Cricket: England v West Indies

West Indies place faith in pace

Can West Indies fast bowlers live up to the great tradition?

West Indies place faith in pace

It seems likely that West Indian manager Ottis Gibson will choose to enter the Lord’s Test with a four-man pace attack, comprising skipper Darren Sammy, Fidel Edwards, Kemar Roach and Ravi Rampaul, eschewing the option of spinner Shane Shillingford.

It remains to be seen whether they can live up to the extraordinary traditions of West Indies fast bowling over the past several decades. The long line of fast bowlers is an intimidating act to follow in more ways than one.

Pace has dominated the history of West Indian bowling, from the pre-war duo of Manny Martindale and Learie Constantine to Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose of recent memory. Admittedly, there have been top-class spinners, most notably ‘those two little pals of mine’, Ramadhin and Valentine, in the calypso summer of 1950, and the slim, loose-limbed Lance Gibbs of the sixties and early seventies, although he always bowled his off-spin with the aggressive intent of a speed man.

And Garry Sobers, greatest of allrounders, began his Test career as an orthodox slow left-arm bowler, later turning his hand to chinamen and googlies, as well as pace. They are icons of Caribbean cricket, but it is the men who always seemed in danger of destroying both the cricketing and physical survival of batsmen who personify the islands’ desire to crush all opposition.

The fearsome, angry – and ultimately tragic - Roy Gilchrist and the vigorous, athletic Wesley Hall emerged in the late fifties, the former’s Test career ending when he was sent home from India in 1959. Hall was joined by Charlie Griffith, and the pair, supported by Sobers, now bowling fast left arm over, formed a tough challenge for English batsmen on the 1963 tour of England. It is still said that Griffith’s bouncer and yorker were yards faster than anything else he bowled.

But it was the bowlers who began to emerge in the mid-seventies who personified West Indies’ obsessive desire to be the best. Andy Roberts, a shy man with the power in delivery of an Olympic javelin thrower, was the first, soon joined by an endless line of quicks who rank with the best ever.

Michael Holding – ‘Whispering Death’ – floated in from the boundary with a balletic grace which belied his frightening hostility; Joel Garner, nearly seven feet tall, used his height and accuracy to keep batsmen on the back foot; the ungainly, muscular Colin Croft strained to make opponents' lives difficult and dangerous, and Malcolm Marshall, smaller but no less menacing then his colleagues, combined his pace with an ability to swing the ball either way.

Marshall may have been the best of the lot, but there were others – Daniel, Patterson, Baptiste, Benjamin spring to mind – who would have been first choices in any other era. Walsh and Ambrose took this sequence of thoroughbreds out of the eighties and through the nineties, but their successors have yet to emerge. What of the current quartet?

Edwards and Roach are sharp, of that there is no doubt. Edwards, however, has always found control a problem, but there are indications that, under the guidance of Gibson, this has been addressed. His 157 Test wickets have come at an economy rate of nearly four runs an over, but in the recent series against Australia he managed to restrict scoring to just over two and a half.

Roach’s 62 wickets at 28.67 in only 17 Tests compare favourably with early career statistics of the best. Sammy is only medium pace but he is a canny thinker and 64 Test wickets at 30.89, with an economy rate of 2.76, suggest it would be unwise to underrate him. Finally, there is Rampaul, who has promised much but is yet to deliver. He made little impact less than a month ago when he deputised for the injured Edwards in the final Test against Australia.

It would seem, at first glance, that there is only a qualified threat to England’s batsmen from bowlers who are, in the main, at the beginning of their careers. However, they have an intelligent and proven mentor in Gibson, whose influence is beginning to have an effect, most notably in the cases of Roach and Edwards. Strauss and company would do well to ensure that these young West Indians are not underrated: the encouragement of early success can transform potential into menace with disarming rapidity.