As we said yesterday when choosing our all-time Ashes Australian fast bowlers, this category is arguably the toughest of them all. The same statement applies when it comes to selecting England’s three greatest seamers of all-time.
Whether it is express pace, movement or unerring accuracy, England has been blessed with some magnificent bowlers throughout the long history of the Ashes.
Before we get to our shortlist of eight, spare a thought for those who just fell short. These included in chronological order Billy Barnes, Tom Richardson, Maurice Tate, Gubby Allen, Bill Voce, Angus Fraser and Darren Gough. Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson also just misses out despite his series-winning performance in 1954-55. Eight Ashes tests and 32 wickets is not considered enough for a true great.
So, onto the eight who do make the shortlist, again in order of appearance. George Lohmann may have plied his trade at a time when bowlers held sway but even so his 77 wickets at 13 in 15 Ashes tests are extraordinary stats. Lohmann was no more than fast-medium, but was unerringly accurate and a master of pace, flight and angle.
The maverick SF Barnes– a master of seam, swing and spin - is arguably the best bowler to ever play the game. He took an incredible 12 five fors in only 20 Ashes tests and 106 wickets at 21.58. When Neville Cardus told Barnes that Bradman rated Bill O’Reilly a better bowler because he commanded every ball developed in Barnes's day -- plus the googly, Barnes remarked "It's quite true, I never bowled the 'googly.'" Then with a glint in his eye, he added, "I never needed it."
Harold Larwood had the misfortune to bowl on the predominantly batsmen-friendly pitches of the 1920s and 1930s. However, when things were more evenly balanced, Larwood was unplayable. His zenith came in 1932/33 when through sheer pace and mind numbing accuracy he took 33 wickets at 19.51 as Douglas Jardine’s side regained the Ashes. Larwood took Bradman’s wicket in four out of eight innings – something his treatment after by the cricket authorities could never take away.
Thanks to World War II, Alec Bedser had to wait until he was 28 to make this test debut. He certainly made up for lost time against Australia and took 104 wickets in 21 Ashes tests at 27.49 with seven five fors. Bedser took Bradman's wicket six times in ten tests with his accurate brand of swing bowling. If that wasn't enough, how about his series winning performance in 1953, when after 19 long years the Ashes were returned to English hands? Bedser took 39 wickets in the series at 17.48, including 14 for 99 at Nottingham
Our next two candidates came as a contrasting new ball pair. Fred Trueman provided the pace and hostility whilst Brian Statham offered metronomic accuracy that even Glenn McGrath would have been proud of. The curmudgeonly Trueman had the better record against the Australians with 79 wickets at 25.30, whilst Statham’s record read as 69 at 31.
Like Larwood in 1932-33, John Snow was the spearhead with 31 wickets at 22.83 when England regained the Ashes in 1970/71. Accurate with good rhythm and a vicious bouncer, Snow proved a real handful in 20 tests against Australia with 83 wickets at 25.61.
The final and most recent (perhaps an indication of Australia's dominance over the contest since 1989) name on our list is Bob Willis, who over 12 years and 31 tests took more Ashes wickets than any other English bowler after Botham. Willis took 123 at 24.37 with the most famous eight coming on one unforgettable afternoon at Headingley in 1981.
So, as with Australia we need to pick three with the decision whether all three make the final XI depending on whether we select one spinner or two. Barnes has to be in, which with Statham, Snow, Willis and Lohmann being ruled out in the second cut it is two from Larwood, Bedser and Trueman - a difficult choice.
Botham is already in as the all-rounder and with Barnes providing his veritable box of delights we need to have at least one express paceman. Was there anyone faster than Larwood before the West Indian quicks of the 1970s emerged? Probably not, so Larwood gets in ahead of Trueman, which no doubt will see our names struck off the Christmas Card list of all Yorkshiremen. That is because we also (just) prefer Bedser to Fred on this occasion.