Darren Corr ponders the question of the greatest bowlers of all time and then unravels the story of possibly the greatest fast bowler you’ve never heard of.
In assessing the great fast bowlers the game has produced the modern(ish) fan/viewer can be relied upon to churn out a formidable, if somewhat familiar bunch. In researching this article, I found the same names cropping up with deserved regularity: Akram, Younis, Marshall, Holding, Ambrose, Hadlee, Lillee, McGrath…you get the picture. Don’t get me wrong, this article in no way stakes a claim that its particular choice exceeds any of these notables. Indeed, under any normal circumstances I probably would have plumped for Joel Garner due to the grace of his demeanour, miserly excellence and sheer un-playability when the stars aligned. Heaven knows what the Big Bird might have achieved if he had been the regular new ball choice amongst the embarrassment of riches that afflicted West Indian cricket in the 70s and 80s. But Joel has his plaudits and is recognized for the great he was.
Rather, in opting for John Snow, who over an absurdly meagre 49 tests intermittently led England’s attack for a decade from the mid to late 60s on, I am seeking to resurrect the memory and reputation of a superb fast bowler who somehow, like the times in which he flourished, runs the risk of disappearing in spite of his well documented confrontations with all and sundry. Sandwiched between two legends of the 300 club in Trueman and Willis, Snow shared characteristics with both, but ultimately was cast from different clay. Like Trueman he had disdain for an increasingly derelict establishment and was always up for a stoush. With Willis he shared an on field appearance of enigmatic impassivity when doing his job. But Snow lacked Trueman’s common appeal; he was not a working class hero, but a rebel without a constituency. And, unlike Willis, it was hard to imagine Snow bowling for his country with stumps for limbs and almost willing permanent physical damage on himself. He once reminded an animated Basil D’Oliveira, who had patriotically declaimed that playing for England was the ultimate thing in life, that death was the definitive experience!
Snow was the existential loner with an ear and an eye for the aesthetic in life; each trait entwined and defining the other. This was not necessarily in conflict with his firebrand type of cricket and full hearted competitiveness. Instead, it alluded to a man who could demarcate his life, leave the cricket on the pitch and treat the bureaucracy with an educated contempt.
John Augustine (surely some hint) Snow was born in October 1941. A vicar’s son, he appears to have had a pleasantly nondescript rural childhood that spared him of many of the hardships of the immediate post war years. The conventional narrative of his rise to cricketing prominence betrays the exhilaration and controversies that would follow. To cut a long story short, no other cricketer of such a profile has endured the rebukes, injustices and sense of disenchantment with such a minimal effect on their performance as Snow: dropped for not trying; biffo with spectators; verbals with umpires and administrators; lobotomizing Australian tailenders; and chucking stuff at Gavaskar. All part of a day’s work that was interspersed with match winning spells of classical yet vicious pace bowling, performed with a languorous veneer that made the final product all the more startling. Snow’s outstanding performance remains the 30 plus wickets he took as England regained the Ashes (1970-71) in a series that heralded the beginning of the truly modern game. Australian greats have been constant in their praise of Snow’s bowling during this series and I have a sneaking suspicion that Ian Chappell would own up to Snow being one of, if not the best, fast bowler he ever faced.
Snow “only” took 202 wickets at roughly 26 a piece. Not at first glance the kinds of stats that invoke thoughts of greatness). More careful scrutiny, however, shows that had Snow been given the opportunity he would have surely achieved parity with, or exceeded many of his more glamorous and renowned counterparts. Check out the various clips on YouTube for the sublime action, especially the nanosecond where some poor sod gets some severe cranial damage.
Finally, Snow needs to be given credit, like other contemporaries, for dragging the game out of the Stone Age and being restrained enough to demand not revolution but competence. If much of his cricketing life was a rearguard action of dissent and seeming discontent, then we should leave his own words to demonstrate that there was always more to him than a bat and a ball.
BEING A CHILD OF LIFE:
Being a child of life
I am eternally young
even though my time is long
and many a different song is sung,
while the age of the earth bears witness
together with the stupidity of man
to the cast-eyed vision
of you and I since we began.
It’s not another world you know
just another country
not somewhere new to go
just another side of man to see.
A mind is wide
and should be free
to grow round in the crystal ball
that is eternity.
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