The game's greats recall when life was fast and batsmen were scared

When most of the world's top pacemen came to London for a celebration dinner, Brian Viner enjoyed life in the fast lane

The pupils at Archbishop Tenison's School in Kennington looked just a little dubious when a benign-looking 60-year-old Antiguan, with grey hair and a pair of replacement knees, was introduced to them as a "really scary man". Half an hour later, though, outside in the playground, they understood a little more of what once made Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts one of the most intimidating bowlers of his generation.

With a casual half-stride, the only kind of run-up of which he remains capable, Andy Roberts zipped a plastic ball off the tarmac with enough speed and accuracy to clatter two of the three plastic stumps behind a 14-year-old still in the process of playing his stylish forward-defensive prod. Big gleaming grins signalled the appreciation of the watching Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, whose past status as scourges of the world's best batsmen doubtless seemed less unlikely to the Archbishop Tenison youngsters, given the improbable height from which the two West Indian giants smiled benevolently down.

The presence not only of Walsh, Ambrose and Roberts in the school playground, but also that of Sir Richard Hadlee, Glenn McGrath, Makhaya Ntini and Devon Malcolm, had been engineered by the Lord's Taverners, that wonderful charity, and in particular by an old Taverners stalwart and former president of Surrey CCC, Brian Downing.

Three years ago, Downing was instrumental in organising a lavish centurions' dinner, a fund-raising spectacular in celebration of the 10 surviving batsmen who had made at least 100 first-class hundreds. This time, the aim was to deliver a bowling equivalent.

The world's greatest living fast bowlers had never gathered under the same roof, so Downing took on the formidable challenge of bringing them all to London. And so it was that last Wednesday evening, the men named above, rather impressively supplemented by the Reverend Wes Hall, Sir Garfield Sobers, Charlie Griffith, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Jeff Thomson, Alan Davidson, Mike Proctor, Clive Rice, Kapil Dev, John Snow, Bob Willis, Andrew Caddick and Darren Gough, assembled with hundreds of paying guests at the Park Lane Hilton.

There were, in truth, a few names missing from the roster of true greats. Dennis Lillee and Sir Ian Botham sent filmed greetings; Imran Khan passed on his apologies. But nobody felt short-changed, certainly not the Taverners, whose long-standing objective "to give young people, especially those with special needs, a sporting chance" was boosted by £100,000. It was a memorable evening, and just as memorable, in its way, was the earlier visit to Archbishop Tenison's School, just across the road from The Oval.

While the other bowlers joined in the fun, I grabbed a chance to talk to Ntini, the former cowherd from rural Cape Province whose story is surely unique even in the annals of urchins popping up from the boondocks to become Test cricketers. I had read about it, but sitting on a playground bench I got it from the man himself.

"I was 13, looking after the cows in my village," he said. "I only knew about cricket because when our big brothers came back from the mines, for six days at Christmas, we watched them play. But after that, cricket died. There was nobody to organise us or teach us. Then one day we saw a lot of cars in our village. It was amazing to see all those cars in our area, and when I got closer I saw people playing mini-cricket." It was an initiative to encourage underprivileged black youngsters to give the game a whirl, not that even the good-hearted folk behind it expected the bare-footed Ntini, who was persuaded to join in, to whirl his way to 390 Test wickets.

His record is truly impressive. No other South African has ever exceeded his total of 13 wickets in a single Test match – 13 for 132 against West Indies in Trinidad in 2005 – and not even Walsh, Ambrose, McGrath and Roberts took as many 10-wicket hauls. Moreover, one of them was at Lord's, in 2003. "Only 10 people have ever done that," he told me proudly. "And one of them was my hero."

His hero, at a time when black South African cricketers looked mainly to the West Indies for their role models, was the late Malcolm Marshall, whose record of 376 Test wickets was Ntini's principal target in the twilight years of his own Test career. "Beating my hero's numbers was one of my greatest moments," Ntini added.

Most burgeoning fast bowlers have a hero, and for McGrath, growing up in the hinterland of New South Wales, it was Dennis Lillee. I failed to persuade Walsh and Ambrose to join me on the playground bench – "Curtly talk to no man" was, after all, the latter's standard response to interview requests throughout his illustrious career – but McGrath obliged me with 10 minutes of his time, and told me how he had been influenced by Lillee's pugnacious attitude. "I was never as fast," he said, "but I had reasonable control."

This was like Luciano Pavarotti musing that he could hold a tune. McGrath wound up with more than 200 Test wickets more than Lillee (563 to 355) and an even better average, 21.64 against 23.92. Any Test average of less than 24 confers enduring greatness on a fast bowler, but, as McGrath was engagingly quick to point out, "Amby's" was even lower. Indeed, Shane Warne in his list of the 50 finest cricketers of his time, placed McGrath fifth but Ambrose third, behind only Tendulkar and Lara. "It was very difficult to split [them]," Warne wrote, "but I think Curtly had that extra half-gear as well as being just as accurate and clinical."

In fact, Curtly looms large in McGrath's story, because in the 1995 series between West Indies and Australia, which the Aussies won, McGrath took the unprecedented – and, it has to be said, potentially suicidal – course of bouncing the big tail-enders Walsh and Ambrose. He smiled when I mentioned this. "We'd copped it from them for a long time before that, so the plan was to get in first, show them we were there to have a go. And for me personally it probably cemented my spot in the team."

As for the Ashes, Australia's most prolific quick-bowling wicket-taker conceded that England deserved to win in 2005, even if the suspicion lingers that for Michael Vaughan's team the ball of the series was the one McGrath stepped on at Edgbaston. "In 06-07 we were always going to win 5-0," he added. "We learnt a lot from that defeat and were a better team because of it. We became a lot more specific with our game plan."

But it is England who now appear to have the urn locked up much as Australia did in McGrath's long-lasting prime. "Yeah, it bloody kills me to say it, but I can't see too many teams getting close to England. They've got a great bowling attack, and in the last [Ashes] series our boys just weren't doing the basics well, weren't landing two balls in the same spot. But when you lose seven senior players in a two-year period, that would destroy most teams. There's a few younger guys coming through now. We've got some interesting times ahead."

Looking slightly less far ahead, I asked McGrath whether he was pleased to be going to that evening's dinner. "Yeah, it's great to get the intelligent players together," he said. I told him that I'd attended the batting version in 2008. "That," he said, po-faced, "would have been pretty dull."

It wasn't, as it happens, but nor was last Wednesday's extravaganza, at which the master of ceremonies, Mark Nicholas, did a fine job interviewing the 22 in batches through the evening, including Curtly "talk to no man" Ambrose. Nostalgia was the overriding theme, entertainingly embraced by the Reverend Wes Hall, wearing his dog collar but still, at 74, unmistakeably the man who tormented opposing batsmen 50 years ago.

He brought the house down with a story about the Australian captain Bobby Simpson, who once, as Hall was commencing his run-up, stepped back and asked for the sight-screen to be pulled from left to right. The adjustment was made, but then, with Hall practically pawing the ground, Simpson stepped back again and asked for the sight-screen to be lugged back a little from right to left. This too was done, and Hall began his run-up, only for Simpson to stop him again. "Actually," he told the umpire, "can we just put the sight-screen between me and that black bastard."

It was not a very ecclesiastical word to use, but at least paved the way for the irreverent Jeff Thomson, who cheerfully effed and indeed Jeffed into the microphone, concluding with the elegant aperçu that "all batsmen are dickheads". There was a notable exchange between Tommo and Bob Willis, who was first asked by Nicholas how he had got himself into the almost trance-like state that yielded his famous figures of 8 for 43 at Headingley in 1981. With a comedian's timing, Willis paused to consider, and then, solemnly, said "heroin". Down came the house again, but when the laughter had died out, he asserted that Tommo was the fastest bowler he ever saw. "Yeah," came a New South Walian voice from the other end of the stage, "but you couldn't bat for shit".

It was a privilege to be privy to the banter of what is clearly, even in retirement, a genuine fraternity, whose enduring bond was nicely summed up by the 82-year-old Davidson, a veteran of the 1953 Ashes and the remarkable tied Test of 1960. "We made captains famous," he said, and 21 men, from the vast Joel Garner to the comparatively squat Darren Gough, murmured their assent.

The Lord's Taverners are the UK's leading youth cricket and disability sports charity. To support the Taverners go to

The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Frank Sivero in Goodfellas; Simpsons' wise guy Louie

The sound of Goodfellas mafioso Frankie Carbone demanding $250m in “damages” would be chilling enough on film, let alone in real life.

Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?