“There are three bowlers,” wrote Justin Langer in his 2010 autobiography, “leaving aside Brett Lee, who were blinding.” The first and fastest, Langer explained, was Shoaib Akthar. The second was Waqar Younis and the third, the “only bowler I have faced to have come close to Shoaib’s speed”, was West Indian Jermaine Lawson.
Lawson’s name sits as an anomaly on that list: Lee is the sixth highest wicket-taker in Australian history; Waqar is Pakistan’s second highest wicket-taker; Shoaib holds the record for the fastest recorded delivery of all time. Lawson, on the other hand, played 13 Tests between 2002 and 2005, the last of which came when he was just 23 years old.
The very action that had made him one of the fastest bowlers in the world was to contribute to his early retirement, after the success it brought him also brought scrutiny from the ICC. Forced into changing his action, Lawson was never again the same bowler, and having retired from the professional game in 2008, he then largely disappeared from public view.
“He was a very pleasant young man,” says Roger Harper, who coached Lawson during his Test career. “Very coachable, very willing to listen. He was sharp, but there were moments when he got into that zone where he was very quick.”
Lawson was a Russian roulette bowler. For every five blanks he would fire at the opposition, there would be days when the bullet would be in the chamber and no-one could do anything about it.
In just his third ODI in November 2002, he was catapulted as a late-replacement into the XI for a series decider against India. The seventh of a seven match series, scores had been sky high throughout and West Indies set India 316 to win. Then, in the space of an hour, Lawson removed the entire Indian top four comprising Virender Sehwag, Dinesh Mongia, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid.
“And that was it,” reminisces Harper. “He’s got something about him and if he continues to make a certain amount of strides, you expect him to develop into a world class performer.”
Still to this day, no West Indian bowler with 50 Test wickets has taken them as regularly as Lawson. His strike-rate of 46.3 is better than that of Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. All of the greats. And Lawson sits on top.
Two weeks after the ODI, in a Test against Bangladesh, Lawson would take 6-3. And six months later in May 2003, his most famous day would come, in a Test against Australia.
“I honestly thought he was going to kill me,” wrote Langer of Lawson’s spell of 7-78 in Antigua. Such was the hostility of the spell that Langer broke into a fit of giggles. “I simply couldn’t help it. Somehow I made 42 before Lawson got me in one of the best displays of raw fast bowling I’ve ever seen.”
But the attention that came with Lawson’s day of success would also lead to his downfall. Because the Australians had complaints.
“Well, he had the sort of action that would make you look twice,” explains Harper. “I think there had been a few eyebrows raised on occasions, but before that Australian series I don’t remember him being reported or anything like that. He took seven-for and I think the Aussies were not very happy. A lot of complaints and I think that’s where it all started.”
The truth, as ever, is a little more nuanced. The ICC had requested footage of Lawson’s action the previous Test (where he had, in fact, taken a hat-trick). But the significance of the timing was lost on no-one.
“The pity is,” wrote Trevor Marshallsea for the Sydney Morning Herald, “the issue has only become a public controversy after his seven-wicket haul, no doubt raising allegations that Australians are wont to deride an opponent’s action only when he is succeeding against them.”
At this point, Lawson was just 21 and yet it would be as much the end of his career as it was the beginning. He would rebuild his action, but the replica was never the same as the original and a spate of injuries would only compound the difficulty of his comeback.
He left the professional game in 2008 and in 2010, moved to the United States to be with his partner. His head briefly rose above the parapet in 2014 when he played a handful of games for the US national team and was the subject of a New York Times interview. Most recently, there is footage of him playing club cricket in New York in 2021. By most accounts, he has spent much of his time as a jobbing T20 cricketer playing in private tournaments across the country.
“I needed a break,” Lawson said in 2014 of his move to America, “Every time I was performing, there was something wrong. I could go back. But my life is here now.”
A cricketer whose highs were neither rare nor regular enough to be considered his exception or his rule, for the brief period he was at his peak there have been few, if any, cricketers like Lawson. “The game,” concluded Langer, “is weaker without his presence.”