The selection of the fast bowlers is arguably the hardest aspect of this list, with a multitude of candidates having a very strong case. It is obviously also important to pick a balanced attack, capable of thriving in all conditions.
West Indies is regarded as the spiritual home of the fast bowler, but only two men made the final shortlist. Malcolm Marshall was their finest quick during their 1980s heyday, seriously rapid, hostile and extremely consistent. Yet he was also a canny bowler, with the ability to swing the ball both ways and, later in his career, the purveyor of a fine legcutter. It speaks volumes that his impressive average of 22.5 against Australia was actually his highest against the five nations he played against. Against England he was invariably at his very best against, memorably claiming 7/22 at Old Trafford in 1988, on a wicket prepared for spin.
Curtley Ambrose’s career average is almost identical to that of Marshall. Ambrose arguably had the greatest propensity for cricketing annihilation of any quick in this list, as he illustrated in his incredible spell of 7/1 at Perth, and in bowling England out for 46 at Port-of-Spain. When a pitch offered pace and bounce, his relentless accuracy, speed and 6ft7in frame made him almost unplayable. Yet he was outstanding in all conditions, able to extract huge seam movement in England, doing very well in six Tests in Asia and excelling himself against the best side he faced, averaging just 21 against Australia.
Fred Trueman was a ferocious quick, indefatigable and outstanding during the 13 years between 1952 and 1965. He had an extraordinary capacity to bowl – Trueman was never one for ‘resting’, and notched up an astounding 99,701 first-class deliveries – and this, aided by his movement, controlled aggression and mental strength, made him the first ever man to reach 300 Test wickets. But for numerous off-field clashes, beginning in the Caribbean in 1953-4, he may well have reached 400. Regardless, his record is testament to his status as a fast-bowling giant able to worry batsmen in all conditions, though he dipped slightly from brilliant to merely very good away from home.
Of all the fast bowlers in this list, none were more significant to their sides than Richard Hadlee, who played for New Zealand for 17 years, claiming 431 Test wickets with the most economical of actions. A tearaway in his youth, he soon developed cricketing know-how; he was unerringly accurate, almost invariably able to extract bounce and movement, and, like contemporary Imran Khan, only improved with age. Like all true greats, he lifted himself when it mattered most, faring brilliantly against the West Indies and especially Australia, against whom he claimed 9/52 at Brisbane in 1985 – and 33 wickets in the three-game series; and he was adaptable enough to thrive in India (though not in Pakistan). Hadlee was also an extremely useful batsman (average 27) who could easily bat at eight in the Greatest Test XI.
There are four Australians in this list. The most recent of them is Glenn McGrath, whose bowling bore considerable resemblance to that of Hadlee. The Australian was extraordinarily tough mentally and made a point of publicly ‘targeting’ a key opposition player. These batsmen very seldom won their duels with McGrath. His trademark was bowling just back-of-a-length outside off-stump, generating bounce and nip – and proving a match-winner in all conditions. He did worst against South Africa – though he still averaged just 27 – and illustrated his adaptability and sheer quality by averaging just 19 in India.
Dennis Lillee was regarded by many as the consummate fast bowler; he was a combination of raw pace and subtlety, and had a tremendous heart to boot. This helped him come back from what appeared a career-threatening injury to become the highest Test wicket-taker of all time at the time of his retirement. He will be remembered for forming one half of the ‘Lillian-Thompson’ partnership – one of the most feared in the history of the game – and, in particular, for a series of outstanding Ashes performances. However, his best match may have been an extraordinary 7/83 against the West Indies, fired on by a fiercely patriotic home crowd. In four Tests in Asia, though, he averaged 68.
Ray Lindwall, with his pace and late swing, was the outstanding bowler of his generation and a pivotal member of the 1948 ‘Invincibles’. His low arm leant his bowling a skidding effect, which made his bouncers – sparingly used, but very threatening – all the more effective; he also possessed a fine slower ball and developed the ability to swing the ball both ways. Lindwall’s bowling gave great aesthetic pleasure; and he was able to excel himself when it mattered most, having two superb tours of England. He perhaps played on too long, until the age of 38; in his first 44 Tests, though, he averaged just 21. Lindwall was also a buccaneering lower-order batsman good enough to hit two Test hundreds.
Alan Davidson played for much of his career with Lindwall; he was a high class left-armer who could be lethal with both the new and old ball. His strike-rate is the highest of all the fast bowlers in this list, but his control was such that he had a remarkably frugal economy rate of just 1.97. Though he took a few Tests to find his niche, in his last 34 games Davidson was colossal, averaging 19 with the ball and 26 with his free-spirited hitting. Unlike Lindwall, he excelled in Asia, too; but, above all, he will be remembered for his fantastic performances in the epic 1960/61 series against the West Indies.
NB: Imran Khan, who may well have featured here, was assessed as an all-rounder.
McGrath statistical analysis (Including Best overseas fast bowlers in Tests in the subcontinent since 1980)
Full set of Greatest Test XI pieces
We would welcome any pieces from readers (please email cricketingworld(at)hotmail.com) making a case for the selection of a particular player, or to provide any kind of additional analysis. We would also be happy to post XIs (with justification); we will post that of Patrick Kidd, from the Times, in a few days. The final side will be picked in a few weeks.