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To Englishmen of a certain age the very name is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Very possibly the fastest bowler ever, he was certainly one of the most fearsome and aggressive and, during the Ashes series of 1974/75, the very embodiment of evil and malevolence. But do I hate Thommo? The answer is most certainly “No”, and that’s nothing to do with him having rehabilitated himself in my eyes in the ensuing forty years. Oddly I always did like Thommo, even when he caught Lancastrian David Lloyd amidships with such force as to leave his box in ruins.

I found my feelings towards Thommo confusing at the time. I didn’t like any of the other Australians, in particular Thommo’s fearsome strike partner Dennis Lillee or his, in relative terms, easy-paced back up Max Walker. I grew to respect and almost like Lillee in time, but that wasn’t for a good few years. There was something endearing about Thommo though. He was the quintessential larrikin, and gave the impression he would be excellent company, and that I suspect was the key to it.

As a bowler Thommo was very, very fast indeed and batsmen who faced him consistently described him as the quickest they had seen. That he was fast was proved in various experiments, but his action meant that he probably seemed even quicker than he was. He had a conventional enough approach to the wicket, but as he shaped to enter his delivery stride the ball went out of sight behind his back as he braced himself for the remarkable sling shot delivery that generated all the speed. What terrified the batsmen were the vicious inswinging bouncer, and the delivery that Thommo liked to call his sandshoe crusher. The straight one that threatened his stumps or the edge of his bat was like a blessed relief.

Comparisons are futile in absolute terms, but can still provide important evidence. In 1976 Thommo, Lillee, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding were all tested in the same conditions. At 99.70 mph Thommo was the quickest, followed by Roberts, Holding and Lillee. The experiment also studied the speed of the run ups. Lillee was the quickest, at the very respectable equivalent of a 10.72 second 100 metres. Thommo on the other hand, showing just how much he relied on his upper body strength, was almost double that and comfortably, on that measure, the slowest of the quartet.

Yet we might never have seen him at all. The young Thommo wasn’t always quite as committed to cricket as he might have been. There were plenty of distractions around for the fit and good looking youngster, and it took a while for him to settle down. By 21 however he got his game together and headed the bowling averages for the Sydney grades. As a result he found himself selected for New South Wales’ first Sheffield Shield match of the season, at Brisbane. The game was spoiled by rain, but Thommo took the first couple of wickets to fall and ended up with 2-24 in eight overs on debut.

A couple of weeks later and New South Wales went to the WACA and Thommo met Dennis Lillee for the first time. There was a frank exchange of views and a finger cruncher when Thommo bowled at Lillee, and he soon had him caught behind. When roles were reversed Thommo threw the bat, and hit four boundaries before Lillee castled him. With a match haul of 7-105 it was Thommo’s best performance of that first season.

After four more Shield games Thommo had a total haul of 18 wickets at just a fraction under 30 runs each. It was a decent return, but nothing spectacular and selection for the Test side for the second Test against Pakistan was the biggest shock of my life. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been – with Bob Massie and David Colley injured there wasn’t a great deal of choice, and Thommo most certainly had the sort of pace that none of the other candidates could match.

There was a problem though. Although at the time Thommo knew he was injured, he didn’t realise that the soreness in his left foot was actually a fracture. Thommo’s decision-making was never the best, and he decided to play through the pain. The outcome was 0-100 in the first innings and two wicketless overs in the second before he finally had to concede defeat to the pain and hobble off. It was only then that he learnt the extent of the damage, and that the only cure was rest.

By the time the 1973/74 Shield season began Thommo was feeling fit and ready to resume his career but, even though his last match had been a Test the NSW selectors passed him over. He took it out on grade batsmen and by the time the final match came round he had forced his way back into the side. Queensland were the visitors to the SCG, and a win would have brought them their first ever Shield. Their dream was still alive after dismissing the home side for 249, but not after Thommo had taken 7-85 bowling so quickly that the NSW ‘keeper, Test veteran Brian Taber in his last season, confirmed that in his long career he had never before had to stand so far back to a bowler.

Despite his superb bowling in that final game NSW were unable to keep Thommo. There was intense speculation that he would move to Adelaide, but in the end it was Brisbane that claimed him, Queensland figuring that after their SCG experience the only way to avoid having to face Thommo was to have him in their side. In Sydney he had been working in a bank, not a strenuous or interesting occupation on its face, although at one point during a robbery he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. A job meeting and greeting at an expensive car dealer in Brisbane was on offer, complete with company vehicle and time off to play cricket with no loss of salary. No one could blame him for making the switch.

In 1973/74 Ian Chappell had taken a side to New Zealand for a three Test series. His pace attack had been the distinctly unthreatening one of Max Walker, Gary Gilmour and Geoff Dymock, none of them much above medium pace. England on the other hand had drawn a tough series in the Caribbean 1-1. So the English tourists who arrived under Mike Denness at the end of October of 1974 were pretty confident. They didn’t expect Lillee to have recovered his old pace after a serious injury, and the stories about Thommo’s blistering pace looked, in light of his previous Test and the way he bowled for Queensland against the tourists, to be blatant kidology. Under-estimating Lillee’s capacity to regain form and fitness, and Greg Chappell’s for pulling the wool over their eyes (he instructed Thommo to bowl well within himself in the Queensland match), were serious errors of judgment.

The first Test started well for England as, early on the second day, they had reduced Australia to 257-9. There followed one of those irritating last wicket partnerships as Thommo, whose career average of 12.81 belied a far from negligible talent with the bat, added 52 with Walker. When England replied they discovered to their horror that the rumours about Thommo’s pace were no wind up after all. He ripped out the openers, and took the wicket of John Edrich later on as Australia took a first innings lead of 44. In the second innings Thommo took 6-46. The England batsmen had no answer to his pace and until the final Test, which Thommo missed, only Tony Greig, John Edrich and Alan Knott ever looked like scoring any runs. Flown out as a replacement the veteran Colin Cowdrey also showed the necessary application, and famously took Thommo by surprise by his courteous introduction when they first met, but age had taken its toll and for all his courage and textbook technique Cowdrey did not succeed in playing a major innings.

In the series Thommo took 33 wickets at 17.93. A star was born. He was photographed with pop star Suzi Quatro and all Australia felt the disappointment when, on the rest day of the fifth Test, he damaged the tendons in his crucial right shoulder. He was playing tennis at the time, partnering former Aussie Rules star Neil Kerley against Doug Walters and Taber. It was a social game, but Thommo was always competitive, and threw as much into his serve as his bowling, and that was how the injury was sustained.

Fit again for the first World Cup in 1975 the tournament gave us two abiding images of Thommo. First of all his speed hospitalised two Sri Lankan batsmen, as he recorded figures of 12-5-22-1 against them. Still a few years away from Test status a hammering for the Lankans was always on the cards, but their batsmen had no problems with Lillee and whilst they never looked like reaching their distant target of 329 they ended on 276-4, all of their batsman having shown considerable courage and technique. The second memory is of the closing stages of the final, Lillee and Thommo keeping alive Australian hopes before Thommo was run out with his side 17 short. After that there were four Tests against England. It wasn’t a great summer for Thommo as he was plagued by wides and no balls. No doubt a factor in that was the slowness of the English pitches. In the 1970s wickets here were never the liveliest of tracks, and after the previous winter nothing at all was done to remedy that. A new captain (Tony Greig) and a number of personnel changes stiffened English resolve as well, so whilst it might not look too impressive on paper Thommo’s 16 wickets at 28.56 were a fine return.

Back home 1975/76 saw the unofficial Test Championship of the world as Clive Lloyd’s West Indies visited Australia. Roy Fredericks played one of the great innings against fast bowling as West Indies won the second Test, but they lost the other five in an unexpectedly one-sided series. Thommo took more wickets than any other Australian bowler, 29. He didn’t head the averages as both Lillee and Gimour paid less for their wickets, but Thommo was the fastest and, having developed an ability to bowl an away swinger as well as his trademark big indipper he was maturing fast. His season was touched by tragedy as well however. His roommate Martin Bedkober, who was looking to win a place in the Queensland side, died after being struck in the chest while batting. Thommo’s attitude changed. Gone was anything along the lines of wanting to see a batsman’s blood on the wicket, doubtless only ever said to intimidate anyway – the soundbite now was I’d rather bowl ’em out than knock ’em out.

Thommo celebrated his 26th birthday before the start of the 1976/77 season, and ahead of the Test series with Pakistan was bang in form, taking 12-112 as NSW were shot out for 71 in their first innings. In the first Test he had taken the important wickets of Majid Khan and Mushtaq Mohammad for 34 when he suffered the injury that ended his season. At that point Thommo then bounced Zaheer Abbas, who could do no more than pop the ball up on the on side. Thommo charged towards the ball. So did Alan Turner from mid wicket. One is left to assume that neither called, as there was a sickening collision which left Thommo with the ligaments in his right shoulder torn. His surgeon had to pin his shoulder back in place and there were genuine fears that he would never bowl fast again.

The speed of Thommo’s recovery was remarkable, and he proved to be fit enough to take his place in Greg Chappell’s 1977 Ashes party. It was not a happy trip. In the absence of Lillee there was no real support for Thommo, the batting was weakened by the absence of Ian Chappell and Ross Edwards, and the whole squad was distracted by the fact that 13 of them had signed for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. Australia lost 3-0 to a team skilfully led by Mike Brearley, and in that context Thommo’s 23 wickets at 25.84 represented another fine effort against the traditional enemy.

During the third Test in 1977 Thommo found himself in a ticklish situation with the law, and his attempts to extricate himself from it immeasureably helped with his popularity throughout England. Thommo was one of those who had signed for WSC, but he had earlier signed a contract with a Brisbane based radio station worth, allegedly, more than AUSD600,000 over ten years. I would like to see that contract, because it seems a little odd that playing for WSC would actually breach it, or if it did that any loss would necessarily follow. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it Thommo tore up his contract with Packer, and got a standing ovation at Trent Bridge as a result.

What did Packer make of this snub? Thommo was the most popular player in Australia at the time, and rekindling his partnership with Lillee would have been a big selling point for WSC. Not only that Thommo had been given a substantial advance by the tycoon – surely he would sue, if only for the return of the money already paid? There was, after all, an open and shut case. Packer did nothing however, nor does he seem to have given any serious consideration to doing so.

The official Australian side, of which Thommo was now one of the senior members, went on to compete in a classic series with India. Two narrow victories put the home side in the box seat before India pulled back to 2-2. Five changes saw the team led by recalled veteran Bob Simpson win the decider. It was a successful series for Thommo, who topped the Australian averages with 22 wickets at 23.45, but he didn’t greatly enjoy himself, and missed playing the game with the men he knew so well. Was he as fast after his injury? He lengthened his run somewhat, and found it rather more difficult to get the ball up as sharply from a good length as he had before the clash with Turner. But he was quick enough for Sunil Gavaskar to conclude for sheer speed over a series I’ve never faced anyone quicker, and that included Lillee and Holding.

Shortly after the close of the Indian series Simpson’s men were off to the Caribbean for a full five Test series. Thommo was delighted to be appointed vice-captain, so much so he went out and bought a suit and tie to wear, although not being in team colours the board, to his great annoyance, wouldn’t let him wear it. But Thommo didn’t enjoy the cricket. The first two Tests saw the Australians pitted against the full might of the West Indies, and he was disappointed at the way his teammates capitulated. Then the home side’s WSC men all withdrew from the next three, and whilst that made life easier for Australia the fact that he was no longer facing the best of the opposition made it impossible for Thommo to motivate himself. His professionalism never dimmed though, a series haul of 20 wickets at 28.80 on pitches that did not generally suit him being testament to that. The clincher to his dissatisfaction came in the final Test when his opening partner was the barely medium paced Trevor Laughlin.

Things looked up for Thommo when he got back. The radio station was taken over and there was a window of opportunity for him to terminate his contract that he readily took. He then retired from Test cricket amidst much speculation that he would sign up again with WSC. There was however further conflict with the law. The problem Thommo had arose out of the contract he had signed with the board after the series against India. Litigation ensued and Thommo missed almost all the 1978/79 season. He lost the case, unsurprisingly, but in the end the board relented and, realising they were going to have to make peace with WSC, released him from his obligations to enable him to sign up for the WSC visit to the Caribbean. Thommo was in desperate need of the cash. Bankrupted as a result of an ill-advised investment in a sports store there were legal bills as well and, inevitably, the taxman had caught up with him.

In December 1979 Thommo lined up against West Indies and then England in Tests, but did not share the new ball with Lillee, and then he was dropped. Whilst he travelled to England in 1980 for the centenary Test he was made twelfth man. He was paying again for his courtroom battle with the board. In 1981 Ian Botham produced his heroics against an Australian side that lacked Thommo who, until he broke down, enjoyed the English summer staying in London and playing for Middlesex. He managed only six Championship matches but amongst them he had a memorable battle with Viv Richards at Lord’s.

Despite a hernia operation the Thomson ability to recuperate was undimmed as he got full fitness back for the 1981/82 home series against Pakistan and West Indies and a trip to New Zealand. He played in all but one of the nine Tests, although he no longer opened up with Lillee. His returns were good eough to keep him in the side, but modest by his own standards. His next outing was in September 1982 when he played three Tests in Pakistan. It was his last chance to open the bowling in a Test, and his three wickets cost 98.33 runs each. The wickets were slow and grassless for the benefit of Abdul Qadir, although Imran Khan and Geoff Lawson both succeeded where Thommo and Terry Alderman failed. There was however one last memorable series for Thommo, against the old enemy England, that began a few weeks after the Australians got back from Pakistan.

Thommo didn’t figure in the first Test of the 1982/83 Ashes series, but replaced an injured Terry Alderman for the second. Eight expensive and wicketless overs in the first innings suggested the end may be in sight, but in the event that was just a sighter. Australia won the match and Thommo’s spell of 5-12 that ripped out the top order in England’s second innings was the catalyst. According to Wisden he bowled with fine control ……. pace and lift. There was an eighth and final five-fer in the fifth Test to go with that, and overall Thommo topped the averages with 22 wickets at 18.68. Despite those excellent figures the abiding memory of Thommo in that series is with the bat. In the fourth Test he came out at number eleven to join Alan Border with Australia needing 74 to win. In a dramatic finale he had contributed 21 to a partnership of 70 before Botham induced an edge to Chris Tavare at second slip. The Kent man failed to make the catch, but did succeed in pushing the ball towards Geoff Miller at first slip and the Derbyshire off spinner, unlike “Tav”, did manage to wrap his hands round the ball and not let go.

For the next couple of seasons Thommo kept taking wickets for Queensland, but the call from the selectors didn’t come and he was 34 in October 1984 when the offer to join Kim Hughes rebels in South Africa for AUSD200,000, tax free, was made. In the autumn of his career it might have been expected that Thommo would accept, but remembering the trouble over WSC he declined, and as a result of the ban on those who did take the money he found himself as a late call-up for the 1985 Ashes party. Outside the Tests what he had gained in guile over the years enabled him to be a threat, but against a decent England batting side, full of confidence, his decline in pace meant he was no longer a threat in the Tests, and in two matches his three wickets came at a cost of 275 runs.

By this time Thommo knew he was not going to play Test cricket again. Those last two matches in England had taken his career tally to exactly 200 wickets, at precisely 28 runs each. One hundred of those came in Ashes contests, at 24.18. But there was still one prize that Thommo desperately wanted to claim, a place in the first Queensland side to lift the Sheffield Shield, so he gave it one more year. For the third time the Queenslanders got to the final, and Thommo took 42 wickets to help them get there, but the final was drawn so NSW took the Shield. It was a fascinating game, with NSW ending up 18 runs short of victory and Queensland two wickets away from making history.

After he retired from the game Thommo became a successful coach, and he also owned a boat that he would charter, and he ran a landscaping business – perhaps surprisingly plants and gardening were always an interest. In 1991, by which time he was 40, there was talk of him coming back to help Queensland in an injury crisis. He didn’t in the end, but worked hard in the nets. Queensland’s overseas player that season was Graeme Hick, then just a few months away from his baptism of fire in Test cricket against the 1991 West Indians. He had however been playing the First Class game for more than six years by then, so his comment that the 40 year old coach was the fastest bowler he had faced says rather more about Thommo than it does about Hick.

Thommo married wife Cheryl in 1976 and the couple have three sons. A daughter was born in 1991 but sadly died when only a couple of weeks old. Thommo is 64 now and his main occupation these days seems to be as an after dinner speaker and despite the tragedy that struck his family the story that he tells is of a man who has led an enjoyable and in many ways fortuitous life. He was within moments of finding himself amidst the carnage of the suicide bomber who ended the Pakistan/ New Zealand Test in 2002. Thommo left for England and the very next day his charmed existence continued. He was due to catch a train from London Kings Cross to Kings Lynn in Norfolk at 12.45. He missed it, no doubt much to his irritation at the time, but equally certainly to his relief when he later learned that that was the very same train involved in the Potter’s Bar disaster 15 minutes later in which seven people died and more than seventy were injured. It would have taken his mind back to 1977 when he and some of his teammates were not very far from a bomb blast in London. Along the way there were three emergency plane landings, five riots in the West Indies and, of course, that day looking down the barrel of a gun as a young bank employee.

Perhaps Thommo is indestructible – he has certainly led an interesting life.


Nice read

Comment by Midwinter | 12:00am GMT 7 January 2015

Slightly related…

I read something recently that indicated Thomson felt he would set todays radars off at about 180kmh… surely it should be easy enough to take a video of him from delivery release to the time it reaches the batsman and compare it against Brett Lee, Tait, Shoaib Akhtar or bowlers of that ilk.

I’m surprised that’s not been done by some of the networks already considering their video footage for this would be much better than dodgy video recordings or YouTube clips.

Comment by Blocky | 12:00am GMT 8 January 2015

To be fair to Thommo, a lot of batsman (including Crowe who got to see Waqar Younis in full flight) said he was much much quicker than any other bowler they faced, but I think part of this comes down to the fact that his slinging action and bringing the ball from behind his body before release would make him seem quicker. I’ve always hated slingers for that reason.

Comment by Blocky | 12:00am GMT 8 January 2015

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