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Test cricket’s ten most brutal performances – From Holding v Close to Donald v Atherton

by Phil Walker and Sam Stow 18 minute read

Phil Walker and Sam Stow combine to reminisce about a bit of cricketing rough and tumble: here are 10 of the most brutal spells of batting and bowling you’ll ever see.

First published in 2007

10) Devon Malcolm v South Africa, The Oval 1994

Devon Malcolm, a broadly crap batsman, is holding up an end. We’re on a quick one at The Oval. It’s 1994. Sure enough, England’s innings is soon complete, Devon surviving just four deliveries. But they prove to be the most important balls he ever faced.

South Africa’s bolshy post-Apartheid figureheads are enjoying their first free tour of England, and their pace bowlers are enjoying the odd short pitcher aimed at Devon’s head. It’s been a taut series, but now it threatens to unravel. In all the excitement, one of these balls slung down at the rabbit – bowled by Fanie de Villiers – hits him flush on the helmet, sending him crashing to the canvas. Malcolm looks up, dusts himself down, and considers what this might mean, to anyone within earshot. “You guys are history,” he says.

It’s one of those lines, meant as a throwaway remark, that boomerangs back to where it came from, and becomes attached to them forever. Those words would become part of the language of cricket. The Kirsten brothers swagger out to open the second innings, 28 ahead. A DeFreitas maiden passes. At the other end, marking out his run, was the man Nelson Mandela would later dub ‘The Black Destroyer’. Malcolm was often criticised during his career. Pace is one thing (and Devon had pace, I mean Dev had real pace) but something, so they’d say, was lacking. One popular theory went that the elemental trace of evil, lurking in all the great quicks, just wasn’t there. Too soft, went the argument, too damned nice. “Where’s the devil?” they’d ask.

At The Oval on that weird and wired afternoon, Beelzebub took his place behind the bowler’s arm. Malcolm tore in, his loose-limbed approach – so beguiling when it clicked – fuelled not by thoughts of hitting the right areas, or the match situation, or clipboard theories from team meetings, but by the sheer lashing anger of a wronged man.

Six months earlier, in the West Indies, Courtney Walsh had been booed by his own supporters for peppering Malcolm with the short ball. It was seen as beating up on a man who was clearly incapable of defending himself. It was callous then.

Now it had happened again. Devon Malcolm was friggin’ furious. Gary Kirsten, frozen on his crease and leg-side of the bullet, was the first to go, popping up a return catch off the leading edge. 0-1. His brother Peter went next. 0-2. Two overs later Hansie Cronje is barely through his pick-up when the ball crashes into his middle-stump. His body’s stayed leg-side, self-preservation has displaced technique. 1-3.

Lunch. A stay of execution for Kepler Wessels and Daryll Cullinan, who both return after the break to strike a few boundaries. They put on 72, before Malcolm’s second spell removes captain Wessels, caught behind off another rising shell. Further resistance is offered by that hard-nosed sentry Brian McMillan, who, in partnership with the inspired Cullinan, puts on 64. With Devon pawing the ground in the outfield, runs begin to accrue. The third spell – his last – would prove definitive. McMillan immediately fends away from his body and edges to first slip. 137-5. The wicketkeeper Dave Richardson is the next to go, understandably static on the crease and plumb in front. 143-6. Three balls later Craig Matthews is caught behind. He has now taken the first seven wickets to fall.

Malcolm’s bid for all 10 is dashed when Cullinan’s heroic rearguard is cut short by Darren Gough, but with chaos all around it makes no odds. From 175-8, Devon cleans up the last two wickets in three balls, with Allan Donald’s splayed stumps an apt end to a surreal afternoon. Devon leaps, punches the air, smiles (he doesn’t speak), turns to the umpire, and takes his sweater and cap. Then he turns and walks to the pavilion, his point made. In his back pocket he has the sixth-best set of figures in Test history, 9-57. And the most emphatic of last words.

9) Roy Fredericks v Jeff Thomson & Dennis Lillee, Perth, 1975

In 1975, the Lillee-Thomson axis was wreaking terrible havoc on world cricket. The series against West Indies was so merciless that at the end of a 5-1 battering, Clive Lloyd sat down with his team and vowed that never again would they be pushed around. The policy of four fast bowlers was hatched during the bloody aftermath of that series, and, as this Caribbean-heavy top 10 shows, cricket would be an altogether more brutal game thereafter.

And yet, amidst all the carnage and the soul-searching, Roy Fredericks, a 5ft 6in left-handed opening batsman from British Guiana, played one of the great counter-attacking knocks in Test history. On another lightning fast track at Perth, the featherweight southpaw in the maroon cap hooked and pulled Australia’s enforcers to all parts.

The harder they bounced him, the further he hooked them. The faster they bowled, the quicker he slashed. Meeting brutality with yet more brutality, Fredericks was baiting his would-be executors with every shot, urging them to even further extremes of cricketing thuggery, and when the final haymakers had been swung by two floored fast bowlers, he swatted them away once more. He made his hundred – surely Test cricket’s most audacious – from 71 balls, and a match-winning 145-ball 169 in all. A bumper culture was emerging, but despite the blood and bullets, Fredericks had given batsmen hope.

8) Allan Donald v Michael Atherton, Trent Bridge, 1998

Cricket, as CLR James observed, is a drama of many dramas, but there have been few passages of play on cricket’s stage more demonstratively theatrical than this duel between England’s gritty grafter and the man as fiercely acerbic as the cider with which he shared a nickname. Michael Atherton engaged in many other match-ups with ‘White Lightning’ during a career of rugged resistance, but the confrontation on the evening of the fourth day at Nottingham reached a level of intensity seldom seen in any sport, let alone one which for the most part is reluctant to toss aside its surcoat of placidity.

Having let England off the hook at Old Trafford, South Africa seemed set on blowing another advantage at Trent Bridge when a second innings slump left England needing just 247 to level the series. But cometh the hour, cometh the psycho, and when Mark Butcher was dismissed in the 18th over with the score on 40, Hansie Cronje unleashed the tiger in an attempt to remove Atherton and swing the match decisively in the Proteas’ favour.

Opting for an around the wicket attack to the England captain, Donald immediately homed in on his target’s ribcage, and for the next 40 minutes preceded to pepper his prey with everything short and nasty from his repertoire. What made this spell all the more compelling was the reaction of Atherton to Donald’s adrenaline-fuelled aggression. As snorter after throat ball whistled passed his nose, the skipper’s expression seldom flickered from po-faced determination. This was ice refusing to melt in a raging conflagration.

In Donald’s third over, matters reached a climax as another quick-rising delivery was fended off Atherton’s glove into the gleeful grasp of Mark Boucher. But, as Donald wheeled away, Atherton and – more importantly – umpire Steve Dunne were unmoved. As Donald let fly with some choice verbals, Atherton just stood and stared. War was declared.

Luck was on the side of Atherton again the very next ball as an inside edge disappeared past fine-leg, and as the afternoon wore on – despite the fiercest efforts and a constant stream of invective – the tide turned England’s way. Nevertheless the battle continued until a routine nick from the bat of Hussain was spilt by wicketkeeper Boucher. Donald stood and howled mid-pitch, his hollering the final eruption of a force finally spent. The spell had been broken, two gladiators became cricketers again, and England cruised to an eight-wicket win.

7) Michael Holding v Brian Close, Old Trafford, 1976

The culture clash couldn’t have been starker. The raw Jamaican tearaway, all silver chains and disco hair, in the black corner; the balding prizefighter from the back streets of Leeds in the other. Two worlds in collision, played to terraces of aspirational Caribbean migrants and buttoned-up northerners.

Sound crass? This was recessive mid-Seventies Britain, when assertions of ethnic liberty sung out to muffle the skinhead’s chant. It wasn’t pretty. And when England’s South African-born captain said he intended to make the West Indies “grovel”, this infamous 1976 series became unavoidably tied to its social context.

Clive Lloyd’s team never stopped reminding each other of the connotations that this word carried from a white South African’s mouth. Whether or not Tony Greig – “a man with not much talent but a lot of lip” says Viv Richards – meant to inflame the tourists by using a term associated with the white persecution of black second-class citizens, it certainly had that effect. The word echoed throughout the summer. “The moment he said that we had our motivational speech for the team meeting,” Viv says.

Such a taut series would have its flashpoints. Through that summer their four pacemen of the apocalypse whipped up a hurricane; West Indies, with Michael Holding in the lead role, gave us a preview showing of cricket’s uncompromising future. Of course the English response, faced with the new way, was to revert to the old one. And so for the third Test at Manchester, a bedraggled England side opened with John Edrich, 39, and Brian Close, a 46-year-old, recalled to the Test team 27 years after making his debut.

Close was famously brave. Fond of chiding players who showed pain, he’d ask how a ball that’s only on the body for a second could ever hurt anyone. As a legendary short-leg fielder, each bruise was worn as a badge of pride. There were some tough cookies back then, but Closey was the top man. So when England were getting beaten up bad by four quick bowlers and a genius with an SS Jumbo, who did they call?

It was an uneven surface at Old Trafford, and the West Indians, having bothered England for 71 runs in the first innings (Holding 5-17) and disinclined to grovel, set them 552 to win. It was nothing personal. Eighty minutes were left to survive on day three.

The treatment Close received, with Edrich doughtily ducking at the other end, was as grimly fascinating as the final moments of a 15-round title fight, when it’s too much to watch but you can’t turn away. This was in the age before any bouncer restrictions, and Holding and Wayne Daniel peppered him with bumper after bumper. “The bouncers were flying and it was like being in a coconut shy,” Close recalled, “it was great fun, a trying time, but great fun.”

Hairless, hatless, the old warrior never flinched, not even when he was struck a sickening blow just above the heart. Viv will never forget it. Close was his captain at Somerset, but his opponent this day. He later recalled the moment in an interview with The Observer: “Close got hit in the chest by Wayne Daniel and sank to the floor. Okay, I was playing for my country, but this was my skipper on the ground and in pain. So I went up to him. ‘Are you okay, skipper?’ Closey eventually gathered himself together and bellowed ‘F*** off.’ What a man.”

The perfume ball! Brian Close survives another bouncer from Michael Holding

Lloyd, with typical understatement, later said, “Our fellows got carried away”. Eventually the umpire, good old Bill Alley, stepped in to warn Holding and Daniel for ‘intimidatory bowling’, an irony which would have struck Close harder than the fiercest bumper ever could; you could hit Brian Close, you could even leave your mark. But you were buggered if you thought you could scare him.

Somehow they survived the 80-minute onslaught. Close walked off with just a single to his name, and headed straight for the dressing room showers. Edrich turned to his shell-shocked teammates. “Watching him play out there this evening made you proud to be an Englishman,” he said.

6) Courtney Walsh & Ian Bishop v Robin Smith, Barbados, 1990

Sometimes a game of cricket just detonates randomly. There doesn’t have to be any reason for it, sometimes it just goes off. It’s Barbados in 1990, and England are scrapping to stay in a belting series and Robin Smith, a thoroughly good egg and a damn fine player, is preparing to bat out the tricky 30-minute period before tea with Allan Lamb. What follows is a vintage festival of violence from Messrs Walsh and Bishop, who decide to unleash a succession of short pitchers, one after the other, all at Smith’s open-faced helmet.

A great player of fast bowling, Smith ducks, weaves, chins, heads and deflects the ball away, until, with the penultimate ball before the tea interval, Walsh snakes one back into his unguarded jaw and smashes it to pieces. It’s horrific, a bulbous mark emerging within seconds as the extent becomes clear, and Walsh goes to offer a hand, before turning back to his mark, running in even quicker, and sending down another final brutish bouncer. Smith drops his hands, sways back, and walks off smiling. Sadist.

5. Brett Lee v Kevin Pietersen, The Oval, 2005

And so, after 24 days of the greatest battle in sport, it all came down to the last afternoon of the last day of the last Test. When Kevin Pietersen arrives at the wicket after two wickets in two balls, the score reads 67-3. The hat-trick ball is a brute from McGrath and KP’s gloves avoid it by the width of a diamond bracelet. Not out. Next over he’s dropped at slip off Warne. Three overs later Lee bowls him a full length and Pietersen edges to first slip where this time Warne himself grasses a simple chance. He hasn’t dropped a catch all summer but now, on this day of days, he puts him down.

Lee, a hero that summer, finds this not to his liking. What follows next is a working-over as ferocious as anything Tyson, Thomson, Lindwall or Larwood could have mustered. He hits him on the gloves, in the chest, on the inside leg, and on the forearm. Only KP’s exceptional reactions prevent him being clanged on the badge of his helmet. He is literally floored throughout the 20 minutes leading up to lunch. By the end of it, he and us are in bits. It is the most intense passage of Test cricket most of us the right side of 50 have ever seen.

And so, KP returns after lunch with Vaughan’s advice not to let Lee dictate terms running around his brain. The game is so finely balanced one false move tips it inexorably the other way. This is what happens: Lee bowls three overs in his post-lunch spell, of which Pietersen faces 13 balls. Those balls are dealt with thus: 2, 2, 0, 6, 1, 0, 2, 6, 4, 4, 0, 4, 4. In six overs since lunch Pietersen has moved from 35 to 76. One of those fours is executed by flat-batting a rising thunderbolt from outside off-stump straight past the scarpering umpire at waist height. It should be blocked. It really should be defended. Yet it goes back faster than it arrives, which was, incidentally, 96.7mph.

It’s a surreal masterpiece. His hundred comes up with a cracking cover-drive, and it has taken all of 124 balls. The tension dissipates. A bit. You know the rest.

4) Viv Richards v England, Antigua, 1986

Viv was getting married that week, so he had to put on a show for his people. The King of Antigua, having already overseen four straight Test wins, chose the shindig at the Recreation Ground to inflict yet more agony on Gower’s bunch of broken and besmirched cricketers. This was Ian Botham’s nightmare tour, and with tabloid tales of late-night skulduggery seeping under the rolled-up towel at the foot of his hotel room door, and with success elusive on the pitch, Antigua was his last chance to exact revenge on his mate in the other camp.

It didn’t quite work out like that. With quick runs needed in the second innings and a public up for a party, Richards went gloriously berserk, taking Botham and the rest for 110 runs from 58 balls, with seven sixes. Some of these big ones required just one hand, others featured the more conventional two, but whoever bowled and however he hit it, this was the day when Richards crushed what was left of England’s spirit.

At one point, after he’d been swept for another maximum, Botham signalled to his square-leg fielder to go and field in the top tier of the stand. Viv’s team won by 240 runs, to complete another blackwash. Beefy got home and was duly banned for two months for smoking more than the odd cigar.

3) Curtly Ambrose v England, Edgbaston, 1995

Where do you start with Curtly? On a deathbed at Perth in ’92, when he dismantled Australia’s ego with seven wickets for one run? Or maybe you still shudder from the 1990 riots in Barbados, when he ran through Gooch’s boys in a wild last innings, his mum ringing the bell in the street outside her Antiguan home eight times in one afternoon?

But what about the mugging at Trinidad in 1994, the famous 46 all out? Atherton trapped first ball to a classic Curtly breakback and Robin Smith, Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart all clean bowled, six wickets from 10 overs of unbridled nastiness? Who can forget that?

Curtly Ambrose. Benign off the pitch, unplayable on it. There were faster bowlers through the air, but no one from his era broke more fingers, jarred more handles, or nailed more helmets. No bowler seized the moment like Curtly; Trinidad was one of those occasions, when England needed 194 to win after bossing the match and Ambrose destroyed them in less than an hour.

But for sheer brutality, nothing rivals that first session at Edgbaston in 1995, when West Indies’ battery of enormous quicks arrived in Birmingham to discover a pitch covered in grass but rock-hard underneath. Curtly’s crew couldn’t believe their luck. West Indies bowled first, and Ambrose ran down the hill. The infamous first ball was short. Atherton (for it was always Athers) ducked, watching as the ball soared over his head, over the keeper’s head, and almost, I kid you not, over the boundary ropes, finally landing a couple of bounces short of SIX byes. Curtly stood in the middle of the pitch, laughing his head off. He knew what it meant. Athers employed that well-rehearsed wry grin of his, and prodded the pitch with his bat, a ghost smoothing the ground after his own burial.

He lasted two more balls. Graeme Hick was next, decapitated by Courtney Walsh and gone for three. Balls were rearing from good lengths and passing the batsman’s throat. It was frightening, and if Curtly didn’t get you, Courtney or Ian Bishop surely would. Robin Smith, tough nut, had his jaw smashed en route to making two gladiatorial forties, Jason Gallian broke his finger on debut, Alec Stewart was absent hurt with two busted fingers, England survived 74 overs in the whole match. Thanks for coming.

2) Gordon Greenidge v England, Lord’s, 1984

England didn’t win a Test match against West Indies in the Eighties. Not even one! They thought they had a decent chance at Lord’s in 1984, when Gower declared early on day five and left the visitors a target of 344. With Botham and Willis in the side, they must have fancied their chances.

66.1 overs of mayhem later, Gordon Greenidge strode off having bludgeoned 214 runs from 242 balls. This was Greenidge the thrillseeker’s grandest moment. Lord’s had rarely seen its like before, especially those firecracker cocked-knee hook shots from in front of his face. In his slipstream was Larry Gomes, whose cool 92 not out was the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon’s butchery. England did take one wicket though – Desmond Haynes was run out for 17. Gower became just the fourth captain in history to lose after declaring. Botham enjoys reminding him of this fact in the Sky commentary box.

Gower retorts that he wasn’t the one bowling. (IT Botham: 20.1 overs, two maidens, 117 runs, no wickets).

1) Wasim Akram & Waqar Younis, The Oval, 1992

It was the summer after the World Cup before, and Pakistan arrived in England with Imran’s ‘cornered tigers’ war cry ringing in their ears.

Accusations of ball tampering, an allegedly fruity send-off from Ian Botham to Pakistani captain Javed Miandad, excessive appealing from Pakistan’s bowlers and a ludicrous sweater-tugging incident between umpire Roy Palmer and Pakistani firebrand Aaqib Javed all added to the drama, but it was the wizardry of Pakistan’s swing kings Wasim and Waqar that will live longest in the memory.

At the conclusion of the hard-fought series the teams headed to The Oval with one win apiece, but in the event the decider was barely a contest. Having troubled England’s batsmen all summer with a battery of inswinging yorkers, Wasim and Waqar cranked it up even higher to exploit the sultry conditions in Kennington. After choosing to bat first, England were blown away by one of the fiercest spells of left-arm swing bowling ever witnessed – all his victims were bowled or trapped lbw – which left Wasim with figures of 6-67. Having been 138-2, they were bundled out for 207, none of the last six batsmen making double figures.

In the second innings it was Waqar who combined devastating pace with incomparable levels of swing, routing England’s top-order on his way to figures of 5-52. Wasim returned to mop up the tail as England barely avoided an innings defeat.

Pakistan duly won the match and series, Wasim and Waqar confirming their status as the most fearsome opening pairing in cricket. Questioned about the abilities of his twin spearhead, Miandad simply stated: “In Pakistan we know how to swing the ball.” Quite.

First published in 2007

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