv didn't pick it, keeper Steve Rixon said wait four overs then bowl him another one, Bennett really was such a great listener.

The ball caught the mid-afternoon breeze. This ball stopped. Sort of hovered, dangled, about-faced; it landed - maybe, mused Bennett, it hit a blade of green grass - a half-foot wide of Viv's off stump and plucked middle stump out of its socket before Viv could jam down his bat. Viv glared back briefly. Bennett was already gone. Off on a mad semi-circle, running headlong to nowhere, like a car-crash victim who steps out of the burning vehicle alive but has lost all moorings and bearings - was how Bennett experienced it.

Evidently the previous arm ball had slipped Viv's mind. Arm ball. Hopeless under-description.

Bill O'Reilly in the press box 11 months earlier had seen and admired something like it and christened it Bennett's "cartwheel inswinger". Something like it. The ball that bowled Viv was not one for replicating, by Bennett no, nor, plausibly, anyone.

"Nice to do it once in your life," he said afterwards. The ball that he bowled was why people play. The quest. And Bennett had actually done it. Lived it. And played one more Test after it and disappeared from the first-class scene within three years. How? But how could it be else? Wisest, safest, simply to stop, now that it's gone, seal it in memory's imperfect cement. Gone and still here.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy, Australia: Story of a Cricket Country and Rock Country

 

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