Jeff Thomson was a freak of cricketing nature. In his pomp, he was an exceptional athlete, with suppleness and elasticity of frame enabling him to deliver the ball in away. 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. Jeffrey Robert Thomson was born on 16 August 1950 at Greenacre, Sydney, New South Wales. He is also famous as “Thommo”, considered by many to be the fastest bowler of his generation.
Jeff Thomson won pride of place in the local Bankstown newspaper, The Torch, in an article headed ‘Sports Star’: Sports star of the week fast bowler 20-year-old Jeff Thomson won his award for his performance in a Bankstown-Canterbury District Cricket Club’s third-grade match against St George when he took 10 wickets for 31 runs.
Thommo gets a rapid development in 1972-73 and left a big impact on the First-Class debut match against New South Wales against Western Australia. Overall, he gets 17 wickets in that season and was given a chance against Pakistan for the second Test replacing Bob Massie. Unfortunately, he could not meet selectors’ expectations, by leaking 110 runs with wicketless in that match.
Jeff Thomson was just quick, even when after he was at his peak. Thommo, 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.
When he was sending shock waves through the game in the mid-1970s, many batsmen were brave enough to be interested in what was happening, but young enough not to be involved. Many crickets lovers remember to watch TV highlights of the 1974–75 Ashes series in Australia in which ‘Thommo’, with the help of Dennis Lille at the other end.
They were terrorized 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 Lite some 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 the 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 galvanized them into improvement.
It was especially a 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.
Jeff Thomson bowled mighty fast against Clive Lloyd’s West Indians in 1975–76, but during the Perth Second Test match, he heard the tragic news that his flat-mate Martin Bedkomer, who had gone north to try and find a Sheffield Shield place with Qld, was killed when hit in the chest batting for Toombul in Brisbane grade cricket in December 1975. After the Test match, Thommo flew to Sydney to attend his friend’s funeral.
Thommo initially and admirably decided to stay loyal to Establishment cricket, and the efforts he put in on Australia’s behalf when the team was 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. England faced him again on a 1979–80 tour of Australia in a warm-up match against Queensland, and they were vividly recalling the ducking and weaving. He appeared in one Test against England that time, but more on the 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 a raw pace. Used in short bursts, he remained very dangerous. On one occasion David Gower was facing Jeff Thomson shortly before lunch at Sydney, where he perhaps bowled best of all, I looked behind to see Rod Marsh, the wicketkeeper, with his handheld 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 apologize 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 if the game is played.
Many cricket lovers always remember him as someone who was competitive, uncomplicated, and had bloody good fun. In 2016, Jeff Thomson was included in the Australian Hall of Fame cricketer. Wisden wrote: “it was easy to believe they were the fastest pair ever to have coincided in a cricket team”.
Mike Brearley, the Middlesex the captain who led England during the World Series Cricket incursion said of Thommo:
“Broken marriages, conflicts of loyalty, the problems of everyday life fall away as one faces up to Thomson”
To his eternal credit, Thommo remained true to himself. He refused to slow down to achieve more accuracy. Thomson was a fast bowler, and he was to do it his way. He would not bow down to convention. All outpace was his motto in cricket, but in life itself, Thommo lived in the fast lane.
Thommo had great affection for his mates, to whom he was fiercely loyal. His rise in the game eventually came, but only after years of frustration and conflict with those who reckoned he should go about his cricket in a more conventional manner. By the time he got back to the Test stage for his second crack at the big time, Thommo was the fastest bowler in the world.