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Cricket: Best fast bowlers of all time

Updated on August 13, 2012

The steepling bouncer, toe-crushing yorker, swing, seam and sheer pace were the primary weapons of the top fast bowlers in cricket history.

The "Bodyline" Ashes series, the mystery of reverse swing, and the beauty of stumps splayed are just some things that great fast bowling contributed to the game.

There were so many fine exponents of the art, that picking an all-time eleven is difficult; some greats of fast-bowling are bound to be omitted.

Criteria for great fast bowlers

In picking an eleven, it is prudent to use measurable criteria that would ensure a degree of objectivity. Great emphasis is placed on statistics, since this is important in cricket. The criteria used for this list are as follows:

Outstanding Test statistics: Test matches are the most difficult form of the game that Tests performance over consecutive days. Great fast bowlers malke their mark in the Test arena.

Genuine pace: Fast bowlers are not to be confused with medium pacers who rely on cutters and gentle swing. They are consistently able to bowl at speeds around or above 140kph/86 mph.

Test bowling average: Below 25.00 is a mark of a great Test bowler

Minimum qualification: Either 50 Tests or at least 300 Test wickets (not necessarily both)

Bowling strike rate: Great fast bowlers are premier strike bowlers. The maximum Test bowling strike rate for qualification is 55.00.

Naturally, these criteria omit fantastic bowlers who did not play many matches. Also, there may be a bias in favour of modern fast bowlers because their speed is determinable. However, few can argue that the names that appear here are not legends of the game who left a legacy for others to follow.

Glenn McGrath in full flow
Glenn McGrath in full flow | Source

1. Glenn McGrath

The tall, lanky fast bowler from New South Wales is the top wicket-taker in Tests among fast bowlers. In fact, he is fourth in the all-time list of Test wicket-taker, behind three spinners. McGrath used his height to generate uncomfortable bounce off a good length. He was parsimonious and metronomical - attributes that helped him snare the best batsmen of his era. Michael Atherton (19 times), Brian Lara (15 times) and Sachin Tendulkar (6 times) all fell to McGrath.

Glenn McGrath's Test bowling record

Strike Rate
Richard Hadlee appealing for a wicket
Richard Hadlee appealing for a wicket

2. Richard Hadlee

Sir Richard Hadlee was New Zealand's Atlas. He once held the Test record for highest number of wickets and single-handedly led NZ to many victories with the ball (and bat). Hadlee had a range of deliveries and bowled well all conditions; he was alarmingly accurate for a quick bowler. The New Zealand quickie had 36 five-wicket hauls in his Test career and nine 10-wicket match hauls as well.

Richard Hadlee's Test bowling record

Strike Rate
Wasim Akram: Sultan of Swing
Wasim Akram: Sultan of Swing

3. Wasim Akram

The tall Pakistan left-arm fast bowler is widely regarded as the best left-arm fast bowler in cricket history. Akram had a whippy action that generated significant pace off a short run-up. He could swing the ball both ways and cut it off the pitch. Akram's variations and guile made him a difficult proposition in all conditions and he could both equally well with the new ball or old ball.

Wasim Akram's Test bowling record

Strike Rate
Waqar Younis: Full, straight and fast
Waqar Younis: Full, straight and fast

4. Waqar Younis

The right-arm Pakistan fast bowler was also a master of reverse swing. However, Waqar's signature delivery was the toe-crushing yorker that left batsmen flailing helplessly at the crease. Waqar was a premier strike bowler in all forms of the game. He took 373 Test wickets, but the amazing statistic was his bowling strike rate - 43.40.

According to Cricinfo's Kamran Abbasi, the Pakistani pace bowler shifted the fast bowling paradigm from pitching fast and short to pitching the ball fast and full. Back injuries denied Waqar the opportunity to play more Test matches and reap more wickets. However, he still left a legacy on the game, changing the way fast bowlers approached the craft.

Waqar Younis Test bowling record

Strike Rate 
Curtly Ambrose bowling
Curtly Ambrose bowling

5. Curtly Ambrose

The 6'6 Antiguan joined the elite group of bowlers who took over 400 Test wickets just before his retirement. Ambrose was parsimonious but aggressive. He used his height to generate awkward bounce for batsmen. In partnership with Courtney Walsh, Ambrose helped to keep the fast bowling tradition alive in an era of decline. The West Indies strike bowler made bunnies out of batsmen like Graeme Thorpe, Michael Atherton and the Waugh twins. Ambrose's best Test bowling was 8/45 against England at Barbados in 1990.

Ambrose vs Michael Atherton

Curtly Ambrose's Test bowling record

Strike Rate 
Imran Khan in delivery stride
Imran Khan in delivery stride | Source

6. Imran Khan

Imran Khan was a genuine world class allrounder. With the ball, he was as good as any other fast bowler. His presence and success with the Pakistan team encouraged fast bowling in the spin-friendly subcontinent. Khan scalped 362 wickets from just 88 Test matches. He was also an exponent of the then misunderstood art of reverse swing. Pakistan's first superstar of cricket was also one of the best allrounders of all time.

Imran Khan's Test bowling record

Strike Rate 
Malcolm Marshall: West Indies' finest
Malcolm Marshall: West Indies' finest

7. Malcolm Marshall

One of the shortest of the West Indies' quick bowlers, the Barbadian right-arm fast bowler was just about 5'10. However, his whippy action helped him to generate pace well in excess of 140 kph. Marshall was a skiddy proposition who also possessed a good cricketing brain. He was a gentleman in many respects and did not have the typical fast bowler's temperament. Despite his gentle demeanour, the Barbadian's accuracy, speed and thoughtfulness made him difficult to face.

Malcolm Marshall's Test bowling record

Strike Rate 
Dennis Lillee at the start of his run-up
Dennis Lillee at the start of his run-up | Source

8. Dennis Lillee

The Aussie quick bowlers formed a famous bowling partnership with Jeff Thompson in the 1970s. Lillee had a classical action and bowled with sheer aggression and determination. In terms of the number of matches, Lillee was the fastest of the fast bowlers to reach 300 Test wickets. He was a true match-winner and strike bowler. His efforts with the ball inspired then West Indies captain Clive Lloyd to use a pace quartet.

Dennis Lillee's Test bowling record

Strike Rate
Allan Donald: The White Lightning
Allan Donald: The White Lightning

9. Allan Donald

Dubbed "The White Lightning," the tall South African was a mean fast bowler who had many tricks up his sleeve. Donald spearheaded the South African attack since the team was readmitted to international cricket. He had a classical action and sheer pace that made a bunny out of redoubtable England opener Michael Atherton. Injuries plagued his career, but he was still able to establish himself as a great exponent of fast bowling; a Test bowling strike rate of 47.0 backs that claim.

Allan Donald's Test bowling record

Strike Rate
Joel "Big Bird" Garner
Joel "Big Bird" Garner

10. Joel Garner

The gigantic Barbadian fast bowler was the tallest of the West Indies' pace quartet. His height was a great asset, as he was capable of generating bounce from full lengths. However, he was also known to spear in unplayable, toe-crushing yorkers. Garner was economical, but also took wickets regularly, as his strike rate of 50.8 suggests. He's one of the few bowlers to have played so many games and average below 21.00.

Joel Garner's Test bowling record

Strike Rate 
Fred Trueman in full flow
Fred Trueman in full flow

11. Fred Trueman

The Englishman was once the highest wicket taker in Test matches. When he claimed the record, he was nearly certain that no one could break it. However, the sheer volume of cricket and some world-class bowlers after made Trueman's tally of 307 wickets look paltry.

Freddie's expression, floppy hair and classical bowling action were his trademarks. Ultimately, the colourful English quick bowler set the standard for fast bowling in the 1950s and 1960s. Trueman is a legend of the game and is remember for his exploits more than 45 years after he last played Test cricket.

Fred Trueman's Test bowling record

Strike Rate 


Submit a Comment
  • waqas816 profile image

    Waqas Ahmad 

    2 years ago from Lahore, Pakistan

    Dale Steyn is no match against Shoaib Akhtar. I heard Jeff Thomson was a great fast bowlers but no speed counter at that time.

    I have also written a post that you can check

  • SpiffyD profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from The Caribbean

    I truly believe that Dale Steyn would be considered one of the all-time greats once is career is over.

  • SAQIB6608 profile image


    5 years ago from HYDERABAD PAKISTAN

    Dale STEYN !!! present day hero fast bowler

  • SpiffyD profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from The Caribbean

    That's true. Could you imagine an attack with four bowlers like the deadly duo?

  • ronakbhatia profile image


    5 years ago from Mumbai, India

    Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were deadly together. A batsman's nightmare.

  • quicksand profile image


    5 years ago

    I still remember John Snow, Bob Willis, Michael Holding, Keith Boyce, Bernard Julian, Vanburn Holder, Jeff Thomson ...


  • rohanfelix profile image

    Rohan Rinaldo Felix 

    5 years ago from Chennai, India

    Waqar Younis's yorkers were a deadly weapon. I love watching his videos. Interesting hub!

  • SpiffyD profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from The Caribbean

    By the way, England's Sydney Barnes, for his 189 wickets from just 27 Tests, deserves special mention. He averaged 16.43 with the ball, but is usually forgotten because he played Tests between 1901 and 1914.

  • SpiffyD profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from The Caribbean

    Thanks for the comment and observation Irfan. Interestingly, Dev took more than half of his wickets on the subcontinent, but his best performances (in terms of strike rate and average)came in the West Indies. His returns in Oceania (66 wickets from 18 matches) were nothing to scoff at either.

    Big Bird is a name that really stuck with Garner indeed. About Andy Roberts...I think Roberts was a thinking fast bowler. He was credited with the "slow bouncer." Roberts knew how to mix them up and didn't just rely on pace but an astute cricket mind. Unfortunately, there was no room for him here, but he is certainly up there among the fast bowling greats.

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    great list. and you are 110 percent correct in your reply to Ankush , one thing i did noticed and that was Kapil Dev was a great bowler , but he was effective on Indian soil more than foreign soil , so was Gavasker (in batting) . anyways i am their fan and they have done a great contribution towards cricket. God Bless Them all , One last thing , what do you think about Andy Roberts ? and you need to refer Joel Garner as BIG BIRD , that"s how we remember him.. :)

  • SpiffyD profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from The Caribbean

    Well Ankush, there should be no surprise really. I had to stick with the criteria for selection that I used. Dev, Walsh and Thompson were legends of fast bowling indeed. However, they weren't even close to fitting the level of destruction of guys like Ambrose and Imran Khan.

    This is one case where you can't argue with the statistics :). Perhaps you can quibble about the selection criteria, but at least they are clearly outlined. However, if you argue that batsmen were more uncomfortable facing Thompson than Imran Khan, then that is a more subjective issue. Thanks for your comment though.

  • AnkushKohli profile image

    Ankush Kohli 

    8 years ago from India

    I am surprised to see Spiffy that how couldn't you include Kapil Dev in this list. How's somebody who remained a world record holder for most wicket in test cricket is not present in the list. I would have definitely taken off Curtley Ambrose and Imran Khan from this list and instead given the place to Courtney Walsh and Jeff Thomson. Great gathering of reviews and stats BTW.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    mcgrath is the best of all time


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