Better flying past you than at you: Allan Lamb watches a ball from Jeff Thomson zoom to the keeper in Melbourne, 1982-83

Better flying past you than at you: Allan Lamb watches a ball from Jeff Thomson zoom to the keeper in Melbourne, 1982-83

Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

The Greats I've Known

Fast times with Jeff Thomson

Even when he wasn't at his peak, Thommo made you wish you were at the other end of the pitch

Mark Nicholas  |  

The ball from Jeff Thomson that hit me in the nuts was a full toss. I did not pick up the one from Gladstone Small that broke my cheekbone. Sylvester Clarke bust my right index finger with a good-length delivery that spat at my hand like fat from a frying pan. Allan Donald hit my shoulder so full on and with such force that my body gave way and I collapsed to my knees. I tried taking a ball from Courtney Walsh on the chest, very Brian Close, but it took the wind and guts out of me. Javagal Srinath hit my helmet and the ball ricocheted one bounce all the way to long leg, who, reasonably enough, assumed I had hit it and threw himself forward for the catch. Waqar Younis smashed up my left hand with a ball so fast I barely knew he had let go of it. Wasim Akram broke my toe with a spearing yorker that went on to shatter the stumps. I hit the deck after that one too and people thought it was very funny. Having had a laugh and then shown some sympathy, Wasim told me I was out. These are the ones who caused the most damage. There were more.

Imran Khan and Garth Le Roux at Hove, when I was slip of a lad with the old college thigh pad but no helmet; Dennis Lillee and Andy Roberts, anytime; Joel Garner with his knees up; Greg Thomas, whose story of telling Viv Richards what the ball looked like must be too good to be true but who cares; Rodney Hogg and Lenny Pascoe; Colin Croft and Ian Bishop, oh lord... and, of course, Malcolm Marshall, who bowled at me in a match just once, which was all he needed.

These were wonderful and very fast bowlers. It is the most difficult thing, to run in and with a straight arm deliver a five-and-a-half ounce, stitched-and-seamed ball accurately at a target more than 20 yards away at a searing speed. The strain on back, hips, knees and ankles knows no boundary; never mind shoulders and shins, groins and calves, heels and toes. It's a miracle that any of the fast men make it past go.

The fastest of them all was "Thommo" or "Two Up" (you'll work it out). Jeffrey Robert Thomson, of whom tales are still told long into the night. The best of them is by David Lloyd - it's the one about the pink Litesome box, or abdominal protector, becoming inverted after a direct strike. The ball and the crumbling Lloyd are on YouTube somewhere. If not, the story is. A must-watch.

Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Geoff Lawson jog around the MCG with kids following them around

Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Geoff Lawson jog around the MCG with kids following them around Alan Gilbert Purcell / © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

It was in that 1974-75 series that Thommo made his name. Legend has it that when the news clips came on television, county batsmen hid behind their sofas. The reason for this was that highlights tend to show the very worst of the situation, not that there was a very best as far as the English were concerned. As an example, Keith Fletcher was hit on the badge of his cap, having ducked frighteningly late into a Thomson bouncer. The ball went from Fletcher's head straight to Ross Edwards at cover point, who claimed the catch. Fletcher would doubtless have gone happily but the umpire gave him not out.

(When Imran and Le Roux bowled so quick at Hove in 1980, the Hampshire dressing room had a nervous laugh about shouting "catch it" when we nicked it to the keeper.)

It all began during the first Test, in Brisbane, when Tony Greig repeatedly bounced Lillee and eventually floored him. Lillee didn't have a face like thunder; he had a face like the apocalypse, noted the Guardian. Thomson said, "Man, it was like war out there... and we gave it to 'em." From those moments on, the legend was born. It wasn't just England that suffered. The pair of them blew away West Indies the following Australian summer. Clive Lloyd has always said that Thomson was comfortably the fastest he faced; Sunil Gavaskar too. And Michael Holding is typically unequivocal about Thommo's place at the top of the speed list.

Lillee had the most marvellous action and gave you the feeling he could get you out at any time he chose. Thomson bounced in on his toes and gave the impression of firing a slingshot. The first problem was picking up the ball, because upon reaching the crease, his right arm and hand disappeared to somewhere near the ground, like a javelin thrower, and was hidden behind his legs. The second problem was the speed at which it travelled. Here is John Benaud, Richie's brother, on facing him for the first time in a Sydney grade match.

"So Thommo begins - the high-stepping gait of a thoroughbred, bowling hand bobbing at waist level and the ball visible. It is conventional and comforting because facing a strange bowler for the first time invariably generates edginess. Then, in the split second before delivery, at gather, Thommo drags one leg behind the other in a sort of Swan Lake crossover, sways back and hides the ball behind his right knee - unconventional and very unsettling."

Desmond Haynes, trapped lbw to Jeff Thomson, for 15, Sydney, 1981-82

Desmond Haynes, trapped lbw to Jeff Thomson, for 15, Sydney, 1981-82 Alan Gilbert Purcell / © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

It was unsettling, all right. Imagine being a club cricketer arriving at the local field after a skinful on Friday night to see Thommo loosening up. Worse, at Bankstown CC he shared the new ball with Pascoe. I've talked about those Saturday mornings with a few who went through them and we have agreed that it was best when Thommo had had a skinful too - so that was more often than not. When he hadn't, oh my days of fear, the heart pumped hard and fast as blood coursed through veins at a speed that would have alarmed the coolest of cardiovascular consultants. It's not myth, this stuff, it's real.

The first time us Hampshire lads saw Thommo was that summer of 1980, when the Australians warmed up in Southampton for the Centenary Test. They pretty much all made runs, though not Graeme Wood or Kim Hughes, oddly enough, and the seam attack was Lillee, Thomson and Pascoe. It sounds incredible now that we were actually there, like being extras in a movie with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, I suppose. Lillee had me caught at slip for 0 first up, and in the second dig, Thomson had me caught at the wicket for 7. God knows where the seven came from. Both balls bounced chest high around off stump from not especially short and I remember them like it was yesterday. It takes time to learn to play that stuff, if you ever do. Ashes to Ashes / Dust to dust / If Lillee don't get ya / Thommo must. We lost by ten wickets but they were better than twice as good as us.

Two Up was back in England a year later for Middlesex, and weird as it may seem, that excited us. It's part that you want to know for yourself what it feels and smells like; part that you want to be tested against the best; part that it adds glamour to the game in which you have become so immersed and part that no one can ever take such an experience away from you. We came across him twice that summer and both games resulted in stories briefly worth telling. Remember, he was five years past his electric best by then and had been through shoulder surgery after an on-field collision with Alan Turner. They said he was never as quick again.

He took 7 for 22 in our Benson and Hedges round-robin match at Lord's. This Middlesex attack was Thomson, Wayne Daniel, Mike Selvey and John Emburey, not bad huh, and Thommo shone brighter even than the "Diamond", as Daniel was nicknamed. It was a tricky pitch on which we bowled out their galactica for next to nothing only to find ourselves ducking, weaving and fending for our lives. David Turner, the little Wiltshire-born battler, made 69 out of the 176 we needed to win and was given the Man-of the-Match award by Alec Bedser, the chairman of selectors, who was damned if he was giving it to an Aussie.

How not to do it: Bernard Julien tries to fend off a Thomson delivery, 1975-76

How not to do it: Bernard Julien tries to fend off a Thomson delivery, 1975-76 Alan Gilbert Purcell / © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Opponents commonly say that the ball was delivered as if it came from a catapult and was thrilling to face, like one of those insane rides in an amusement park where people scream their mixed emotions. Later that same summer he came down the hill at Basingstoke and hit me in the groin with a full toss. Strewth, he was quick. I lay writhing just 20 yards from the very spot where Akram was to shatter my toe some years later. Mike Brearley looked down at me and said, "It's very apparent your mother was an actress. Now, if you're okay, would you mind if we got on with the game?" Bastard. A month later, Brearley was back as captain of England and winning the Ashes. Genius. Five minutes later, I was stretchered off.

Thommo is a terrific bloke, modest and warm. He was generally matter of fact about his pace back then. "I just roll up and go whang," he said famously. Of course, if you wound him up in the way Greigy did, you heard the "blood on the pitch" stuff too. What he doesn't like nowadays is being underestimated. He insists the speed tests of the day were nonsense, pointing out that the technology registered the speed when it reached the batsman, not when it left the bowler's hand, as it does today. He reckons he bowled 160kph most of the time and quicker than that often enough for it to linger in batting minds. As with Harold Larwood, the vision you see on YouTube gives a pretty good idea of both his pace and shocking bounce from back of a length, but watch the film of Holding bowling at Geoff Boycott in Barbados and you are misled because it is shot at an angle high above wide mid-on that forshortens the picture and implies that Jeff Dujon and the slip cordon alongside him were considerably closer than they actually were. Ask Duje.

On the other side of the coin, I made a few for MCC against the 1985 Australians, having come within a hair's breadth of being caught in the gully off Thommo's first ball. I had gone in after Graham Gooch was knocked over by him twice in two balls - first bowled off a no-ball and then legitimately. It's a long walk from the home dressing room to the middle at Lord's and during it I passed the best player in England, whose hangdog expression did little to settle my nerves. First ball, I fended at a bouncer and watched it loop a centimetre or so over Kepler Wessels' outstretched fingers. Second ball smashed into my gloves, trapping right forefinger and middle finger against the handle, which hurts. I played some shots against the others after that - Geoff Lawson, Simon O'Donnell and the slow left-armer, Murray Bennett. On reflection, when I say "others", I mean I got stuck into Bennett. Thommo was a strange choice for that tour, almost ten years past his fastest and five past his best.

So what to do against the likes of him? Well, start by staying very still. Allan Border dipped his head in his stance just before the bowler released the ball, but that head was still when the ball began its journey. You need courage and you need to stay smart. You will get out, everyone does eventually, so worrying about the loss of your wicket is wasted energy. Ian Chappell advises to watch the ball from the hand in the bowler's approach and follow it like a hawk until it reaches you. He does so because he knows that too many of us just watch a space. Use your trigger movements, that's fine, but be as near to off stump as it suits your game when the ball is delivered. In other words, leave yourself as little to do as possible. There is no time, so reduce the odds against yourself by being secure and ready.

The menace was left on the field. Off it, Thomson was modest and warm

The menace was left on the field. Off it, Thomson was modest and warm Keith Edward Byron / © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

In these two-fifths of a second, you are not processing ideas and coming to conclusions. You are simply reacting. Your brain already has preconceptions and responses. Let instinct work with those. Limit options and crystallise error. Decide, for example, if you'd prefer to duck or sway from the short ball; to stand and defend or to ride the bounce; to hook or to upper-cut. Have the answers as your default position. Keep your grip on the bat soft and defend very straight, back down the pitch, but allowing the pace of the ball to create angles and deflections off the blade. You will get ones and twos, even occasional boundaries, simply by timing these defensive actions. Be on the balls of your feet so you can move late and be quick in response to everything thrown at you, good and bad. Look to score off the bad, for such a mindset sets you up best to defend anyway.

If you get this preparation and set-up wrong, you will hear the sound and feel the sting of ball on flesh. Or you will recoil from the impact of ball on helmet; or manage the pain of your compressed thumb against the handle; or sense the break of bone; or see your middle stump flying out of the ground.

Now go to YouTube and do some Thommo time.

And finally...

During the World Cup in 2003, I spent a lot of time commentating and travelling with Thommo. He loves a drink, and an oyster, and it was with that exact bribe that I got him on the park for a quite memorable five-over new-ball burst. A friend of mine with a private ground in Cape Town, David McCay, insisted that I invite the fastest bowler in history for a game. I said, you're kidding - he's got knackered knees, a dodgy shoulder and hasn't played in years. McCay suggested alcohol and oysters as the bribe. So I told Thommo he could sit on the stoop of the restaurant, which was alongside the ground, eat all the oysters he could stomach and drink all the wine he could find if he appeared on the team sheet and bowled five with the new nut. Bingo.

We sat down for lunch soon after midday. At half-past one, our team won the toss and chose to bowl. Thommo, who had cleaned up a couple dozen of Namibia's best and nailed a few Castle lagers, now changed into whites and bowled the first ball at 2 o'clock on a perfect Saturday afternoon.

It was something to behold. Jeff Thomson on this gorgeous little cricket ground, shuffling to the crease before contorting his seemingly elastic body into a sideways-on, catapult action that for a few unforgettable years in the mid-seventies delivered the ball at 100mph. On that day at Uitsig in 2003, I can vouch that he was fast enough too. An innocent left-hand opening batsman edged to me at second slip, where I caught the damn thing at shoulder height away to my left. Christ, I caught one off Thommo. Unlucky batsman, or perhaps not, for he might just as well have shouted "catch it", so delighted was he to be forged in history as another victim for JR Thomson. The fellow had the scorecard framed and it hangs in his pub to this day.

Thommo picked up another wicket, I think, bowled a couple of shit balls and said so, loudly, before retiring to the stoop at the restaurant and continuing the lunch he had started soon after midday. Now that might have been the end of the story had we not made a Horlicks of the run chase. Just as that extraordinarily golden evening light began to wrap its arms around Constantia, Thommo had to pad up. This was tricky given the six hours on the stoop. Choice language accompanied the exercise, though not quite so choice as the echo of "You f**king ripper" when our No. 10 edged one past the keeper for the winning runs. This elation, coupled with obvious relief, motivated Thommo to anoint McCay "a beaut of a bloke" and suggest that the two of them now really got stuck in.

Memories are made of men like him.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator

 

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