What are “quicks” in cricket?

When Stephen Harmison tore through the West Indies batting on the fourth morning of the first Test at Sabina Park in March 2004, his performance added an extra frisson of excitement for England supporters. Quite apart from turning what had been an even contest into a rout, it confirmed the promise that Harmison had shown at home and abroad over the previous few months. That much sought-after rarity in English cricket, an out-and-out quick, had been unearthed once more.

Harmison contributed more than anyone to England’s eventual 3-0 series win, although he received excellent support from England’s three other pacemen, Andrew Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones. By the end of the following summer, when England had won all seven of their Tests at home, Harmison was rated the world’s number one bowler.

In terms of wickets Bob Willis stands tallest for England, even above Fred Trueman, who was the first of all bowlers to the 300 mark. Between the two came John Snow a fine athlete with a rhythmic action who tended to save his best for Tests, particularly against Australia. Willis, all glazed eyes and arm pumping aggression, suffered from not having a regular bowling partner (the role was often filled by Ian Botham), while Trueman undoubtedly benefited from the steadiness of Brian Statham at the other end. And before Trueman came Alec Bedser, that formidable purveyor of medium-fast inswing.

After Willis’s retirement, England’s two most successful quicks were Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick. When both fit, they complemented each other well. Gough, of limited height but huge heart, was loved by crowds and dubbed England’s talisman for the lift he gave to the team. Caddick, whose height allowed him that critical extra bounce, was frequently written off as an awkward character early in his career, but found in Nasser Hussain a captain to make him tick. Angus Fraser’s success in the Caribbean in 1998 was perhaps the crowning achievement of an excellent career, while no one who saw Devon Malcolm’s explosive demolition of South Africa at The Oval in 1994 will forget it.

Delving further back into history, the names of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce will forever be associated with the Bodyline series of 1932/33. According to contemporaries Larwood was as fast then as they come, but he did not play for England again afterwards. Another meteor flashed briefly across the skies 22 years later, as Frank Tyson ripped through Australia’s batting in 1954/55, and South Africa’s in England the following season. Before any of these Sydney Barnes, though not of top pace, was a performer of critical importance for England in the early 20th century, and Maurice Tate, who turned from slow to quick, took 155 wickets in just 39 Tests.

Perhaps the earliest quick to become a household name was an Australian. “The Demon” Frederick Spofforth was a key figure in the early development of Australian cricket, and played regularly against England in the 1880s, taking 14 wickets to carry Australia to victory in the first Ashes match in 1882. His legacy is a proud one, stretching all the way down to Glenn McGrath, one of the greatest to play the game, and Brett Lee, one of the fastest. In an age when pace could be measured a good deal more accurately than in the days of Spofforth, Lee broke the 160 km/h barrier during the 2003 World Cup. Possessed of a devastating yorker, his comparative pace to Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar was the source of much media hype.

Australians too hunt better in pairs witness Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller after the war – and perhaps did so most devastatingly in the mid 1970s, when Dennis Lillee was joined by a man with an almost freakish action, Jeff Thomson, to terrorise batsman around the world. Lillee’s approach to the wicket in his pomp was fantastic to watch in its raw, flowing splendour, while Thomson’s delivery, the ball slung from behind his shoulder, made it hard for batsmen to see it with anything like the time they needed. After their time Craig McDermott was Australia’s key quick of the 1980s, while Merv Hughes was as well known for his complexion and language as for his achievements with the ball. Jason Gillespie, although injury-prone, was also to become a world-class quick.

Shoaib Akhtar, who burst on to the scene in the 1999 World Cup, was not the first Pakistan bowler to succeed with pace. Imran Khan, lithe and athletic, was perhaps the most famous, although Wasim Akram, one of a handful of bowlers to pass the 400 mark, heads their list of wicket-takers. And when it came to toe-crushers, who wanted to be “Waqared”? Waqar Younis was magnificent, and his partnership with Wasim in their earlier years could be devastating. Neighbours India, more noted for spin have produced two fine and durable quicks in Kapil Dev, their great all-rounder, and Javagal Srinath. And although no bowler of express pace has emerged fro Sri Lanka, Chaminda Vaas has served them to guileful effect at fast-medium.

In southern Africa, the man they called “White Lightning” struck more than anyone else. Allan Donald was one of the great modern quicks, and his duel with Mike Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1998 remains one of the most compelling passages of play in recent years. Two Pollocks – Peter before isolation and his nephew Shaun since have also made huge contributions. Neighbours Zimbabwe’s impact on Test cricket would have been still more limited without the Herculean effort of their prime bowler, Heath Streak. Returning to the Antipdoes, no quick in world has been more accomplished or consistent than Richard Hadlee, who led New Zealand’s attack in the 1970s and 80s.

There is surely no sight more awesome than a genuinely fast bowler in his prime, or more daunting than a pair of them operating in harness. When it comes to four in the same team, which West Indies were able to field in the 1980s, history tells us that there is little chance of withstanding the barrage. It was an Antiguan, Andy Roberts, who set the tone, with a deceptively relaxed run up that preceded extreme pace and a lethal bouncer. Michael Holding’s approach, so quiet that the umpire could hardly hear it, was known as “Whispering Death” and his display on an Oval featherbed in 1976 was immortal. At six foot seven, Joel Garner possessed the last word in yorkers, while Malcolm Marshall, swift, skiddy and resilient, was perhaps the greatest of them all. But none was more durable than Courtney Walsh, the first to pass 500 wickets, or meaner than Curtly Ambrose, another of the game’s literal and metaphorical giants.

With the retirement of Walsh, the lethal production line ended. With it went West Indies’ invincibility, passing to Australia, who in McGrath, Gillespie and Lee had a formidable pace of attack of their own. That mere fact illustrates how influential extreme pace can be. The West Indies’ attack may have been unbalanced, even monotonous at times, but it was unarguably one of the most effective in the history of the game.