So far, we have looked at 40 of the greatest bowlers this game has produced in parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this countdown. Now rounding up this mammoth list are the top ten bowling talents in the history of cricket. The ten greatest bowlers the world has seen till date- the Zen masters of the art of bowling. The ten consist of 4 Australians, 2 Caribbeans and 1 each from New Zealand, England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This means that our top 50 contains 12 bowlers each from England and Australia, 9 from West Indies, 6 from Pakistan, 4 from South Africa, 3 from India and 2 each from New Zealand and Sri Lanka. This means that Zimbabwe and Bangladesh were the only top nations to miss out. Considering there is only one bowler to have taken over 300 international wickets from the two nations, it is hardly surprising.
Of these 50, 45 are right arm bowlers and 5 are left arm. If we classify them on the basis of bowling styles, there are 32 fast bowlers, 17 spinners and surprisingly enough 1 medium pacer as well. Right arm seamers rule the roost by accounting for 30 entries, followed by right arm spinners with 15. They are joined by 3 left arm seamers and 2 left arm spinners. The oldest player to make the cut is Fred Spofforth who made his debut in 1877 in the 2nd Test ever while the latest is Dale Steyn, the only active player on the list. Contrastingly, there were 10 active players in the corresponding batting list. This just goes on to show how lop sided modern game has become of late. Six of these stalwarts played predominantly before the First World War (1880-1914); 4 in between the two wars (1918-39) and 13 after the war till the beginning of the ODIs (1945-70). Thirteen players played in the first wave of one day cricket (1970-90) and 11 in the final golden age age of bowling, the generation we grew up watching (1990-2000). Only three cricketers from the 21st century (2000 onwards) make the cut. Of these 50, only one (Steyn) actively plays in international games while three others (Muralitharan, Warne and Vaas) play in domestic games around the world.
Before I commence, I want to give an honourable mention to five bowlers who could be in any list of the 50 greatest bowlers but missed out here, not because of any lack of talent but because of stiff competition. Had they been numbers 50-46, it still would have made sense. They are (in chronological order):
- Brian Statham (Eng) 252 Test wickets at 24.84 and 2260 FC wickets at 16.37
- Bishen Singh Bedi (Ind) 266 Test wickets at 28.71 and 1560 FC wickets at 21.69
- Craig McDermott (Aus) 291 Test wickets at 28.63 and 203 ODI wickets at 24.71
- Heath Streak (Zim) 216 Test wickets at 28.14 and 239 ODI wickets at 29.82
- Brett Lee (Aus) 310 Test wickets at 30.81, 377 ODI wickets at 23.18 and 28 T20I wickets at 25.50
So now, without wasting time, let us take a look at the ten greatest bowlers in the history of cricket.
10. CURTLY AMBROSE (WI) Right Arm Fast (1985-2000)
Tests- 88, Wickets- 405, Avg- 20.99, 5W- 22, Best- 8/45
ODIs- 176, Wickets- 225, Wickets- 24.12, 4W- 10, Best- 5/17
941 FC wickets at 20.24 with 50 five-wicket hauls
The demolition man of cricket, Ambrose could cripple the most celebrated batting line ups of all-time with absolute ease and unprecedented menace. His legendary skills were made iconic and enigmatic due to his refusal to give interviews, citing his famous motto “Curtly talk to no man”. When your bowling analysis reads something to the tune of 5/32, 6/24, 7/25 (which included a spell of 7 wickets for 1 run) and 8/45, there is no doubt that you are wreaking havoc on batsmen around the globe. At 6 feet 7 inches, Ambrose could generate deadly bounce and enormous pace (fastest recorded at 96mph), which helped him snare 405 Test wickets at an average lower than all others in the 400 club. Ambrose was truly the most dangerous bowler of his generation.
9. BILL O’REILLY (AUS) Legbreak Googly (1927-46)
Tests- 27, Wickets- 144, Avg- 22.59, 5W- 11, Best- 7/54
774 FC wickets at 16.60 with 63 five-wicket hauls
His Wisden obituary called him ‘probably the greatest spin bowler the game has ever produced’. Tiger O’Reilly was a spinner unlike any the game had ever seen. He released the ball close to medium pace and still managed to extract a surprising amount of turn from the pitch. He was a ruthless spinner; aesthetics were not for him. The combination of bounce and pace he generated managed to not just befuddle batsmen but knocked many wicketkeepers off their feet. His figures become even more impressive when one considers the kind of batsmen he bowled against (he dismissed Wally Hammond ten times) and in an era where batsmen regularly dominated the bowlers.
8. WASIM AKRAM (PAK) Left Arm Fast (1984-2003)
Tests- 104, Wickets- 414, Avg- 23.62, 5W- 25, Best- 7/119
ODIs- 356, Wickets- 502, Avg- 23.52, 4W- 23, Best- 5/15
1042 FC wickets at 21.64 with 70 five-wicket hauls
881 List A wickets at 21.91 with 46 four-wicket hauls
Undoubtedly the greatest left-arm fast bowler ever and arguably the greatest left-arm bowler of all time, Wasim Akram was the best thing to have happened to the world of cricket in a long, long time. When he emerged on to the scene has a tall 18-year old, many thought Pakistan had found another Imran Khan. But Akram wasn’t satisfied with the tag; he went on to surpass even his great master. It was Akram who put the reverse into the swing. He was a genuine match-winner, unlike any Pakistan had ever seen, and his was his world record haul of 18 wickets which carried Pakistan to its first and only World Cup triumph in 1992. Oh, and did I mention he scored a Test double century as well.
7. MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN (SL) Right Arm Offbreak (1989-2011)
Tests- 133, Wickets- 800, Avg- 22.72, 5W- 67, Best- 9/51
ODIs- 350, Wickets- 534, Avg- 23.08, 4W- 25, Best- 7/30
T20Is- 12, Wickets- 13, Avg- 22.84, Best- 3/29
1374 FC wickets at 19.64 with 119 five-wicket hauls
682 List A wickets at 22.39 with 29 four-wicket hauls
Back in the 1930s they thought that no one would ever divide cricketing opinion quite like Douglas Jardine. But in their defence, they did not know that one Muttiah Muralitharan would spin his way into record books and public conscience six decades later. No other player has had his bowling action scrutinized to such an extent and no other player has emerged unscathed from each criticism and allegation quite like Murali. The man from Kandy snares wickets at a rate faster than fathomable. He turns the ball a country mile, regardless of the surface. He single-handedly carried the load of the Sri Lankan attack on many occasions and his treasure trove of five-wicket hauls shows how little support he received from others around him. He is undoubtedly the greatest sportsman his country has ever produced and a flag bearer for modern spin bowling.
6. GLENN McGRATH (AUS) Right Arm Fast-Medium (1992-2007)
Tests- 124, Wickets- 563, Avg- 21.64, 5W- 29, Best- 8/24
ODIs- 250, Wickets- 381, Avg- 22.02, 4W- 16, Best- 7/15
T20Is- 2, Wickets- 5, Avg- 15.80, Best- 3/31
Here was one fast bowler who terrorised batsmen despite of the fact that he did not possess express pace, enormous swing or frightening variations. McGrath simply relied on the age-old formula of bowling in the right areas. No other bowler could psyche the batsman like McGrath did (ask Lara, Ganguly or Atherton). McGrath’s specialty was not that he took wickets, but he took the most important wickets. He had a penchant for dismissing the biggest batsman the opposition had and left it for his deputies (Gillespie, Fleming, Lee et al.) to clean up the tail. Remarkably fit (in an age where fast bowlers drop like tenpins every now and then), he was 36 when adjudged Man of the Series in the 2007 World Cup, having taken 21 wickets in the tournament. Fittingly, this was his last ODI appearance.
5. SIR RICHARD HADLEE (NZ) Right Arm Fast (1971-90)
Tests- 86, Wickets- 431, Avg- 22.29, 5W- 36, Best- 9/52
ODIs- 115, Wickets- 158, Avg- 21.56, 4W- 6, Best- 5/52
1490 FC wickets at 18.11 with 102 five-wicket hauls
No other bowler has had to carry the load of the entire team quite like Richard Hadlee. When he played, New Zealand did not possess even a single other player worthy of being called world-class. Hadlee was New Zealand. It was a monumental responsibility but Hadlee carried it with the concentration, grace and determination of an Olympic gymnast. His bowling was more art than sport. It was his bowling performances that earned New Zealand their first wins against England (1978), Australia (1981) and even the mighty West Indies (1984). Even at the time of his retirement, Hadlee was very much fit and definitely in form, returning figures of 5/53 in his last bowling performance, taking a wicket off the last ball he bowled in international cricket.
4. SHANE WARNE (AUS) Legbreak Googly (1991-2007)
Tests- 145, Wickets- 708, Avg- 25.41, 5W- 37, Best- 8/71
ODIs- 194, Wickets- 293, Avg- 25.73, 4W- 13, Best- 5/33
1319 FC wickets at 24.61 with 69 five-wicket hauls
When Shane Warne bowled Mike Gatting in his first Ashes Test with what is now called the “Ball of the Century”, the world knew that a great had arrived. When Warne arrived on to the scene, the art of spin had been wrapped in a body bag, locked in a trunk, thrown into the dungeons behind fortified doors and long forgotten. He John Ramboed it back into action. Charismatic, eccentric and spectacular to watch, Shane Keith Warne was a broadcaster’s delight. With him bowling, there was never a dull moment on the field. Those who played him often say that he was trying to get a wicket of each ball. His phenomenal strike rates (57 in Tests and 36 in ODIs) are testament to this. As long as he played (and for quite some time after that), he was the biggest headline grabber in cricket. But no one minded, because Shane Warne had the talent to match his appetite for fame.
3. SYDNEY BARNES (ENG) Right Arm Medium (1894-1914)
Tests- 27, Wickets- 189, Avg- 16.43, 5W- 24, Best- 9/103
6229 wickets in all cricket (Test, FC and Club) at 08.33
In 1901, the English captain AC Maclaren plucked a 28-year old medium pacer playing in a local league from obscurity and picked him for the English side. Thus began an unbelievable career where Sydney Francis Barnes demolished the best batting line-ups of his time with utmost ease. There had never been anyone quite like him till then and there hasn’t been one since. Till date, Barnes remains the only English cricketer to be regularly picked for the national side from league games as he hardly ever played first-class cricket. In the words of the great Clem Hill, Barnes could “swing the new ball in and out very late, could spin from the ground, pitch on the leg stump and miss the off.” He was Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath rolled into one.
Statistically, no bowler can ever match him. He took 7 wickets per game throughout his international career, taking a phenomenal 24 five-wicket hauls in just 27 games. For his local side Staffordshire, he took 1441 wickets at just 08.15. For his club, his bowling average was just 06.03 (4069 wickets). His record of 49 wickets in a single series (against South Africa, 1914; his final series) still stands, almost a century later. He bowled to some of the finest batsmen ever in Trumper, Hill, Taylor, Nourse, Armstrong and Bardsley and he emerged victorious in his battles with all of them. The biggest testament to his greatness is perhaps that his reign was the only period in cricket history when a bowler, and not a batsman, was the greatest player in the world.
2. MALCOLM MARSHALL (WI) Right Arm Fast (1977-96)
Tests- 81, Wickets- 376, Avg- 20.94, 5W- 22, Best- 7/22
ODIs- 136, Wickets- 157, Avg- 26.96, 4W- 6, Best- 4/18
1651 FC wickets at 19.10 with 85 five-wicket hauls
How do you stand out in a side filled with bowling legends? When Malcolm Marshall was first selected for West Indies in 1978, the side had been crippled by the World Series Cricket. Four of its biggest bowlers- Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Wayne Daniels had left the national ranks to join the cash rich Packer Circus. No one would have thought that this tiny express bowler from Barbados would one day surpass not only his illustrious contemporaries but also several greats of the past to be called one of the finest fast bowlers ever. To be called the finest bowler from West Indies is a monumental compliment. It means you beat giants like Hall, Griffith, Gibbs, Ramadhin, Valentine, Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Walsh and Ambrose. No single team has given the world more ferocious quickies than the West Indies. And Marshall is simply the best of the lot.
No one with over 200 Test wickets has a better average than Marshall and few have a lower strike rate. He took 4 or more wickets in an innings 41 times in Tests and 6 times in ODIs despite having to compete with three of the greatest bowlers ever for his scalps. In ODIs, his economy rate made him even deadlier and his combination of accuracy, pace and aggression made him one of the most dangerous bowlers ever. He lacked in height but turned that handicap into an asset by developing one of the deadliest bouncers ever seen in the game. His enormous cricketing intelligence, massive heart and boundless talent made Marshall the greatest bowler of his generation; and mind you, his generation had some pretty great ones.
1. DENNIS LILLEE (AUS) Right Arm Fast (1969-88)
Tests- 70, Wickets- 355, Avg- 23.92, 5W- 23, Best- 7/83
WSC Matches- 14, Wickets- 67, Avg- 26.87, 5W- 4, Best- 7/23
ODIs- 63, Wickets- 103, Avg- 20.82, 4W- 6, Best- 5/34
In 1972, the Haslingden Club in the Lancashire League picked a 23-year old former Australian international as their overseas player. Barely a year later, Dennis Keith Lillee was terrorising the English batsmen with enormous pace and unrivalled aggression. Barely two years ago, stress fractures of the back had all but ended this young bowler’s career. His back had broken in three places and it was unsure if he would ever walk again, let alone play. But he came back with a bang by cutting down his pace (only relatively; he still bowled at 95mph) and increasing his accuracy. Critics call him the most complete bowler of all time. He had everything a fast bowler should have- a sound action, quick pace, fierce aggression, heart and bravado, spotless technique and most importantly- the ability to take wickets in wholesale quantities.
He modelled himself on West Indies’ great Wes Hall and broke through the ranks as an express quick in the 1971 Ashes. Armed with a copybook action, he went on to break all sorts of bowling records through his career. He is still the fastest bowler to reach 200, 250, and 300 wicket milestones. Had he not lost 3 years of his career to World Series Cricket, he would surely have been the first man to cross 400 as well. Every captain’s dream and every batsman’s nightmare, Dennis Lillee was known for taking wickets just when the team needed and just how the captain asked. Along with the supremely quick Jeff Thomson, he formed one of the most feared new ball pairs in history. Lillee was much more than just his numbers. He was an all-time great, a true performer in all conditions, against all opponents, in all sorts of settings. A legend for all times!