Best XI: Wonderful Test pacers make finding the greatest tough

By April 04, 2020

There have been some wonderful pace bowlers over the years in all forms of cricket. With the bent toward the batsman in the shorter forms of the game, some of the figures of even the best pacers have looked a little worse for wear. With that said, just as we did with batsmen, SportsMax.tv chose to look at the best bowlers to play the five-day game, as running in over after over throughout a day of cricket only to come back to do it again tomorrow might be a smidge more difficult than 10-over or four-over spells at maximum.

Finding an XI from the rich history of fast bowling Test cricket has to offer was no easy feat and I’m sure we missed names that you would have undoubtedly picked, but here goes ...

 

BestXI

 

Malcolm Marshall (West Indies)

Standing at 5 feet, 11 inches, you wouldn’t think Malcolm Marshall the type of bowler who could scare world-class attacks, but he did. Marshall was regarded as the finest pace bowler to come from the West Indies, a region known for producing some of the best quicks ever to play the game. Marshall had an open run-up that should have made him less accurate but it, instead, gave him the ability to swing the ball either way with very little difference in his action. His technique also generated remarkable pace and had a very deceptive, very cruel bouncer. England’s Mike Gatting remembers that bouncer better than most after Marshall flattened his nose bridge in a match at Sabina Park. Marshall would rachet up 376 Test wickets in just 81 Tests at the remarkable average of 20.94, which represents one of the best of all time. Marshall’s 376 wickets also came at a time when all four West Indies fast bowlers were wicket-takers, making his haul even more of a prize.

 

Curtly Ambrose (West Indies)

When Curtly Ambrose walked away from International cricket there was not a soul who thought he didn’t have much more in the tank. A quiet giant, Ambrose bowled at a menacing length, too full to go back to and too short to play forward to. The master at putting the ball in that corridor of uncertainty, he would get wickets regularly by constantly getting the ball to jag bag at batsmen before making one hold its line. His yorker, from his great height, was nothing to sniff at either. Ambrose’s best of 8-45 is something that is still talked about today, though his 405 wickets in 98 Tests at an average of 20.99 will not soon be forgotten either. Ambrose would take five wickets in an innings 22 times, and 10 in a match on three occasions.

 

Michael Holding (West Indies)

The nickname “Whispering Death” speaks volumes about the man known as the Rolls Royce of fast bowling. An over to Geoff Boycott, the belligerent England opener, best describes what Holding was like at his absolute best. Boycott was bowled in the over and did not feel hard done because, as he has admitted, he had no answer to the lanky Jamaican. Holding is the textbook of fast bowling, from the first step to his leap and then to delivery, there has not been a smoother bowler in the history of the game. He was an artist and made fast bowling a beautiful thing to watch unless you were at the end of one of his 249 wickets. Holding only played 60 Tests and also fell victim to a four-pronged West Indies pace attack which would quickly ensure he had nobody to bowl at. But for those who did have to face him, they will not soon forget how the silky smoothness of his run-up and delivery would be shattered by genuine pace, accuracy and guile. In his book, ‘No Holding Back’, Mikey talks about how he gave up pace for accuracy but found, funnily enough, that once he had mastered being accurate, his pace had ratcheted up again, at least in the minds of the batsmen he faced.

 

Glen McGrath (Australia)

Anybody who calls Glen McGrath the best fast bowler of all time, cannot be argued with. The right-arm fast-medium by the time he ended his career had the ability to pitch the ball wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted and made all the great batsmen of his era have to admit, he was the most difficult customer they would encounter throughout their respective careers. McGrath is famous for being the man to have gotten the prize wicket of Brian Lara, arguably the best batsman of all time, the most in his career. To be fair, Lara average 51 against Australia, so that battle was fairly even. Still, McGrath’s mammoth 563 wickets from 124 Tests at an average of 21.64 speaks for itself. There were 29 occasions when McGrath would hold the ball aloft for earning five wickets and he, like Ambrose got 10 wickets in a match on three occasions. McGrath’s best bowling figures, 8-24, featured a spell of fast bowling that might never be matched.

Dennis Lillee (Australia)

Dennis Lillee, in partnership with tear-away fast bowler, Jeff Thomson, can be blamed for the rise of the fearsome four-pronged attack of the West Indies in the 1980s. It was afterall, after a crushing 5-1 defeat in Australia that regularly featured Lillee and Thomson decimations, that the Caribbean side turned to all-pace attacks. Lillee, though not as fast as Thomson, was the class of the pair, grabbing 355 wickets in just 73 Tests. Lillee was a complete bowler. When he debuted in 1971 he was frighteningly quick, but a spinal stress fracture threatened to end his career. Years later, a slowed Lillee was still outwitting batsmen with almost monotonous regularity. So much so, that there are many who consider him and not Marshall, the greatest of all time.

 

Richard Hadlee (New Zealand)

There are no superlative too good for the man who perfected swing bowling at high pace. Hadlee troubled every opponent on every kind of pitch. Hadlee almost singlehandedly lifted New Zealand cricket to unprecedented heights and along the way becoming the first bowler to notch 400 wickets in Test cricket. He, like Lillee, started as a tearaway quick, preferring to bludgeon his opponents into submission with searing bouncers. But Hadlee was a quick study and shortened his run-up while developing the attributes of the model fast bowler. His whippy action was a concern for most batsmen and when that was combined with pace, bounce and movement. When Hadlee retired in 1990, so effective was he, that he took a wicket with the last ball of his career. He would end with 431 wickets in just 86 Tests at an average of 22.29.

 

Wasim Akram (Pakistan)

Wasim Akram is likely the best left-arm pace bowler of all time. Blessed with an economical action, Akram was deceptively quick and would make batsmen used to playing against the most express of fast bowlers, still look hurried. Called the Sultan of Swing, Akram was also brilliant at producing seam movement. The two combined, produced a bowler who was always dangerous. Akram was also never the same bowler to the same batsmen when they met again in another series. Something would change, he would develop something until it came to a point where the Pakistani, who kept a strict fitness regime, could pitch four balls in the same spot and get something different to happen to it. A nightmare for anticipating, and so he had to be played off the pitch. But he was quick, and sometimes, 414 times to be exact, it was too late to adjust. Akram’s 414 wickets came in 104 Tests at an average of 23.62.

 

Imran Khan (Pakistan)

If ever Akram could claim a father figure, it was Imran Khan. The Pakistani captain is undoubtedly the finest cricketer the country has ever produced, averaging 50 with the bat and 19 with the ball over the last 10 years of his career. Khan led his country into the modern era of cricket, teaching the value of professionalism, as well as the importance of getting the public’s support. Under Imran, Pakistan became a real force, but as just a pure bowler, his figures of 362 wickets in 88 Tests was remarkable. His average of 22.81 was as brilliant as his reverse swinging yorker.

 

Dale Steyn (South Africa)

Steyn is the best quick in modern-day cricket. The South African has the best strike rate of all time. In 93 Tests, Steyn has 439 wickets at an average of 22.95 and was the world’s number-one fast bowler for a record of 263 weeks, a little more than five years. While those figures are scary, they aren’t as frightening as his extreme pace, combined with the ability to swing the ball both ways and accuracy to boot. Persistent injuries have curtailed the bowler's appearances for the Proteas over the last few years but he is always a welcome addition, especially with the likes of the talented Kagiso Rabada waiting in the wings to learn from his experience.

 

Mitchell Johnson (Australia)

Australia have, like the West Indies, consistently produced great fast bowlers and the two countries could, together, fill a list of the bestXI on their own without too many arguments. One of the best of those is Mitchell Johnson. In just 73 Tests, Johnson has taken 313 wickets and while he needs to bring down his average of 28.4 a little, he is still quite brilliant. Johnson has had his issues, having horrendous lows to go along with incredible highs. It is only now that he is beginning to be the fast bowler Dennis Lillee said he could. Late swing at pace is his major weapon, but he has now also included interesting angles that put batsmen in trouble.

Waqar Younis (Pakistan)

The longtime saying, last but not least, certainly applies to Waqar Younis. Half of the pairing with Wasim Akram, Waqar would bulldoze his way through opposition batsmen, while his partner in crime was the scalpel creating neat, tidy incisions.

The two Ws were undoubtedly one of the most effective fast bowling duos in cricket history. Waqar would take 373 wickets in 87 Tests from that partnership, relying on late swing and real pace for the most part. His execution of late reverse swing meant batsmen even muffed chances to score off bad deliveries, making him, with his slingy action, more economical than one would expect. Waqar was a problem for all the greats who bat against him from his debut in 1989 until his retirement in 2003. His strike rate was the best of all time until Dale Steyn’s arrival in Test cricket.

Paul-Andre Walker

Paul-Andre is the Managing Editor at SportsMax.tv. He comes to the role with almost 20 years of experience as journalist. That experience includes all facets of media. He began as a sports Journalist in 2001, quickly moving into radio, where he was an editor before becoming a news editor and then an entertainment editor with one of the biggest media houses in the Caribbean.

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