Obituary: Malcolm Marshall

MALCOLM MARSHALL exemplified West Indies' cricket at its very best. A deadly practitioner, a fast bowler of infinite versatility and tactical resource, a more than useful batsman, his slow, lazy Bajan smile and glorious Caribbean accent endeared him to the world. He was loved as much in England as he was in the Indies, especially in Hampshire, where he gave 13 summers of exemplary and exciting service.

The fatal illness, cancer of the colon, was diagnosed earlier this year, just before the start of the World Cup and although Marshall, typically, believed he would recover, close friends were saying then that they thought it to be terminal. He died in a Bridgetown hospital with two great West Indian players, Wesley Hall and Desmond Haynes, at his bedside.

He was a smaller man (5ft 10in) than most of his contemporary West Indian fast bowlers but managed, with an elastic action, to produce surprising and devastating balls off a sometimes surprisingly short and languid run- up. In English conditions, on softer surfaces, he was also able to make the ball skid, low and disconcertingly fast, into the pads. As India's great all-rounder Kapil Dev put it: "He was a slippery customer in the truest sense. You never knew whether the ball would rise to your throat or hit your ankles." Marshall himself said of his technique: "Never bowl the same ball twice; variation is the key to success."

Fast bowlers, as a breed, tend to appear suddenly and Marshall had played in only one first-class match, taking 6-77 for Barbados against Jamaica in Bridgetown in 1978 when he was chosen for the tour of India. He played in three Tests and realised that more than pace was needed on slower surfaces. He learned to swing the ball. England was first aware of a rising new power when Marshall was preferred to Wayne Daniel for the 1979 World Cup.

Hampshire were quick to spot an ideal replacement for Andy Roberts and I was among those who first saw him on English grass on a damp, chill Saturday morning in Derby. His then nickname was "Sobie", after a supposed resemblance in his stroll to the great Gary Sobers. Muffled up though he was, he exuded charisma.

He was then 21 and for the next three years he learned his trade and developed his skills, serving as first reserve to the West Indies' fast battery of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. In 1982, he took 134 wickets for Hampshire in a 22-match championship and then went home to force his way to the front (Croft had joined a rebel tour, Garner and Holding were weary), taking 21 wickets at an average of 23 against India and improving on that, 33 wickets at 18, on the next tour of India.

Marshall had arrived; 21 wickets at home against Australia were followed by 24 in England in 1984 where at Headingley he returned, after breaking his left thumb fielding close to the wicket, to bat long enough to enable Larry Gomes to complete a century, adding a four for good measure, then taking 7-58.

In all, Marshall took 376 wickets in 81 Tests and was West Indies' leading wicket-taker until overtaken by Courtney Walsh last November. He added another 157 wickets in one-day internationals and 800 wickets for Hampssire. His full first-class record read 1,651 wickets at an average of 20.94 (he also played for Natal in 1996) and scored seven centuries.

He retired from Test cricket in 1991 and from county cricket two years later, becoming coach to the West Indies' team, a position he had to retire from when illness was first diagnosed. After an abdominal operation he announced he was hoping to return, but was re-admitted to hospital earlier this week.

David Gower, a former England captain who played against Marshall for Leicestershire and with him at Hampshire, said: "He was hugely talented and an intelligent bowler, whippy, wiry strong. He built up a formidable understanding of how to bowl quick and when." The Hampshire chairman Brian Ford called him "a terrific cricketer and a lovely man. I can see him now, on the balcony at Lord's in 1992 when we won the Benson and Hedges Cup, beaming all over his face having finally won his medal." Marshall said that occasion meant more to him than playing in a Test match at Lord's.

The Pakistan captain Wasim Akram described him as "One of the cleverest fast bowlers in cricket. His skills were to pick the mistakes of batsmen straight away and pick their weaknesses. He was a nice fellow off the field but a fierce competitor on it." Kapil Dev added: "He was the only bowler I can remember who could rattle Sunil Gavaskar."

In the West Indies they had been hoping against hope that he would recover. Colin Croft rated Marshall alongside Holding and Wes Hall "as the best we have produced. He was everybody's friend - to Barbados, to West Indies cricket, to Hampshire, to everywhere he went. I don't know anyone who could say anything bad about Malcolm Marshall as a person or as a cricketer."

Courtney Walsh thought so highly of Marshall that he was almost apologetic when he overtook his Test wicket total to become the leading West Indian. Comparing Marshall with Holding and Garner, he added: "Malcolm had the best strike rate. His weapons were late swing and the ball he could skid though. He would work out batsmen, compiling their plusses and minuses and then come up with the ball they most feared."

When Marshall retired, he made some comments upon English cricket that seem even more relevant today: "Bowling has become harder today because the rules are now heavily weighted in favour of the batsmen. The one-bouncer per over rule and smaller seams on the ball have helped make reputations of some very ordinary batsmen in county cricket who are cruelly exposed when they step up into the Test team." On another occasion, he said: "I have always been available to young players for advice. A few have come to me, but not many."

Malcolm Denzil Marshall, cricketer: born Bridgetown, Barbados 18 April 1958; married (one son); died Bridgetown 4 November 1999.

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