Bishop saved by family and faith

The West Indies owe a great deal to the rebirth of a great talent, says Tony Cozier
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The Independent Online
The unusual way the West Indies' most successful bowler celebrated his major wickets in the first Test at Headingley carried somewhat more significance than the theatrical displays of triumphalism so commonplace nowadays.

If the image of Ian Bishop sliding on to his knees, hands raised, eyes turned heavenwards, looked reminiscent of the converted at a Billy Graham crusade, the purpose was the same. "It is his total and abiding faith in God that has actually brought him through", Wes Hall, the West Indies team manager, fellow fast bowler and born-again Christian, says of Bishop, who was playing his first Test for nearly two and a half years - the second interruption of a career blighted by the bane of all fast bowlers: stress fractures of the vertebrae.

"God has always been an important part of my life and I believe that once I stay within his will he won't lead me where he can't provide for me", is how Bishop himself puts it.

West Indies cricket itself should be offering thanks for Bishop's safe return for, as his performance at Headingley indicated, he has made a huge different to the attack as support for Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. "He bowls more consistently than the two Benjamins and he makes the ball swing", Michael Atherton observed after England's defeat.

Bishop's belief was sorely tested by the injuries, which have not only taken nearly four good years out of his cricketing life but also obliged him to alter his action - which was classically side-on when he first appeared in a West Indies team on the tour of England in 1988. By the time his first fracture struck him down in January 1991 he had, at the age of 23, already taken 59 wickets in 11 Tests at the puny cost of 29 runs each. Imran Khan rated him the fastest bowler in the game and the latest of the great West Indian fast bowlers seemed to have arrived.

While he is convinced God controls his life, Bishop is no Bible-thumping evangelist and also credits others for prompting his return. He admits to some misgivings about whether he would ever come back and to having to ignore those who doubted he could. In each case he says his wife and family were pillars of strength.

"When it happened the first time I was 23, and you think it's not too bad and you feel you can get back," he said. "When it happens a second or third time you hope for the end not to come, but in the back of your mind you are thinking you may never get back."

Following the first break, an ill-advised return on a tour to Australia prior to the World Cup in 1992 proved premature and ended in more pain. Bishop spent time in Perth receiving treatment and advice, much of it from Dennis Lillee. The great Australian recommended an alteration in Bishop's action which became even more pronounced following the second, different, fracture which afflicted him during the Barbados Test against Pakistan in 1993 and kept him out until last January, when he came back to captain Trinidad.

"Dennis told me I had to be more open-chested, to look deeper inside the left arm as opposed to looking outside it and that I had to try to land the right foot pointing straight down the pitch as opposed to parallel to the crease," he explained. "That took a lot of pressure off the back by reducing the twisting".

In spite of that he has retained his ability to swerve the ball away late from the right-hander and if he concedes his pace will not be consistently what it used to be, he remains sharp enough. He is, after all, a big and powerful man, 6ft 5in of muscular strength.

Altering his action has not been easy. "To suddenly have to change something I did for nearly 10 years to something else means that my rhythm can go quite quickly when I get tired and I'd then tend to spray the ball all over the place", he said.

The frustration sometimes shows. When he has dragged one down the leg side or pitched too short, he will stand in mid-pitch openly admonishing himself. He's also aware that he is prone to too many no-balls, 17 in as many overs against Durham last Saturday. It's not that he is impatient - he could not have waited through his long recoveries if he was - just that he is a perfectionist.

As he joins the team's usual communal pre-match prayers in the Lord's dressing room Thursday morning, Ian Bishop will do so with a special fervour. He is convinced he would not have been there but for divine intervention.