Ashley Mallett, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, where the title is different
Former Sri Lanka opening batsman Sunil Wettimuny has known just one fear in a life in which he flew jet airliners for 30 years, experiencing bad storms, mechanical breakdowns and terrorist bomb threats: the fear of having to face Jeff Thomson, arguably the fastest bowler to draw breath. Wettimuny’s tryst with Thommo took place in a World Cup match at The Oval on June 11, 1975.
Australia won the toss and batted, belting the Sri Lankans to the tune of 328 for 5. Alan Turner hit 101, Rick McCosker 73, Greg Chappell 50 and Doug Walters 59. Straightaway Australia’s captain, Ian Chappell, unleashed his fast men – Thommo and Dennis Lillee – upon the unsuspecting Sri Lankans.
“We had never seen such pace and with the way Thommo seemed to hide the ball behind his back, you couldn’t pick it at all,” Wettimuny recalled. In his opening spell Thomson hit Wettimuny twice in the inner thigh, and also delivered a cracking blow to the hip bone and a crunching hit to the ribcage.
Despite the aggression of Thommo and Lillee, the Sri Lankans batted bravely. We thought our total of 328 was unbeatable. But our back-up bowlers were leaking runs too easily. I was going at six an over, Max Walker and Lillee at four an over, and Walters at five. Only Thommo seemed able to restrict the scoring.
Chappell read the warning signs. The match was getting away from Australia. Ranjit Fernando scored 22, Bandula Warnapura 31, and Duleep Mendis was batting stylishly on 32 when Chappell threw Thommo – who once in a Shield game trapped Rick Darling lbw and the batsman had to be carried off on a stretcher – the ball for another spell.
Poor Mendis: He played a couple of Thommo’s deliveries, after which the fast man let fly. The ball rose from a good length like a striking cobra. Mendis tried valiantly to fend it off but the ball hit him squarely on the forehead. He staggered and fell heavily to the crease.
There we were, peering down at the diminutive Mendis lying face down on the pitch. To our great relief he stirred and turned over onto his back. His eyes were open, like saucers. Tears streamed down his face. “How yar goin’ mate?” someone asked.
Mendis opened his eyes wider, the tears continuing to stream down his face, and said, “Oh, my god… I am going now.” Wettimuny, nursing badly bruised ribs, watched his brave partner being carried off the ground on a stretcher.
Thommo was booed by the crowd as the Sri Lankan captain, Anura Tennekoon, slowly ambled to the crease. “I took a long time to get to the wicket,” Tennekoon said, “I stopped to see if Duleep was okay. Not a very pleasant situation, having to face Thomson after he had just knocked one of our men out cold.”
Wettimuny took a single off Walker’s next over, which meant he was now facing Thommo again.
“I have this vivid image of what happened on Thommo’s third ball of the over,” Tennekoon remembered. “He hit Sunil flush on the instep and as he hopped about in pain Thomson tried to run him out.”
But Thommo saw things differently: “I had the ball in my hand and as the batsman hopped about, my team-mates were urging me to throw down the stumps and run him out. I threw down the stumps at the batsman’s end with Sunil miles out of his ground. I appealed and no other bastard among my team-mates joined in on the appeal. They all stood about with their arms folded. I was done cold.”
Thommo also remembers saying to Sunil, “Look mate, it’s [foot] not broken. But if you face up to the next ball, it bloody well will be broken!”
After a lengthy delay, Wettimuny bravely stood up to face the next ball. It was an identical sandshoe crusher and screamed into Sunil’s right instep, the exact spot where he had been hit the previous ball. This time Sunil collapsed in agony and had to be carried off the ground on a stretcher. He was taken directly to join Mendis at nearby St Thomas’ Hospital.
Wettimuny will never forget that day. “Never before or since did I know fear on a cricket field. When I got to hospital I discovered I had sustained a hairline fracture of the rib, my right foot was broken, I had a dreadful bruise on my inner thigh, my hip bone was badly bruised and I was completely numb in my left leg. I thought I was paralysed. The numbness stayed with me for 12 hours. Later on I remember Sri Lankan players telling me of the great pace of Imran Khan. Sure Imran was a speed merchant, but compared to Thommo, Imran came at you at a gentle medium pace.”
Unbeknown to Duleep and Sunil, a policeman, who was not on duty at the World Cup game, heard the tail-end of a radio report about two Sri Lankans who were assaulted by an Australian cricketer at The Oval.
“Next morning a policeman walked into my room,” Duleep smiled, “He held his bobby’s helmet under one arm and he asked, ‘Do you want to press charges against a Mr Jeff Thomson?'”
Mendis marvels at Thommo’s speed. “If you go to the West Indies and talk to the old fellows in the stands, they know the game backwards and they have seen all the great fast bowlers – Wes Hall, Charlie Griffth, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding Joel Garner, Curtly Ambrose – and when you ask them who was the fastest of the lot, they will say, ‘JR Thomson’.”
Thommo’s legendary pace left its mark on many, as we learn from Mike Brearley’s words: “Broken marriages, conflicts of loyalty, the problems of everyday life fall away as one faces up to Thomson.”
Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers’ Doctor
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
ADDENDUM: This was the match where Tamil demonstrators, probably organised by EROS, invaded the field and mounted a peaceful protest against alleged political discrimination in Sri Lanka. This was when the Aussies were batting as you will see. The Captain Tennekoon and Mevan Pieris have indicated that the incident did not bother them at all . Jeff Thomson did!
For details see Incursions & Excursions in and around Sri Lankan Cricket, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications,