Bishop's blessing and curse

Derek Pringle analyses a Test duel that was not for the faint- hearted The West Indian paceman who terrorised Robin Smith insists his side are playing within the laws of intimidation
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HAVE you ever wondered what it might feel like to be shot in the chest; or caught full in the solar plexus by one of Mike Tyson's fists? If you have, then you might consider that somewhere between the two lay the experience endured by England's Robin Smith at Edgbaston last week as he was peppered about the body by an object of five and a half rock-hard ounces travelling at 90 miles per hour.

As ball upon ball was dug in, testing the broad rule of intimidation to the hilt, reflexes and rib-cage were tested in equal measure, eventually throwing confidence and judgement into disarray. After the match, Raymond Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, invited the sceptics to "get their pads on and bat for 10 minutes out in the middle".

Smith, England's top scorer in their past four Test innings, certainly goes in for the purgation fast bowling offers the stout of heart, though even he thought Edgbaston to be a unique experience. On a hard, fast pitch with dangerously erratic bounce from short of a length, his duel with Ian Bishop on the final morning took on the kind of ghoulish fascination one imagines brought Romans flocking to the Colosseum 2,000 years ago.

"It was definitely the most bruising I've ever sustained," Smith said almost cheerily last week. "Normally, I try to get out of the way when it's that quick, but the variable bounce meant I kept getting hit. But at the end of the day, what's a bruise?"

Battered by Bishop, sniped at by Courtney Walsh; Smith is never one to shirk a red-blooded challenge, and though he is well-endowed with testosterone, this is not just reckless macho talk. After all, he did wear a visor with his helmet, only the second time he has done so. As had happened to Graham Gooch against Patterson and Marshall on the terror track at Sabina Park in 1986, Smith felt there was a chance he might get hit on the head without being able to do much about it.

"It certainly crossed my mind, and while I have no complaints about the bouncer rule whatsoever, I did feel that on occasion they were trying to hit me rather than get me out. There was one over where I ducked five balls out of six and I thought Bishop would have had a much better chance of getting me out if he pitched it up. But don't get me wrong, I still relish fast bowling; it really gets the adrenalin going, and at this level, that's what this game is all about."

Bishop, who ended with four second-innings wickets, disagreed. "I thought it was a fair pitch once the shine came off the ball. Certainly, I'd rather have batted on it than the one we played Australia on at Perth in 1993. That was fast and bounced steeply from a full length.

"It was, though, the quickest strip I've ever played on in England, and when the first delivery of the match flew over both Atherton's and the keeper's heads, I thought, 'Hey, I'd like to get a bowl on this.' Actually I was due to open the bowling, but Richie [Richardson], having seen that ball take off, thought of the huge effect it would have on the opposition. So he brought Courtney on instead. You see, he's much more aggressive."

That admission will certainly be news to Smith, whose heavy haematoma count came courtesy of Bishop's non-stop onslaught to his throat and rib-cage. Earlier in the summer, Michael Holding predicted that if all went well for Bishop with his new action he would be back close to full pace by the Fourth Test. On the evidence of last Saturday, he is already there, a Test ahead of schedule.

"I never really planned to charge in, having suffered the injuries I've had," Bishop confided. "I thought I'd try to get most of my wickets this summer with the outswinger. But the Edgbaston pitch was hard and dry with hardly any grass on a full length. Actually it was Brian [Lara] who sidled up to me after my first two overs of the match and said: 'Look, Bish, it's not swinging, but there is a bit of grass there. You're just going to have to try and run in and put in some more effort.' So I had to try to bowl a couple of yards quicker."

To those accustomed to being on the receiving end of such calculating ruthlessness, the ensuing barrage of short balls would have been seen as part of a wider-reaching attempt to break England's spirit and perhaps the odd bone for the rest of the series. Already, Richard Illingworth is out of the next Test with a broken knuckle, although Jason Gallian has made a swift recovery from a cracked finger.

Bishop refutes such a suggestion. "A lot of people get the wrong impression. We don't try to batter players, we just utilise what is put in front of us. Obviously, if you leave grass on the middle of the pitch that's going to be the most beneficial place for us to bowl. We didn't try to kill anybody, we just used the pitch to the best of our abilities."

True to his deep commitment to Christianity, Bishop admits a certain squeamishness at hurting batsmen. "The last thing I want to do is maim anyone or see blood. It's happened a few times, and it's not a good feeling. Just after I started out for Trinidad, a fellow ducked into a short ball during a club game. He got cut over the eye and blood was spurting everywhere.

"It may be hard to believe but I've never been the same since, and my team-mates always take the mickey and say, 'Oh, you can't bowl fast, you don't have the heart. When you hit somebody you go to pieces.' It's true, though hitting a batsman on the body doesn't really affect me, as I know he's just going to be a bit sore in the morning. In fact all of us just try to keep it within the framework of the rules."

These, however, are rules that can be bent. It is probably just a coincidence, but the umpire Ian Robinson, from Zimbabwe, also happened to be standing when Walsh gave Devon Malcolm a fearful working over in Jamaica on England's last visit there, the official's liberal interpretation of the intimidation law causing much controversy at the time.

It was no doubt with this in mind that last week's ICC gathering urged umpires to seek common agreement on what constitutes intimidation, particularly since the change allowing two fast short-pitched balls per batsman per over was introduced last year.

Whatever is finally agreed, Ian Bishop is just happy to be back in the swing of things, taking wickets with his remodelled action. In what many true blue Aussies will see as an act of high treason, it was Dennis Lillee who helped the tall fast bowler to return to Test cricket. "In terms of the technical aspects of fast bowling he had a more profound effect on me than anyone," Bishop recalled. "He told me I could still bowl an outswinger with my new chest-on action as long as my wrist formation was right."

Bishop's return to form has certainly increased the potency of an already formidable bowling attack, allowing both Curtly Ambrose and Walsh to operate with far less mental and physical pressure than of late.

At present Bishop's form is in the ascendant, and so far his 18 wickets at only 13.83 runs heads the tourists' Test averages. But then, as Andy Roberts, the West Indies coach, gleefully admits, the big man's return has been nothing short of a blessing.