• 02 Mar - 08 Mar, 2024
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Since the early ‘90s, when I began watching cricket, the fast bowlers’ run-ups fascinated me. The aura of a pacer steaming in, the leap, and the delivery left me in awe. I started imitating them; I vaguely recall being struck by champion Imran Khan’s suave pitch presence. Little did I know, my idol was once intimidated by the “Kaali Aandhi” (Black Storm), referencing the West Indian fast-bowling phenomenon of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Elders shared that these bowlers were trailblazers, paving the way for the current lot.
Initially a devoted “Cornered Tiger” fan, I resisted, but as days passed, Imran Khan admitted the West Indians did shake his confidence. As I delved deeper into cricket, my intrigue about the Kaali Aandhi grew. Astonishingly, these lean, mean fast-bowling machines delivered thunderbolts for fun, solidifying their status as the Black Storm by introducing an art that still captivates aspiring cricketers. Whether pace is their strength or not, every kid dreams of the thrill of broken stumps, the scare, the stare, and the bodily blows infamous in the “Body Line” series.
West Indies cricket has a storied association with fast bowling, akin to a horse and carriage. Similar to their dynamic middle-order batsmen, West Indies fast bowlers, particularly up until about two decades ago, emerged consistently. These bowlers, known for their fiery pace, not only terrorized batsmen but also are widely regarded as some of the best of their era, with a select few considered among the all-time greats.
The legacy of West Indies cricket is deeply intertwined with a remarkable lineage of fast bowlers. Starting from the days of Learie Constantine, George Francis, and Herman Griffith, passing through the eras of Manny Martindale, Leslie Hylton, Hines Johnson, Roy Gilchrist, Wes Hall, and Charlie Griffith, to the formidable quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, and Colin Croft. The tradition continued with later legends like Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, and Curtly Ambrose. Fast bowlers have undeniably been the backbone and essence of West Indies cricket, shaping its history with their skill, pace, and utter dominance on the field. Most were fast enough to make batsmen tremble in their boots, and the majority of them are numbered among the best of their time – a few among the best of all time.
No batsman who had the misfortune of facing them in the 1970s going into the 80s, doubted the quality, the skill and the class of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. They were four big men, all standing over six feet, one at 6ft 7in, and another at 6ft 8in. They were all fast but brought different skills to the combination, and batting against them was a nightmare. So rich is the history of fast bowling in West Indies cricket that selecting the three quicks on the all-time West Indies team is no easy task.
Even if the job was to select an all-time West Indies team of fast bowlers, batting from No. 1 to No. 11, there would still be some great ones left behind.
On December 1, 1979, West Indies faced Australia in a series marking the return of top players to national teams after the Kerry Packer World Series. For West Indies, it marked a historic moment as their bowling attack, comprising Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, and Colin Croft, took the field together for the first time. While Roberts had significant experience with 27 Tests and an average of 24.61, Holding had already gained recognition with 57 wickets in 13 Tests. Garner and Croft, with seven Tests each, showcased their prowess by taking 38 and 42 wickets respectively, including Croft's remarkable 8 for 29 against Pakistan. This formidable bowling unit, characterised by fiery pace, skill, and sustained aggression, would go on to challenge opposing batsmen over the next decade and a half.
In the initial Test of the 1979 series at the Gabba, West Indies opted to field, dismissing Australia for 268 and amassing 441 themselves. However, Australia displayed resilience in the second innings, facing 166 overs and declaring at 448 for 6, featuring centuries from Greg Chappell and Kim Hughes. Although the Test ended in a draw, it marked the last time any team would endure as many overs against West Indies for the following seven years.
Australia's second-innings performance stood as the highlight of their series, as they suffered resounding defeats in the next two Tests by 10 wickets and 408 runs, posting totals of 156, 259, 203, and 165 in the four innings. The West Indian pace dominance, briefly interrupted by the Kerry Packer years, gained momentum. Over the subsequent decade and a half, they contested 31 series (including the 1979 one against Australia), securing 21 victories, nine draws, and facing just one controversial loss to New Zealand in 1980. During this period, West Indies won 61 Tests and lost 16, yielding an impressive win-loss ratio of 70-18 when including the pre-Packer years from 1976 to 1978. This ratio surpassed that of the next best side, Pakistan, more than doubling it (3.89 to 1.76). West Indies' bowling prowess was evident with an average of under 26, and pace contributed significantly, claiming 91.63% of the wickets at an average of less than 24.
Notably, the West Indies' bowling statistics revealed relatively low five- and 10-wicket hauls, showcasing the depth of their bowling attack, with only 12 ten-fors, half as many as Australia and nine fewer than Pakistan. Remarkably, seven West Indian fast bowlers secured 50-plus wickets at averages below 25 during that period. Ian Bishop, despite playing only 18 Tests, delivered outstanding performances with an average just over 20, claiming a wicket every 47 deliveries. Malcolm Marshall achieved comparable numbers, playing over four times as many matches, emphasising his exceptional skill. Joel Garner, in 58 Tests, never took a 10-wicket haul and managed only seven five-fors, underscoring the overall strength of West Indies' bowling. Garner concluded his career with 259 wickets at less than 21 apiece. Notably, Marshall, Garner, and Curtly Ambrose stand as the only three in Test cricket history to surpass 200 wickets at averages below 21.
The West Indies pace attack's impressive feat was their dominance in every country they played. They never conceded more than 26 runs per wicket, even excelling on the slow wickets of India with an average of 25.41, boasting the best strike rate among all countries. The 1983-84 six-Test series showcased their prowess, claiming 97 wickets at an average of 24.65, with Marshall as the standout performer (33 wickets) and Holding close behind (30 wickets).

When these men hunted in a pack, no opposition batting line-up had a chance.

Their lethal performances extended to Pakistan where they took 44 wickets in three Tests in 1986-87 and 54 in four Tests at 19.53 in 1980-81. Throughout the 35 series played during this period, their pace attack conceded more than 30 runs per wicket only twice – against Pakistan at home in 1987-88 and against India in 1975-76.
Facing England most frequently, West Indies' fast bowlers excelled in every series. The 5-0 drubbing in 1985-86 saw them secure 94 wickets. When touring England, they maintained their lethal form, with notable series performances: 88 wickets (1976), 85 (1988), 81 (1984), 81 (1980), and 81 (1991). Individually, there were 19 instances of a fast bowler taking 25 or more wickets in a series, with Marshall and Garner achieving this feat five times each, and Ambrose doing it four times. West Indies had such an abundance of fast-bowling talent in the late 1970s and the 1980s that it was impossible to accommodate all of them in an XI.

Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner stroke fear in the hearts of batsmen through the 70s and 80s.
The original fast-bowling quartet played together in 11 Tests, commencing with the series mentioned earlier. West Indies secured victory in five of these Tests, while five ended in draws, including two in the contentious 1980 series in New Zealand and a couple against England affected by weather. The lone Test West Indies lost with all four bowlers in action was against Australia on Boxing Day in 1981, where Holding's remarkable 11 for 107 couldn't prevent a 58-run defeat. Despite Holding's stellar performance, West Indies faltered, folding for just 161 while chasing a fourth-innings target of 220.
In those 11 matches, Garner and Holding stood out as the most effective individual bowlers, averaging around 20 each, while Roberts proved to be the least impactful with only 28 wickets. Unfortunately, Croft's decision to join the rebel tour to South Africa in 1983 marked the premature end of this formidable four-man partnership. Marshall, Roberts, Garner and Holding played only six Tests together, with Roberts being the outstanding bowler in those matches, taking 33 wickets at 17.48. The results in those six matches were three wins, three draws.
In the 26 Tests these three played together, Marshall, Garner, Holding, West Indies had an outstanding record, winning 16 and drawing nine. The only Test they lost was a dead rubber in Sydney in 1985. Between April 1983 and December 1984, West Indies won 10 Tests in a row when all these three played – seven of those by an innings or by 10 wickets. All three bowlers had exceptional records in these 26 Tests, and together they averaged almost 13 wickets per Test, conceding less than 23 runs per dismissal. Indeed, West Indies' fast-bowling talent pool was incredibly deep during that era, to the extent that they could have formed an entire XI consisting solely of fast bowlers and still would have faced the challenge of leaving some exceptional talents out.

Despite being relatively less recognised among the dominators of the 1980s, Sylvester Clarke, as noted by Wisden, was deemed “clinically fearsome” by those who faced him, showcasing an ability to generate daunting pace and steep lift despite his unassuming approach. His international career spanned 11 Tests, predominantly in the subcontinent, where he took 42 wickets at 27.85, limited initially by the abundance of West Indies’ fast-bowling talent and later by a ban due to his involvement with the rebel side touring South Africa at his peak.

If you shake a tree in West Indies four or five fast bowlers will fall.

From the current lot Alzarri and Shamar Joseph have already announced their arrival, it remains to be seen if they are to succeed in the long run and carry forward the legacy.

About the writer
Shahzeb Ali Rizvi is a sports aficionado with a keen eye for the intricacies of cricket and football. He can be reached at [email protected]