Richie Benaud, who has been to more Test cricket as a player and commentator than any man yet born, called him the fastest bowler he had ever seen. The rest of the world simply referred to him as The Typhoon.
Frank Holmes Tyson, who played only 17 Tests for England, between the years of 1954 and 1959, was a true Ashes hero. Born in Farnworth, Lancashire, on June 6, 1930 to an employee of the Yorkshire Dyeing Company who would not live long enough to see his son sport the Three Lions England crest, Tyson was unorthodox and frighteningly fast.
Tyson, who trialled with Lancashire without joy, turned out for Northamptonshire, and made his first-class debut against the touring Indians in 1952. Tyson began his 38-yard run up at the sightscreen, and after he sent down one ball, the wicketkeeper and slip cordon moved back five paces. Bengal’s Pankaj Roy, then a Test batsman, was Tyson’s first wicket.
The following year, Benaud’s visiting Australians got their first sighting of Tyson, but word really spread in 1954, the year Tyson got his county cap after playing his first full season. Tyson, now 84 and living in Gold Coast, an hour from Brisbane, remembers that moment well. “People ask me my favourite ground and that is easy. In all of England, in all of the world, it was Old Trafford,” says Tyson, who now speaks clearly but slowly, pausing frequently to refresh his memory and recollect details precisely. “I remember an opening spell I bowled there in 1954 and one bouncer I bowled went over the batsman, the ‘keeper and hit the sightscreen. I was licking my chops.” Pore through cricket history, and there are perhaps three other bowlers who have managed this feat.
In 1954-55 when England travelled to Australia for the Ashes, Tyson began in unremarkable fashion, going for 160 runs and picking up just one wicket in the first Test in Brisbane. Alf Gover, Tyson’s one-time coach and mentor of sorts, advised his ward to abandon the long run, and bowl off only 20 paces – ten short and slow and ten at full tilt – something Tyson did with success at club level. The result was dramatic.
Australia needed 223 to win in the second innings in the second Test in Sydney, and Tyson bowled from the Randwick End, the wind at his back. The Australians expected to be bounced out, especially as Ray Lindwall had scorned Tyson with a short one earlier in the game, but the Typhoon kept the ball up and blasted out six wickets for 85, taking his match tally to 10 and England to victory.
In the next Test, the Typhoon was at its most elemental. Australia began the final day on 65 for 2 chasing 240, and more than 50,000 had turned up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch Neil Harvey and Benaud take their team home. What followed has been widely described as the fastest spell ever bowled on Australian soil, Tyson taking 6 for 16 from the Richmond End to finish with unmatched figures of 7 for 27. Australia added just 36 to their overnight score and England had won by 128 runs.
Tyson would only play 17 Tests, picking up 76 wickets at an average of 18.56. No bowler since he played has managed more than 20 wickets at a better average. To measure Tyson in cold numbers, though, is to do him a disgrace, for here was a man of words. One of only three or four university graduates in county cricket at the time, Tyson studied English Literature at Hatfield College in the University of Durham. When he went on tour, he took with him the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, Virginia Woolf and Bernard Shaw.
Consider the words JM Kilburn, respected sports writer of the Yorkshire Post, used to describe Tyson: “His best pace was nothing short of startling to batsmen and spectators alike. He represented an elemental force obscuring the details of his technique and the highest tribute he received was the gasp of incredulity frequently emitted by the crowd as the ball passed from his hand to the distant wicketkeeper.”
Or how Dickie Bird spoke of the time he came up against the Typhoon in this passage: “He was certainly the quickest bowler I ever seen through the air, and on one occasion the quickest bowler I never saw through the air. In 1958, I opened the innings against him and hit his first three deliveries through the offside for four. With supreme confidence, I went on to the front foot for the fourth ball. Tyson dropped one short. It reared up and hit me on the chin. I went down as if I’d just been on the receiving end of a right hook…I still carry the scar to show my folly that day. There was blood all over and I saw stars. I could hear bells ringing in my head…”
I ask Tyson if it’s true that fast bowlers enjoyed hitting batsmen, and he laughs out loud. “When people ask me about the use of the bouncer, of the fast bowler wanting to hit the batsman, I never understand that. I never wanted to hit people; I wanted to get them out. You use the bouncer in a shock capacity,” he says. “I was almost a one-day wonder, in terms of how much Test cricket I played. But the one thing I knew was that I could get past the Australian batsmen, with sheer pace. I had a captain, Len Hutton, who used me with a certain criteria in mind. I could either bowl in a holding capacity or in a shock capacity. Alright, I concede I was fast, but it was not something that I could maintain over a period of time.”
When he was not knocking poles out of the ground, Tyson was calming himself in a manner never seen before or since on a cricket field. Where today’s quick bowlers let off steam by spewing abuse at batsmen, Tyson quoted poetry to his adversaries. A favourite, he recalls, was William Wordsworth’s “Ode on the intimation to immortality when recollected in early childhood.” Having bowled an explosive ball with all his effort, Tyson would begin the long walk back to his mark, reciting to himself:
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
I ask him if there was more, and this is one instance where he needs no prompting. There’s no hesitance, no faltering as he lets rip from Henry IV, a Shakespearean play that most cricketers would not have heard of:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
“That’s the position of Falstaff before the war,” Tyson tells me, much as he might’ve one of his wards at the schools in Australia he taught in when he gave up cricket at the age of only 30.
Would he have liked to have played more Test cricket? “Yes, I would’ve liked to have played more. You have to look at the sociological implications of that. I always remember, when I was coming to Australia, we were on the ship and ready to embark at Tillbury and a pressman asked me: ‘Is it because you are disappointed with your performances in England or have you been affected by how you’ve been treated by the England selectors’,” recalls Tyson. “And I said, ‘No, not at all. I’ve just had a better offer of a job.’ You see, we were paid something like 400 pounds for a whole season. For a six-month tour of Australia, we also got only about 400 pounds. It was in your mind that you were a fast bowler, and you could do that job for a certain amount of time. I bowled at 90mph or whatever it was. How long can I keep that up?
“I had a degree, I can pursue a profession in other areas, being a school master, for example. I was offered a job by an independent school in Australia. Carey Baptist Grammar School, and it was something like 2000 pounds, something I was not used to. I did 15 years there and then went to Ivanhoe Grammar. It wasn’t a straightforward decision about cricket. I had a young family that was growing up, three children, all in school. I could also do broadcasting, I played club cricket here. It was a double-edged sword, but tell me, what would you have done?”
Here was a man who had seen all that life had to offer, and he was asking someone half a century younger what he would have done in the same place. Spending an afternoon with Tyson, his two terriers nipping about the house, just listening, was an education. One moment Tyson would be talking about how he got only two-three overs each innings in Northampton because the wicket was such a rank turner and the next he would say, “Ah, but a man’s grasp should exceed his reach, or what’s a heaven for?” and look quizzically at me, expecting me to recognise Byron instantly.
At another point, he switched effortlessly to French, at which point the only option was to ask him a pointed cricket question to draw the conversation back. Who was the best batsman he bowled to, then? “Depends what you mean by best batsman, I suppose. Looking back, I could say to you now that Neil Harvey was a superb batsman. If you didn’t get Neil Harvey out in the space of the first few overs of a day, he would be a 100 or 150 by the end of it,” says Tyson. “Whereas, people like Colin McDonald, if you didn’t get him early, he’d still be there at the end of the day. But he would be about 60 or 70. McDonald was obdurate, he could grind you down, but Harvey could decimate any attack. You get someone like Bill Lawry, for instance. He scored heaps of runs, was a superb batsman in terms of concentration and application. But, if you didn’t get him out, he would’ve blunted you. But he would not have torn a page out of the scorebook, as Harvey would have.”
After moving to Australia, Tyson played club cricket for Footscray and University, wrote 20 books, taught at three different schools, was a broadcaster on radio and television, and took to oil painting. “That’s what I miss the most, that’s what’s painful,” Tyson says as he leads me to his study to show me his books. There are literally hundreds on cricket – including the 20 he wrote – but many more on history and literature. “When you can’t read as much as you want to, when you can’t write, when you can’t paint, it hurts. At 84, my concentration is not what it used to be.”
In his study, there’s a portrait of a young Tyson in full cry, airborne, shock of hair flying in the Typhoon’s slipstream, a painting treasured for its most unusual origin: a prisoner at Penrith in Melbourne produced it for Tyson. I ask Tyson how he would describe fast bowling and he points me to one of his books. “There is a sudden shock shaking me to the skull as the stiff left leg crashes into the unsympathetic turf. My whole body flings itself after the ball as if in malediction towards the batsman. To bowl quick is to revel in the glad animal action.” That’s as raw a description of the most beautiful act in cricket as you will read. As for today’s fast bowlers, ask them about their craft and they tell you they want to “put the ball in the right areas”.
There is so much more to a man like Tyson that an afternoon is barely enough time to scratch the surface. But even a heartless reporter greedy for a yarn must quit at some point. The second great partnership he has been involved in, after Tyson and Statham, is getting ready to step out for tea. Frank and Ursula have been married 57 years now, and as she walks up to him, I know my time is up. Tyson leans over and whispers conspiratorially to me: “She’s my saviour. I have been very, very lucky.”
As I reach out to shake the hand that bowled some of the fastest balls in history, I’m reminded this was no mere cricketer and recall the words with which he ended one of his erudite books. “I am sure there are many things which I could have done better, many things which I could have left undone, people I could have loved more, helped more, cared for more,” wrote Tyson.
And which of us will not feel that way when all is said and done?