When Jeff Thomson drove fear into West Indies
Australia toured the West Indies in 1977-1978 with a team depleted by the implications of the Packer affair, whereby businessman Kerry Packer established a new franchise, World Series Cricket, to compete with the International Cricket Council.
The West Indies, the best team in the world at the time, would itself become a depleted force by the third Test. The selectors had chosen to drop Deryck Murray and newcomers Desmond Haynes and Richard Austin in what was clearly retaliation for aligning themselves with the Packer enterprise. Clive Lloyd, and much of the rest of the team withdrew, forcing the hosts to field a second-string side under the captaincy of Alvin Kallicharran.
The West Indies won the first two Tests. The first in Port of Spain by an innings and 106 runs and the second in Bridgetown by nine wickets. Both were easy victories. There were a few periods of play, however, that let the home team know they were still in a contest. The best example of this came in the post-tea session of the first day of the Barbados Test when the highly regarded West Indies batters had to contend with a rampaging Jeff Thomson.
Thomson’s confrontation with Vivian Richards was a battle for the ages. The great man was fortunate to have been dropped at long leg before he had scored, trying to hook a Thomson bouncer. Grateful for the let off, he responded by hitting Thomson clean out of the ground over square leg, and then proceeded to race to 23 in as many minutes with three fours and a six. Attempting another hook off another bouncer, Richards offered another catch to the long leg fielder, who this time accepted.
By this time a climbing delivery had already accounted for Gordon Greenidge, caught off the glove. Kallicharran was caught at short leg off the final ball of the day, another short ball from Thomson, and the West Indies went to bed with the score at 71/3, all three to Thomson. The speedster went on to capture 6/77 by the time the innings folded. “People were able to see,” remarked Lloyd in Living For Cricket, “what we had to contend with in Australia.”
Lloyd was, of course, referring to the ill-fated 1975-1976 tour. Thomson was quicker and more brutal than anything they’d ever faced and he, in tandem with the great Dennis Lillee, subjected all of them to the most torrid times they’d experienced at the crease.
In Adelaide, after failing to successfully negotiate a particularly vicious ball from Thomson, which spat at him like a cobra, Lawrence Rowe returned to the pavilion, and shaking his head, informed his comrades that “not even God could play that”.
This story was indicative of the misery that surrounded a side bruised and battered by frightening pace and hostility. The story, however, may have been apocryphal, like many good tales are, for when I asked the batting stylist for verification he said that though he might well have said those words, he can’t quite remember doing so. He went on to say, however, “Many things were said during that series.”
In Living For Cricket, Captain Clive Lloyd mentioned not only the threat Australia’s pace posed to their occupation of the crease but also the peril posed to their well-being. “I got struck on the jaw by Lillee in Perth and by Thomson in Sydneyâ€¦Julien’s thumb was broken, Kallicharran’s nose was cracked by Lillee in Perth and, if no one else received any actual broken bones, everyone at some stage did feel the pain of a cricket ball thudding into their bodies at ninety miles an hour.”
That 1975-1976 tour was Michael Holding’s first. And though almost every batter would agree that Lillee was the better bowler overall, Holding, in Whispering Death, wrote that it was Thomson’s pace that was more troubling. ” ‘Thommo’ was the one who really made the difference. Everyone knew Lillee was a class bowler who could get you out with more than just pace, although he was fast enough. But his partner presented the additional fear of physical danger. I still haven’t seen anyone bowl quicker than he did in that series.”
Those were the days, remember, before helmets and before much of the body armour that batters take for granted nowadays. Holding went on to say that Thomson’s influence on the series was “even greater than his tally of 29 wickets suggests”.
In 1976-1977 Pakistan visited Australia for three Tests. During the first game in Adelaide, Thomson had an unfortunate accident that was to have an adverse effect on his career. Both he and Alan Turner were attempting a catch in the deep when they collided. Badly injuring his shoulder, Thomson was never really himself again except for brief moments, such as his aforementioned spell in Barbados. He still bowled well enough to play over 30 additional Tests, and he was still plenty quick. But his reign of terror had more or less ended, and the game’s batters breathed a sigh of relief.
Garfield Robinson is a Jamaican living in the US who writes on cricket for a few Indian and English publications. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.