TWO’S COMPANY, Incredible Bowling Pairs

By Bill Ricquier - January 31, 2021

It is a truism that cricket is all about partnerships. The record books are full of statistics about batting partnerships. This is an inevitable result of the way the game is constructed. There are eleven people in a team but ten out is all out; there always have to be two batsmen – or batters – out there, and it is natural to count the runs each combination makes as a standard measurement as the game progresses. Each individual batting partnership is ended by a significant, or at the very least potentially significant -event, namely a dismissal, or a declaration, or an injury; there are no other possibilities.

With bowling it is a bit different. It has taken a while for “bowling partnerships” as such to be recognised. The traditional record keepers, such as Wisden and Playfair, make no acknowledgement of their existence. The conventional scorecard, which gives so much information in such an economical format, tells the reader everything he or she needs to know about batting partnerships but gives no reliable information about bowling partnerships at all, any more than it tells one about dropped catches or missed run outs. By definition there are not the same parameters to a bowling partnership as there are to a batting one. A bowling partnership can be terminated on a captain’s whim. It is, as they say, a batsman’s world.

Nowadays, of course, nobody doubts the significance of bowling partnerships, statistical and otherwise. Any number of websites will tell you the best combined strike rates of bowling combinations and all the rest of it – vital ingredients for the increasingly important team analyst.

I will not be referring to any of those fascinating websites here. This is more of a “feel” piece, naming what I think have been the most memorable bowling partnerships in cricket history. I think that we can all agree that numbers are not absolutely everything. But I will be selecting pairings that any informed observer would accept are exceptional.

A couple of preliminary points. First, it would be wrong to ignore the fact that Test cricket currently offers its spectators two of the most remarkable and consistent bowling pairs of all time. Oddly enough these do not relate to either of the two strongest attacks in world cricket, Australia and India, which are what might be called ensemble attacks, not in any way reliant on a specific pairing.

But England’s James Anderson and Stuart Broad, with 600 and 500 Test wickets respectively, have demonstrated astonishing skill and longevity. Taking into account how relatively few Tests they play, New Zealand’s Trent Boult and Tim Southee– each of whom is approaching 300 Test wickets at around 28 apiece have shown similar levels of skill.

Each of these pairings shows one essential ingredient for a successful bowling combination: the two members are sufficiently different from one another. This is obvious in the case of Boult and Southee because Boult is a left-armer but it goes beyond that of course, and Anderson and Broad are very different from one another. Each of the pairs, however, is also demonstrably more successful in home conditions, which is why they might not make the top rank in this” survey”.

The second preliminary point is an obvious one. As with batting, not every great performance by a bowler is contingent on the existence of a significant partnership – assuming we are referring to something like a partnership of equals. Historically, for an England side there can be no more challenging task than a tour of Australia. An English victory Down Under is relatively rare. Fast bowling is often held to be critical (which is why so much is hoped of Jofra Archer and Mark wood – who have rarely if ever played together in Test cricket – on England’s next visit). For England at any rate great fast bowlers do not often come in pairs. When they won the famous Bodyline series in 1932-33, Harold Larwood took 33 wickets at 19.51; left arm opening partner Bill Voce took 15 at 27.13.

In 1954-55 England won again, using tactics not so different from Douglas Jardine’s in ’32-33. Frank Tyson took 28 wickets at 20.82, Brian Statham 18 at 27. 72. And in 1970-71 when they won under Ray Illingworth, John Snow took 31 wickets at 22.83. The next highest wicket taker on either side was Derek Underwood with 16.

Figures of course never give the whole story: Statham was as crucial to Len Hutton’s team’s success as Tyson. That partnership, though was short-lived because Tyson blew himself out. Statham became part of a genuinely high class association with Fred Trueman; they won Test matches together home and away. England’s other great bowling combination of the time was the Surrey spin twins, Jim Laker and Tony Lock. Their most celebrated joint operation came against Australia at The Oval in 1956, when together they bowled roughly 140 of the 200 or so overs bowled by England in Australia’s two innings: Laker took 19 wickets and Lock one.

Now for my favourite bowling partnerships.

It is not surprising that most of what follows concerns fast bowlers. It is fast bowlers, whether they come singly – like, say, Mitchell Johnson in the 2013-14 Ashes, or in battalions, like the West Indies in the 1980s, who provide the shock and awe element in cricket.

The first pair, chronologically, are the Australians Ted McDonald and Jack Gregory. England had survived the Great War and the Spanish ‘flu; but her batsmen had never confronted anything quite like McDonald and Gregory. They remain one of the most hostile of all opening bowling partnerships.

In two series , in 1920-21 and 1921, the second following the first with almost indecent haste (the players actually travelled from Australia to England on the same ship) they laid English batting waste, particularly in 1921, when McDonald took 27 wickets at 24.74 and Gregory 19 at 29.05. Australia won eight Tests in a row, and a number of England batsmen received nasty injuries.

Apart from the fact that they were both very fast, Gregory and McDonald were, like all the best pairs, very different. McDonald was an aristocrat among fast bowlers, the Michael Holding of his day, graceful and lissom according to Neville Cardus. His international career was relatively short because, unusually, he turned professional and played for Lancashire for a number of years. Gregory was different. Where McDonald was smooth and almost metronomic, Gregory was marauding and unpredictable. The young Walter Hammond faced him in 1921 and the experience set his career back a little; sometimes he just couldn’t see the ball. Gregory was the Ben Stokes of his day, too: a brilliant fielder and aggressive left-handed batsman –incredibly, he still holds the record for the fastest Test century in terms of minutes (70 – 67 balls) against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1921-22. Australia has produced a few greater all-rounders.

After World War Two it was another Australian duo, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, who were sent to torment the world’s batsmen. They were the reason why Australia were able to dominate the first three Ashes series after the war. Comparisons with McDonald and Gregory were inevitable. Lindwall was different from the others, and it would not be impossible to argue that, despite the competition, some of which is still to be mentioned in this piece, he has been the greatest of all Australian fast bowlers.

Len Hutton, the greatest English batsman of his generation, said that Lindwall was the best bowler he ever faced. Richie Benaud, writing in 1977, said that Lindwall was technically the best fast bowler he had seen. A supreme natural athlete, Lindwall had the ability to swing the ball both ways at high pace, and he had a vicious bouncer. But accuracy was a key component of his success: 60 percent of his victims in first-class cricket were bowled or leg before. He was the first outright fast bowler to take 100, and then 200 Test wickets. Against England alone, in 29 Tests he took 114 wickets at 22 apiece, a highlight being his six for 20 in 99 balls at The Oval in 1948 when England were out for 52.

Miller was the ideal complement. Like Gregory, he had seen combat in Europe. Miller’s experiences as a fighter pilot had given him a very personal view of cricket’s place in life. (My favourite Miller story is that he mace a detour on a mission in Germany so that he could fly over Beethoven’s birthplace.)It meant that in the middle of a spell he would suddenly trot in and bowl a leg break. He really didn’t care – but he was the ultimate competitor. He was a magnificent all round cricketer. “If I had to choose one man to hold a catch, take a wicket, or hit a six to win the match, it would be Keith Ross Miller “ , said John Arlott. A Test batting average of 36 and a bowling average of 22 indicate his credentials. His high speed mace him a formidable partner for Lindwall and he was capable of sudden irresistible bursts when the mood took him. As late as 1956, at Lord’s, he won a game with ten wickets in the match. Both men had vicious bouncers which made them formidable opponents around the world.

A change of pace now. Around the same time the world’s batsmen were trying to overcome the pace of Lindwall and Miller, a challenge of a completely different nature emerged unexpectedly from the Caribbean in the form of “those little pals of mine”, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine. On their arrival in England with the West Indies tourists in 1950, each of these two youngsters had played only two first-class games.

Now, however, they took the entire cricketing world by storm, playing the crucial role in West Indies’s first series win in England. In the four match series, Valentine took 33 wickets, and Ramadhin 26. They enjoyed success in Australia in 1951-52 and remained a key component of West Indies teams throughout the decade, though they came something of a cropper on their return to England in 1957, when, in the second innings of the first Test at Edgbaston, Peter May and Colin Cowdrey, with expert use of pad play, effectively knocked them out of the series. (Ramadhin had taken [7-49] in the first innings.)

Valentine, tall, slim and bespectacled, was a classical slow left arm bowler, one of the best of his generation. Injury and illness affected him as he got older but he bowled well in the great series in Australia in 1960-61 and toured England, without playing a Test, as late as 1963.

Ramadhin, the first man of Asian descent to play for the West Indies, was unusual. Short and stocky, he was not exactly a “mystery spinner” in the sense of Jack Iverson and John Gleeson. But he bowled both off-spin and leg-spin, using finger rather than wrist, and to the uninitiated was very difficult to pick.

Ramadhin and Valentine were not as consistently successful as the other pairs in this list, but there was something about their magical summer of 1950, when they reduced experienced Test cricketers like Cyril Washbrook and Bill Edrich to batting like schoolboys, that makes it impossible to ignore them.

There was no doubt about the most exciting pair of international bowlers to watch in the early 1960s. It was the Barbadians Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. Their relationship went back a long way, to when they were growing up in Bridgetown and Hall was keeping wicket to Griffith’s off-breaks. Times certainly changed.

Hall in his prime was a magnificent sight, in some ways the ideal fast bowler. Richie Benaud, who played several Tests against Hall, described watching him from the dressing room. “He’s a tall man, with flashing white teeth that light his face when he smiles. He has broad shoulders and a lithe bouncing run to the wicket, gathering himself in as the popping crease approaches, to explode in what seems a flurry of arms and legs as he hurtles the ball at the opposing batsman.”

Hall first made his mark on the West Indies tour of India and Pakistan in 1958-59: when he took 46 wickets at 17.76 in eight Tests. After that his best series was at home against India in 1961-62 when he took 27 wickets at 15.74. But Hall earned cricketing immortality for being trusted by Frank Worrell to bowl the final, crucial over in, not just one but two of the greatest Tests of all time, the Tied Test at Brisbane in 1960-61 and the draw at Lord’s in 1963: he bowled throughout the three hours and 20 minutes play on the tumultuous final day.

Griffith was not as tall but very muscular. In a number of ways he was very different from Hall. Hall’s was a classical side on action while Griffith, who tended to bowl from wide of the crease, was much more front on. Griffith was at least as dangerous if not more so. Nobody ever wrote about Griffith’s smile. Peter Parfitt, whose England Test career lasted from 1962 to 1972, has said that he never faced a faster bowler than Griffith.

He was devastating on the tour of England in 1963, taking 119 first-class wickets at 12.83 and 33 in the Tests and 32 in the Tests at 16.21.

Controversy, however, was never far away. Playing for Barbados against the Indian tourists in 1961-62, he knocked out the visitors’ captain, Nari Contractor, with a bouncer, and effectively ended his career. Doubts grew about his action. More than one international batsman expressed doubts about it in public,

In the 1970s the mantle returned to Australia. For just a couple of years, in the middle of the decade the potency, as an opening pair, of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, was unmatched. Lillee started earlier, and they both played till the mid ‘80s despite a variety of serious injuries but during that brief spell, and particularly in Australia’s series against England in 19774-75 and the West Indies in 1975-76, they were indomitable. In those two series Lillee and Thomson took 52 and 62 wickets respectively.

Again they complemented each other perfectly. Lillee of course was one of the greatest of all fast bowlers, a master craftsman, able to swing the ball in the air and move it off the pitch, and he had to re-model his entire action after a serious back injury in 1973.He took 355 wickets in 70 Tests, and there would have been many more but for injury.

Thomson was, well, just incredibly fast. His unique catapult-style action generated phenomenal speed. There is a wonderful article in the 2013 Wisden where Christian Ryan tells the story of a Sydney grade game between Bankstown and Mosman in December 1973. Thomson was playing for Bankstown because he had not been selected for New South Wales, and he was, as Ryan put it, annoyed. Of the top seven Mosman batsmen, six were bowled Thomson, hit wicket bowled Thomson, or retired hurt. The former England all-rounder Barry Knight was Mosman’s captain. He had faced Tyson in his pomp and told Ryan that Thomson was that fast. It is hard to believe that anyone since has matched them.

That includes the great West Indian combinations of the last quarter of the 20th century. There were often as many as four – Andy Roberts – later Malcolm Marshall – Michael Holding, Colin Croft – later Patrick Patterson – and Joel Garner, for instance. These include some of the great names from the fast bowling pantheon. But because they all played together it is not easy to pick a pair. The best example of a Caribbean bowling partnership came a little later with Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

The 6’7” Antiguan Ambrose was a natural replacement for the Barbadian giant Garner. He combined pace and accuracy to a disturbing degree, generating exceptional bounce which forced batsmen back, and deployed devastating yorkers and wicked bouncers. He specialised in sudden devastating spells, reducing England to 43 for eight when they were chasing only 194 at Port of Spain in 1994, and taking seven for one against Australia at the WACA in 1993.

Walsh, from Jamaica, was almost as tall and broader. It is tempting to regard him as the workhorse; his longevity was certainly extraordinary; he finished with 519 wickets in 132 Tests. He took a further 551 wickets in ODIs. Christopher Martin-Jenkins called him the Duracell of international cricket. But he had his moments of drama too. Against New Zealand at Wellington in 1995 he took seven for 37 and six for 18.

On the subject of bowling combinations, one ought to mention the Indian spin quartet of the 1960s and’70s. Again it is difficult to think of a pair; probably the off spinner Erapalli Prasanna and the slow left-armer Bishan Singh Bedi. But then what about the leg spinner Bhagwat Chandrasekhar ? On one occasion – at Edgbaston in 1967 – the three of them and off spinner Srinivas Venkataraghavan – all played in the same match.

England had a fine opening bowling partnership in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bob Willis was the undisputed leader of the pace attack from the effective end of John Snow’ s England career until his own retirement in 1984; by the end of his career he was , like Walsh, that unusual being, the fast-bowling Test captain. With a long and distinctive run up he was perhaps just short of the highest pace but made up for that with accuracy and consistency of length and a rigorous off stump line, and bounce generated by his considerable height. His finest hour came at Headingley in 1981, when he took eight for 43 as Australia were sensationally bowled out for 131.

Ian Botham was not his opening partner then but they often did open together. That of course was “Botham’ Match” and because in the collective. Memory Botham is often recalled as a big-hitting batsman, bon viveur, and charity walker, it is easy to forget what a magnificent medium -fast swing bowler he was in his early years. Even at the end of his career when he was little more than a medium-paced trundler he was still that least arguable of practitioners among bowlers: a wicket-taker.

International batsmen in the 1990s really had a rough time. Not only did they have to cope with the West Indian quicks. There was also the Pakistan pair of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis to deal with. They were of course formidable with the new ball. But with their mastery of reverse swing they were, if anything, even more of a handful with the old one. Both, also, captained the side though that was perhaps more of a poisoned chalice than in other countries.

With his left arm line of attack and his incredibly quick arm, Wasim presented unique challenges. You just need to watch footage of what was surely his finest hour, against England in the World Cup final of 1992, to see what he was capable of, with extraordinary swinging deliveries to dismiss Allan Lamb. It is interesting to note the number of batsmen of the period who, asked to name the most dangerous bowler they faced, nominate Wasim. Add occasionally spectacular batting and a charismatic persona, and you had a substantial package.

Martin-Jenkins called Waqar “a surging force of nature, one of the most thrilling and whole-hearted fast bowlers there has ever been”. A Test average of 23.56 and a strike rate of 43.4 are both better than Wasim’s. He was very fast and very accurate; no fewer than 57% of his victims were bowled or LBW. He had a highly effective bouncer but he loved to keep the ball up, swinging it away from the right-hander when it was new and into him when it was old. His weapon of choice was the fast in-swinging yorker directed at the batsmen’s toes.

A pair does not have to comprise two bowlers of the same type. One thinks of Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas of Sri Lanka, for example .But in this category my vote would go to the Australian pair of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. They may be fast medium and leg-spinner respectively, but essentially they were remarkably similar. They could each perform -uniquely in Warne’s case, for a bowler of his type – a containing role. And each could be an assassin. Three successive Australian captains – Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, and Ricky Ponting – could call upon this unique combination. And unlike Murali’s Sri Lankan side, there were other high class options too, like Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee. It is no surprise that Australia were the best team in the world.

My last pairing is from South Africa. Dale Steyn can surely claim to be the greatest fast bowler of his generation, with 439 wickets in 93 Tests at an average of 22.95 and a strike rate of 40.6. Steyn had an energetic run-up and was really quick. He was effective in all conditions playing a leading role in historic series victories in England and Australia and even shining, with reverse swing, in the subcontinent; at Nagpur in 2010, he took seven for 51 against India. A superb natural athlete he did suffer more from injury after he turned 30.

Steyn had a number of opening partners over the years but the most intriguing was Vernon Philander. He played less but had a similar average to. Steyn and a strike rate of 50.8.

He had a sensational start to his Test career, taking five for 15 (eight for 78 in the match) as Australia were bowled out for 47 in the second innings of the Cape Town Test of 2011-12. He reached 50 wickets in only seven Tests, and 100 in 19. Unlike Steyn, Philander’s threat was not pace. Indeed by the end of his career he could barely be classified as medium-fast. But he was immensely skilful and relentlessly accurate and demanding.

So who are the best? Remember this is not about numbers, though of course they cannot be ignored completely. The question is, if one had a Time Machine, whom would one go back to watch. It’s far from easy. But I think it would have to be Lillee and Thomson.

By Bill Ricquier

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