Yes, as the title suggests this is a three-way comparison to decide the greatest fast bowler the world has ever seen. I would like to clear in the beginning that if it wasn’t for the concern about the length of the article I would include a few more bowlers in the list for comparison. This includes Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Fred Truman, Alan Donald etc. There are some bowlers which were as good as these three but do not qualify as fast bowlers, for example, Richard Hadley. India produced a great fast medium bowler in Kapildev. He used to say that the only thing that missed in his repertoire was genuine pace. I mean genuine pace when I say a fast bowler, meaning that the bowler can consistently bowl over 143 km (90 miles)/hour. There is nothing like genuine pace to boost your bowling aspirations. The world has seen several good bowlers who were not penetrative enough when needed because they lacked the pace to destroy the opposition enough number of times.
Big Curtly Ambrose was the most potent fast bowler I have ever seen. He could rip out the heart of your batting line up with a range of arsenal that is unparalleled in the history of cricket. The initial impression anyone got while watching Ambrose for the first time was that this guy means bounce. On the green tops of Kingston, he would be at your chin all the time. But that was not always the case with Ambrose. See the videos of his golden years and you can see a clever bowler changing his length, controlling the amount of bounce to get the ball to swing in and out to fox the batsman. This doesn’t mean that he could not get the bounce. Rest assured that when required, he could bend his back and chin music could be heard loud and clear. That unbelievable spell at WACA against Australia when he took 7 wickets for 1 run just showcases the man’s talent in full glow. The yorkers, in swinging deliveries, the steep bouncing leg cutters; was all there to see. He is 6 feet 6 inches tall which naturally forced the batsman’s thinking into moving on the back foot. He would cleverly see this and changed the way he delivered the ball to a slightly slower in swinging delivery not bouncing over the top of the stumps and getting the batsman trapped LBW. However, he was lucky to find a patient and a clever partner at the other end in Courtney Walsh who could keep plugging away day in day out and was a mean customer in his own right. Accurate, unplayable and just unstoppable when in the form that was Sir Curtly Ambrose! A bowler every captain dreams of and the sheer capability to run through the opposition while defending a small score was a nightmare for the opposition. It seemed as if he specialized in bowling out oppositions in low scoring affairs.
Dennis Lille was a tough, mean and aggressive fast bowler. When the history of fast bowling will be written it will start and end with Lille. Absolutely a perfect fast bowler! When you speak of Australian cricket a discussion on sledging isn’t too far away and Lille was a triple Ph.D. in it. This also means several incidents against opponents. The one against Javed Miandad comes to mind immediately and there were many others. He said in one of his interviews that he was prepared to die on the pitch to get your wicket. That pretty much sums up his approach. However, unfortunately, he is remembered more for his antiques on the field than the several great displays of fast bowling he produced. For all Australians winning the Ashes is the primary goal. And England has suffered a great deal at the hands of Lille in this endeavor. Once they decided to prepare docile wickets for Australia on their visit to the UK, thinking this will give them a chance against the great bowler who was supported by another even quicker and meaner bowler called Jeff Thompson. But it did not quite happen as Lille dropped his pace a little, concentrated on bowling cutters that moved both ways and once again cut the UK batting in half by taking fifers in both innings to win the match for Australia. West Indies team in the 70s under Clive Lloyd was considered as one of the greatest teams of all time with many great players. But this team suffered a humiliating 1-5 test series defeat in 1976 while playing for the Frank Worrel trophy. The chief wreckers were Lille and Thompson. This duo is also regarded as the greatest fast bowling pair of all time. The worst part from the batting point of view was that he could also bowl long spells and just was at you all the time with no respite. Caught Marsh bowled Lille was a term that was established during this period where the wicketkeeper ably supported the great bowler to achieve the victories. There used to be great discussions among British about how to tackle the pace duo of Lille and Thompson and the famous joke made circles at that time. An old woman who listened to the discussions asked how the England batsmen could be traumatized by a woman called Lillian Thompson. He had to endure many injuries that threatened his career at one time. But thanks to the vigorous recuperating programs, he revitalized his career and came out more determined albeit, a bit slower in pace.
I first time saw Wasim Akram in 1985 in Australia in Benson Hedges Cup which incidentally India won. There was little first class infrastructure in Pakistan at that time and the Pak captains and senior players mostly used to pick up the talented cricketers from nets. Javed Miandad had picked this lanky, awkward left arm pacer and my first reaction was what kind of bowling action is that? But one thing clearly noticeable was that he was an awkward customer from the batsman point of view. Similar to the two stalwarts discussed above he was versatile. He could bowl six different balls in an over without a change of expression. He was called sultan of swing. A true master! His yorkers and in dippers were not just effective but were delivered with such precision that the clean bowled batsman left the crease with an air of disbelief on his face. How on earth could the delivery swing like that and so late? This was the time when the world was becoming aware of reverse swing. Wasim was also the best batsman out of these three and was a genuine all-rounder. He was instrumental in the Pakistan’s maiden world cup victory in 1992. He literally carried the Pakistan bowling on his shoulders with an injured fast bowling partner Waqar Younus and the past his prime Imran Khan. The short run up to the crease and the hustling bowling action gave batsmen no time to react. To top it the delivery itself was late swinging and bowled at pace. If you didn’t have the technique to face such type of hostile swing bowling you were pretty much dead as K Srikant found out in India’s tour of Pakistan in 1989-1990. He was the greatest one-day international bowler of all time in my opinion due to his ability to restrict the batting team quickly within a space of a few overs. He took 23 four wicket hauls in ODI cricket. He also took 4 hat-tricks in international cricket 2 in tests and 2 in ODIs. He also has a test match double hundred to his credit. An astonishing talent and one of the greatest bowlers the world has ever seen.
Now about my opinion of who is the greatest fast bowler of them all? In ODIs, I think Wasim Akram is the clear numero uno with no competition. In tests, I will go with Curtly Ambrose and Dennis Lille as combined number 1. I really cannot say which one was better and who I will pick in my team. They bowled during different times and were great bowlers in all respects. One talked a great deal and the other not much, that was probably the only clear difference. But frightening bowlers all the same! Wasim Akram will be a close third in tests in my opinion.