This week, England picked five specialist bowlers and defeated the West Indies inside three days in the earliest Test Match ever held in England – starting a full five days earlier than the previous record-holder. Debutant Tim Bresnan only bowled seven overs despite nudging the 90mph mark on the radar speed gun, but the other four bowlers all contributed towards the victory with crucial wickets at vital times.
While on the subject of bowlers, it is possible to use the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings to try to discover which was the finest bowling attack in Test history. By totalling the bowling points for each team in each match, we can go some way to attempting to answer this question.
The first obvious candidate is the all-conquering West Indian pace-attack of the 1980s. Their bowling peak came at the end of the 1986 Test Match in Antigua when they totalled 3635 points mainly thanks to Malcolm Marshall (900), Joel Garner (845), Michael Holding (786), Roger Harper (484) and Patrick Patterson (383).
Another possibility is the Warne / McGrath inspired Australians of the 1990s and 2000s. Their peak was during the 1997 Ashes when they reached a total of 3755 points thanks to Glenn McGrath (878), Shane Warne (811), Paul Reiffel (652), Michael Bevan (417) and Jason Gillespie (383). Steve Waugh (331) and Mark Waugh (230) also contributed to the total. That was as high as the Aussies ever reached in their extraordinary run of success in the past two decades.
So, if those teams didn’t quite make the medal places, which were the three best attacks in Test history?
In third place we have the 1975 Australians who took the field at Headingley. The Test is mainly remembered for the sabotaging of the pitch by vandals who caused the match to be abandoned before the fifth day. However, the Australian bowling line-up was formidable and dismissed England twice for under 300: Dennis Lillee (812), Max Walker (744), Ashley Mallett (678), Jeff Thomson (608) and Gary Gilmour (410) being the prime contributors to the total of 3848 bowling points.
In second place we have the Australian contingent from the 1955 Bourda Test against the West Indies in Guyana which came in the middle of a 3-0 series win for the visitors. The home side featured the three W’s and a certain Garry Sobers in their line-up but they were humbled for just 182 and 207 to go down to an eight-wicket defeat thanks to the combined efforts of Ray Lindwall (830), Keith Miller (796), Bill Johnston (728), Ian Johnson (637), Ron Archer (444) and Richie Benaud (403) who contributed nearly all of the Australian team’s 3873 bowling points.
However, our search for the greatest bowling line-up in Test history ends with an England side. Not the 2005 Ashes-winning side that famously used five specialist bowlers to recapture the Ashes (they peaked at 3474 by the way). This team took the field nearly half a century earlier – at The Oval in August 1958 against New Zealand – in a match ruined to such an extent by rain that only twelve hours total play was possible. However, there was enough time for the visitors to be shot out for just 161 in their first innings - not surprising when you examine the bowlers on display. Opening the attack were Fred Trueman (733) and Brian Statham (693) with Trevor Bailey (727) operating as first-change. Once the shine was off the ball, it was turned over to spin twins Jim Laker (912) and Tony Lock (866) giving a total of 3931 points from just five bowlers – all of whom were rated in the top eleven of the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers at the time.
So, whether they use four bowlers or five, it seems unlikely that any team will ever manage to equal the incredible talent on display all those years ago when England’s bowlers ruled the world.