Ex-Aussie pacer Jeff Thomson's fast and furious days
In a freewheeling chat, mid-day spoke to Aussie speed legend Jeff Thomson to find out what drove him to keep steaming in during his decade-plus international career
The first scorecard available on the Internet featuring Jeffrey Robert Thomson in any class of cricket is a game involving Indians – the Indian schoolboys on their 1968-69 tour of Australia. It was a game at one of the school grounds in Sydney in which Thomson claimed five wickets for New South Wales schools.
Mumbai Cricket Association-IDBI Federal Life Insurance Bowling Foundation spearhead Jeff Thomson at the Mumbai Cricket Association’s ground in Bandra Kurla Complex yesterday. Pic/Suresh KK
Bharat Kunderan, who kept wicket in that December 1968 game, remembers Thomson slicing through his team’s batting with a fifer and in the process breaking future Test player Brijesh Patel’s thumb. Patel recalls that drying wicket and every batsman knows how difficult it is to handle fast bowlers on such a track.
England’s Tony Greig is served a rising delivery from Australia’s Jeff Thomson as wicketkeeper Rod Marsh and slip fielders Ian Chappell, Greg Chappell and Doug Walters (third slip) are alert during the fourth Test at Sydney in the 1974-75 Ashes series. Pic/Getty Images
Thomson was known for his pace even before he made a mark in first-class cricket in the early 1970s and it is this aspect of bowling which the Queenslander is so keen on while being the face of the Mumbai Cricket Association-IDBI Federal Life Insurance Bowling Foundation.
At the pavilion end of the MCA ground in Bandra Kurla Complex yesterday, Thomson did not want anything to come in his way while watching one of his wards Harshal Soni using the new ball in an under-23 Shalini Bhalekar Trophy game. And when Soni claimed his fourth wicket for Naren Tamhane XI against Hemant Waingankar XI, he exclaimed, “he’ll get his fifth soon,” although the innings had ended.
A few moments later, Thomson got up from his seat, turned to his right and applauded the bowler and his team. International cricket’s erstwhile fastest bowler doing that made for an inspiring sight. What a good time to be a young bowler in Mumbai! mid-day spoke to Thomson (65) during the innings break over a cup of coffee to find out what drove him to keep steaming in during his decade-plus international career.
John Buchanan coached Queensland to their maiden Sheffield Shield victory in 1994-95, but you did some good work as coach before that historic win...
He (Buchanan) will tell you himself that I set that up. We got to where we always tried to be and that was to win the Shield. And the guys I set up won for a long time after that.
Did you feel your cricketing CV was incomplete by not being part of a Queensland Sheffield Shield-winning team?
Yes. It was a nightmare. I could have stayed in New South Wales and won a lot, but I wanted to go to Queensland with Greg Chappell. For years we tried our best for Queensland, but when we went away on Australia duty, the guys could not finish off what we were doing and that was frustrating.
There’s a story about Greg Chappell facing you in a Queensland vs New South Wales game. He vowed to get you to Queensland so that he doesn’t have to face you...
(Laughs). I didn’t want to bowl to him every match either so it was a mutual agreement.
You played your Test debut game against Pakistan at Melbourne in 1972 with a broken foot, didn’t you?
I didn’t know the foot was broken. It was sore (before the Test) and I thought it would go. I then found out it was broken so that was that. Bad luck, bad timing (Thomson’s figures in that Test were 0 for 110)
Were you devastated after that kind of debut?
No, but I was very angry. I was never worried about not getting picked again so I thought, ‘look, this gives me a break and when I come back, I’ll be even better.’ You were seen on television chasing wild pigs in preparation for the 1974-75 Ashes... I used to do that all the time. I liked getting away from the game all the time. I got away so I could stay fresh. It was an enjoyment for me.
What was your mindset before that Ashes series?
I was totally confident. I knew I’d do well. I saw the English batsman and thought, ‘these guys are not going to trouble me much’.
They called the England side ‘Dad’s Army’...
Yeah, it was a bit like that. You had guys at the end of their careers and you get a young guy like me at the start of my career. In all fairness, it’s a bit of a mismatch. In some cases, it happens. You see it all the time. It happened to me at the end of my career –in England, 1985. I was not the first or second choice. I bowled really well for a while in the county games, but when I played the Test, ‘Beefy’ (Ian Botham) hit me in the knee and I could not bowl. I said to myself, ‘it’s time to move on.’
I’m taking you back 40 years. At Perth, even before 42-year-old Colin Cowdrey faced a ball, he said to you, ‘Good morning, I’m Cowdrey’. Do you rate that as one of the best lines you’ve heard from an opposing batsman?
Well, it’s the best introduction I’ve ever heard. Normally, batsmen don’t say a word to you especially if you are a fast bowler and when you are on fire (laughs). Colin Cowdrey was genuine. He was not trying to con me or something. This is the sort of bloke he was. It was as if he was looking forward to it (the challenge). He actually said he was sitting at home (in England) thinking how it is to face these blokes and then soon he was doing it. But he was a good player. He got behind the ball. The others were running away most of the time, but he wasn’t.
Ian Chappell said that you didn’t like Englishmen too much...
I bowled just as good against the West Indies. I didn’t like any batsman and that is the attitude you’ve got to have. You don’t actually physically dislike them but you’ve got to realise that they are keeping you out there and the longer you bowl to them, the more tired you are going to get. So, the quicker you get them out, the better it’s going to get for you.
You bowled a delivery in the 1974-75 Ashes that went straight over wicketkeeper Rod Marsh’s head to the sightscreen. Do you think the Englishmen just lost it when they saw that ball land there?
Possibly. But I think it was the broken bones (laughs). The balls which didn’t hit the sightscreen broke ribs, arms, fingers... everything. So it was more of that than the ones which hit the sightscreen. And also, Dennis Lillee bowling at the other end.
Which performance would you rate higher — 33 wickets in the 1974-75 Ashes or 29 wickets against West Indies in 1975-76?
West Indies — much better players, who could play pace. I really bowled quick to them. Especially after Roy Fredericks’ 169 in the second Test...Yeah. We lost that Test in Perth. That was when my friend Martin Bedkober got killed. (Bedkober collapsed when he was hit on the chest by a medium pace bowler during a club match in Brisbane) It wouldn’t have mattered, we got flogged in that match.
How much did Martin’s death affect you?
We would have lost that Perth Test but it did put me off. I actually felt sorry for the kid who bowled the ball because he didn’t mean it. I never heard of him again. I’m just happy it didn’t happen when I was bowling to somebody. I felt, ‘here I am... the world’s fastest bowler and that bloke was just a medium pacer. It was just unfortunate for Martin, a 21-year-old kid. He came over (from NSW) to try his hand at Queensland as a WK-opening batsman. He was a really good player. He came to live with me and he played for my club (Toombul).
Were you surprised that West Indies succumbed to a 1-5 defeat? After all, they had won the 1975 World Cup and achieved a Test series over India in 1974-75...
I was not surprised. When we lost that World Cup final (by 17 runs) at Lord’s, I sat up in the balcony and while all the accolades were flowing, I made a promise – ‘I’m going to stitch you guys up when you come to Australia.’ I was ready and waiting for them.
Were you angry that you were not able win that final?
Yeah. I was the last man out (run out for 21). All these things made me try harder when they came to Australia. I bowled really well to them and it was pleasing to do what you set out to do.
What sort of a captain was Ian Chappell and how was he different from his brother Greg?
He might not think this, but Ian was cool, calm and collected... very subtle. He wouldn’t have to worry about his good players... Dennis Lillee and me. We knew what to do. It were the other guys in the team who weren’t so good... Ian was very good at getting them to play better than they could. In other words, everyone played for him because he was a good leader. Greg was a good leader too. Greg was probably the best batter. I never played against Sobers or Bradman but Greg was unbelievable. He didn’t suffer fools and wondered some guys could not do what he said. He would get a bit more outspoken and the fact was they were not as good as him.
You and Alan Turner crashed into each other in the Adelaide Test against Pakistan in 1976. What did that shoulder injury take away from your bowling?
It took the super speed I had away. The timings and all came after that. It’s funny, I thought about this last night. I wondered why that happened because I was just getting quicker and quicker. I didn’t think the guys were handling it too well. When it (collision) happened they said I’d never play again but you never say never to me. I went away and did my own work and then in a matter of few months, I was playing again.
What did you tell yourself in that period of being out of cricket?
I heard someone say, ‘I don’t think he will play again’ and that just burned my ears at the time that happened. But really, I never ever doubted that I’d play again.
Were you cross with Alan Turner for long?
I never blamed him. The only thing I told him was how the hell could you run into someone and not see him? I just said it was meant to be and was happy to be playing again?
You couldn’t play the 1977 Centenary Test because of that collision...
I didn’t play any of the Centenary Tests (1977 in Melbourne and 1980 at Lord’s) and that pissed me off. The Poms were half of my wickets and I never got to play those Tests. I watched the guys play in Melbourne for an hour and flew home. I didn’t want to be there. I should have been there on the field and I couldn’t watch anyone playing in my spot. I was angry that I was not there and I didn’t want to be involved in all the bullshit.
What sort of challenge did India provide in 1977-78?
The only other time I played India was against the Indian Schoolboys. I had an easy time then. Sunil Gavaskar played pretty well – he got three centuries. He was always a good player of fast bowling. The other guy who I thought was a good player of pace bowling was Jimmy Amarnath and I liked him. He got a hundred on that quick wicket in Perth (after his 90 in the first innings) and I think I scored the winning runs in that Test.
This one is about your great bowling partner. In the Foreword to your first book Thommo, Dennis Lillee wrote: ‘When I think about Thommo the bowler, I get an immediate picture of absolutely frightening speed.’ What picture do you get when you think about Dennis, the bowler?
I see a picture of a guy with hair, a moustache and not happy... abusing! The moment you gave Dennis a cricket ball, he was aggressive. I’m pretty quiet unless you ruffle me. Yes, I used to abuse myself and Dennis used to abuse the others (laughs).
Thommo’s Top three batsmen
He had to play the West Indies bowlers all the time. They had four to five quicks and he was so consistent. He was tighter than Viv Richards. Viv gave you chances; Greg wouldn’t.
He was the most destructive batsman I bowled to. On his day, Viv would be the worst one to bowl to.
He was smooth as silk. He never bludgeoned the ball. With Barry, it was just timing, just technique.