Assessing the top bowling pairs of Test Cricket
Test cricket is one of the oldest forms of competitive cricket played at an international level. The longest form of the game is truly a ‘test’ of a player’s stamina, quality and an assessment of their resilience through the five different weather and pitch conditions that a venue can provide.
Many top Test sides are synonymous with their batting legends – we have Donald Bradman, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden from Australia, Brian Lara and Vivian Richards from West Indies, and VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar from India. Hence, on many occasions, the contributions of a bowler might be overlooked if the match was a high-scoring one.
However, as the years have gone by, many bowlers have stood out for their individual contributions to Test cricket; a few examples being Ian Bishop, Muttiah Muralitharan and Richard Hadlee. However, keeping in mind that Tests are very competitive and strenuous matches, sometimes, the bowler need the support of another compatriot to sustain his performance.
Just like iconic batting partnerships, there have been many bowlers who work in tandem with each other to help their side achieve victory. The earliest of these successful pairs were Sydney Barnes and Frank Foster, who led England to 4-1 Ashes victory in 1911-12. Barnes took 34 wickets while Foster managed 32, going through the Aussie batting line-up with ease.
Sadly, Frank Foster’s penchant for theatrics and the subsequent demise of his career partly due to precarious choices and the first World War leaves us only to wonder what might have been if this pair had gotten to play more than they did. The unpredictable bowler went on to play 11 Tests, all of them alongside Barnes, racking up an astonishing 118 wickets between them.
They might not have been the first of the Test bowling pairs, but they were definitely among the first of the many greats. Since then, many bowlers have teamed up to create havoc for their opponents over the years, slowly etching their names in history books. A few such examples are Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Bishan Bedi, who have 368 wickets in 42 Tests together, having played between for India between 1966-1978, or Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, who have 291 wickets in 33 Tests whilst playing for the West Indies in the 1980s. Then there are the likes of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, who have 217 wickets in 26 Tests for Australia.
Waqar and Wasim
However, while these pairs are well and good, none of them were able to cross 50 Test matches together. This brings us to Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, who scalped 559 wickets in 61 matches together. And unlike most other pairs, these two weren’t the kind who complemented each other on the field. Their prowess came from a certain level of competition which they maintained against each other, striving them towards being the best for their country.
Many pairs have taken more wickets than these two, such as James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who took 883 wickets in their Tests 116 together and Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, who have scalped 895 among themselves. But the reason why Waqar and Wasim are considered greater than these two is that while opening the bowling in 56 of their 61 games together, this pairing has taken 476 wickets at an average of 22.39, 64 more than any of the others.
Barring their personal differences, which led to certain decline in Pakistan’s performances at the turn of the century, both these pacers were arguably among the best bowlers to have been produced by the subcontinental country. With great variation in their bowling, their yorkers were rumoured to have broken many toes.
Waqar was one of the earliest users as well as masters of the reverse swing, and having shared his Test debut with the ‘Master Blaster’ Sachin Tendulkar at Karachi in 1989, scalping his wicket for 15. He also has the dubious distinction of becoming the first bowler to be banned for ball-tampering.
While they had their differences, none can counter the fact that they added extra teeth to the Pakistan side. By the end of their careers, Waqar and Wasim played in a combined 191 matches and picked up 787 wickets among themselves.
Ambrose and Walsh
While West Indies might just be a shadow of their former selves in the current international scenario, one cannot discount that at a point of time, they were one of the best and most feared cricket teams to walk this earth. Gifted with many star players through the years, the Windies have had their fair share of batting as well as bowling talent.
While the sextet of Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Sylvester Clarke and Colin Croft sent shivers down the spine of many a batsman between the mid-1970s to mid-1990s, the statistics lie in the hands of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, who reigned supreme during the nineties. This came at the apparent start of the Windies’ decline over the years, but their bowling prowess always managed to keep the team afloat, etching their names in Test bowling pair history.
The two played 95 matches together, picking up 762 wickets amongst themselves. This pairing has been known to demolish bowlers across all platforms. Ambrose took seven Aussie wickets, conceding just one run in the fifth Test of their tour of Australia in 1993, and followed it up with six wickets for 60 runs against England at home in 1994.
With these two in their side, only Australia managed to win more Test matches between 1988 and 2000, and by 1995, the Windies had the second-best win-loss ratio. During this time, the pairing of Ambrose and Walsh would open the bowling for their team on 52 different occasions, scalping 412 wickets in the process. Playing a combined 230 Test matches, these star pacers scalped 924 wickets amongst themselves, with Walsh picking up 519 and Ambrose 405.
Warne and McGrath
When James Anderson and Stuart Broad took to the field during the 2019 Ashes, they might have made their last possible Ashes series appearance, having established themselves as the best bowling pair in World Test cricket. Many fans and pundits alike have stated that these two are the best bowling pair that Test cricket has seen, with it getting labelled the ‘Branderson bromance’, with the pair scalping 883 wickets in their 116 matches together.
However, while Broad and Anderson have been equally prolific and consistent in their performances, they still fall more than 150 wickets short of the Aussie pairing of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, while playing nine matches more. Over the 104 Tests that these two greats have played together, they scalped 1001 wickets between 1993 and 2007.
Many Australian pundits look at Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson when it comes to bowling pairs, but with Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath on their side, Australia won 71 Tests when both these players took to the field. During this time, almost 60 percent of their wickets were top-order batsman and Australia were the best cricket team during their reign in the national team. Aside from winning three consecutive World Cup trophies between 1999 to 2007, Australia got the better of their biggest rivals England in the legendary Ashes with victories in the 1990–91, 1993, 1994–95, 1997, 1998–99, 2001 and 2002–03 editions.
McGrath was the epitome of a complete bowler. He had the right height, bounce, pace and accuracy to outwit the batsmen at the opposite end. Combined with the wrist-spinning abilities of Shane Warne, who established himself as the best bowler during his reign, Australia ruled the roost across all available formats of the game. Between them, they have a staggering 1271 wickets, with Shane Warne scalping 708 and Glenn McGrath 563.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / William West
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