JEFF THOMSON Australian Cricket Player

Jeff Thomson was a freak of cricketing nature. In his pomp, he was an
exceptional athlete with a suppleness and elasticity of frame enabling him to
deliver the ball in a way which, if not unique, was certainly very rare, and
mighty effective. Shuffling into a side-on position as he approached the crease,
he started with his bowling arm low before it followed a mighty arc from behind
his back and over his head. Some people found this made it hard to get a clear
sight of the ball but I didn’t think that was the main problem. He was just quick,
even when I first faced him a couple of years after he was at his peak. His peak,
in fact, only lasted a few years before an injury diminished his powers but when
he was at the top it was one of the greatest sights in cricket – unless, of course,
you were the batsman, in which case you had absolutely no time to appreciate
the aesthetics.
I regard myself as having been very lucky to face him when I did. When he
was sending shock waves through the game in the mid-1970s, I was old enough
to be interested in what was happening, but young enough not to be involved. I
watched TV highlights of the 1974–75 Ashes series in Australia in which
‘Thommo’, with the help of Dennis Lillee at the other end, terrorised England’s
batsmen and some of those images still burn bright, such as Keith Fletcher being
clattered on the St George’s badge of his cap and the ball bouncing out to cover.
(It also provided what would become one of the great after-dinner stories about
David Lloyd’s pink Litesome protector being knocked inside out by a ball from
Thommo, with excruciatingly painful consequences for ‘Bumble’.) It was
awesome to watch and remains awesome to contemplate. Mitchell Johnson
created similar mayhem in England’s ranks in 2013–14. Their mettle was tested
and found wanting, and they had the advantage of wearing helmets. Imagine
what it would have been like had they faced Johnson without such protection
and you have an idea of what it must have been like facing Thomson circa 1975.

He also had an immense physical and psychological impact on West Indies
when they toured Australia the following winter. He took 29 wickets in six Tests
against them as opposed to 33 in five against England, which suggests they
coped marginally better, but the main difference was that it galvanised them into
improvement. It was an especially formative experience for the likes of Clive
Lloyd, Viv Richards and Michael Holding. It hardened them to the realities of
Test cricket and when West Indies assembled a fearsome pace attack of their
own they did not think twice about using it to the full. Lillee and Thomson
taught them that much.
No wonder batsmen around the world offered up silent prayers of thanks
when Thomson was involved in a collision with a teammate, Alan Turner, in the
field during a Test in Adelaide and dislocated his right shoulder.
Understandably, he never quite had the same flexibility or power in that shoulder
again. He lost pace, it was as simple as that. It was tragic for him, but great news
for his opponents, and we in the England camp were duly grateful.
If he was awesome before his injury, he was still very good after it. He took
20 or more wickets in the next three series he played, starting with the tour of
England in 1977 when he was left to spearhead the attack on his own, Lillee
having joined Kerry Packer. Thommo initially and admirably decided to stay
loyal to Establishment cricket and the efforts he put in on Australia’s behalf
when the team were missing many frontline performers were most impressive.
Clive Lloyd said that one of the things the West Indies found most striking about
Thomson at his peak was his ability to come back late in the day with the old
ball, and still summon up some explosive pace to shake you out of the
complacent assumption that you were nicely settled.
That was Thommo to a tee. Even in his second career, he was always full-on,
quick enough to keep you on your toes, and always trying his utmost. I first
faced him on a 1979–80 tour of Australia in a warm-up match against
Queensland, and I can vividly recall the ducking and weaving. He appeared in
one Test against us that time but I remember him more on our next tour when he
played a much bigger part in Australia’s win. Despite not being given the new
ball, he took 22 wickets at 18.68 in four matches, which rightly suggests he had
intelligence as well as raw pace. Used in short bursts, he remained very
dangerous. On one occasion when I was facing Thommo shortly before lunch at
Sydney, where he perhaps bowled best of all, I looked behind to see Rod Marsh,
the wicketkeeper, with his hand held up by the peak of his cap, suggesting that
Thommo bowl a bouncer. I then looked at Thommo, who was by now at the end
of his mark, and back at Marsh. It was classic ‘I know that he knows that he
knows that I know’ but now I hadn’t a bloody clue whether Thommo would go
for the double – or treble – bluff or what! I could have tried ducking well before
he got to the crease and released the ball but in the end it faded into a damp
squib moment as I ended up leaving a length ball outside the off stump. I can
only apologise that the end of the story was not more interesting.
By the time I faced him again during the 1985 Ashes, when he was recalled
to the Test side after a long absence, he was a shadow of his former self and no
longer as serious a threat, but the legend of Thommo had long since been
established and it won’t die as long as the game is played. I will always
remember him as someone who was competitive, uncomplicated and bloody
good fun.