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
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The Independent Online

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.

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