close-up: Devon Malcolm: Brutal way to treat a talent

Technical tinkering is undermining the confidence of England's fastest bowler. Derek Pringle studies a 'mood' player

DEVON MALCOLM must be a very confused man. For years he has plied his brand of fearsome pace with scarcely a hint of refinement to his bowling. True, the inconsistent and brutal nature of his heaving action with its splayed front foot and strong shoulder have brought as many troughs as peaks, but when the mood takes him, as it did against South Africa in 1994 with his nine for 57 at the Oval, he brings to England a match-winning dimension that is not tethered to traditional Anglo-Saxon virtues of discipline and patience.

To tinker with this behemoth now, as Peter Lever has attempted to technically and Ray Illingworth has psychologically with his ill-judged remarks, is to court disaster. Malcolm, like many with a roughly hewn technique, is a mood bowler whose best comes when confidence is high and rhythm good. Far better to encourage these two fleeting and fickle qualities by giving him his head in the middle than to attempt a technical overhaul in the nets.

The England management are treading a curious line. Before the present reign of the Illytollah, cricketers anxious to re-establish themselves in the Test arena following injury or a dip in form would be told to relax and just perform as they would for their county; the logic being that it was by achieving success at this level that they got picked for England in the first place.

In Malcolm's case the reverse has been applied. Following the final Test against the West Indies, the fast bowler was asked to try out some of the changes Lever had been wanting to implement - namely to swing his left arm across the far side of his head while maintaining an upright body at delivery - and he put them into action with Derbyshire.

On the face of it, such a request would seem reasonable. Malcolm, being a splendid and compliant fellow (some would say too much so for a fast bowler) and despite his 32 years, tried the changes, which he claims culminated not only in a loss of pace but cartilage trouble, the latter requiring an operation towards the end of the season. Ironically, when injury struck, the paceman was enjoying his best season and had 65 first-class wickets. Consistency, it seems, was coming, not through changes in technique but through the osmosis of experience.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Devon Eugene Malcolm did not come to England until he was almost 15years old in the late Seventies. His father, a widower and a maintenance engineer with Batchelor Foods in Sheffield, had emigrated some years earlier, leaving the boy with relatives until he had become established in his new home. When the teenager finally arrived he was enrolled at Richmond College, where he played most sports including table tennis, which will come as a surprise to those who have seen his less than nimble fielding.

Arriving at such an advanced age is not unusual, and it is something he shares with several other West Indian-born cricketers such as Phillip DeFreitas and Norman Cowans. Like them, Malcolm went on to play for his adopted country, an achievement which was the subject of a loathsome discourse on race and patriotism in Wisden Cricket Monthly. Normally the most mild-mannered of men, Malcolm saw red and sued the magazine, which promptly settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

It is something that irks him still, animating his normally passive persona and countenance. "Playing cricket for England has always been very special for me," he said. "So for all the black and Asian people in Britain, I couldn't let a reputable magazine like that get away with being used as a platform for racism. If I had, all the cricket I've played would have meant nothing. I've three young kids, I don't want them growing up feeling they are not part of things."

Of his own integration Malcolm has few complaints, and he owes his 11- year-old association with Derbyshire to an encounter with Geoff Boycott when Yorkshire played a Yorkshire League side. "I clean bowled Boycs, who then recommended me to Derbyshire." As praise does not come easily from Boycott, Derbyshire immediately dispatched their coach, Phil Russell, to invite Malcolm to have a net.

It was a moment few of the Derbyshire players present would ever forget, as Geoff Miller recalls. "We'd obviously heard he was quick, but he looked a bit comical with these huge thick glasses on. As he came in to bowl his first ball, his run-up was all jerky and I thought, hey up, what the hell have we got here. Well that first ball was rapid and it hit Jack Hampshire right under the heart. We didn't have a stretcher in those days so we carried Jack back to the physio's room on a door. Devon's first ball had cracked two of his ribs."

His unassuming nature, and the fact that he could bowl a mean ball, meant he fitted into the dressing-room without the usual quota of mickey-taking most new boys seem to attract. But if pat one-liners were in scarce supply, the pure slapstick of his early batting and fielding had his team-mates in stitches. "Although he worked hard at every part of his game, it got to the stage when we were willing the ball to go to him in the field, just to see what would happen," Miller said.

"Once, at Trent Bridge, he went for a skied catch off my bowling and lost his glasses. Needless to say, he dropped the catch, but without his glasses he couldn't see that the ball hadn't gone over the boundary. By the time he'd scrabbled around and found his glasses and retrieved the ball, the batsmen had run nine. All I can say is thank goodness he discovered contact lenses."

And yet who can forget that typically Malcolm piece of fielding at Sabina Park in 1990, when Gordon Greenidge tried to take a second as Malcolm fumbled at fine leg only to see the big man recover and send a rocket- like return to Jack Russell straight over the stumps. It opened the gates and West Indies went from 62 without loss to 164 all out, enabling England to build a big enough first-innings lead to give them a famous victory.

The "Dude", as he is known at the Racecourse ground, has always been a great trier, never unwilling to toil. His bowling, particularly in the Eighties, owed much to the diligence of Phil Russell and Michael Holding, whose fluid athleticism helped iron out his protege's jerky run-up and so build his confidence.

"I owe them a lot," he acknowledges. "They realised I had pace but Michael especially didn't believe in interfering too much. He reckoned that my body mechanisms allowed me to bowl the way I did. Apart from a smooth run-up he didn't believe in change for the textbook's sake."

By all accounts, Malcolm has once again tried to implement the changes advised by Lever, but feeling renewed pressure on his recently healed knee he has dispensed with them, clashing with England's bowling coach as a result. "Devon is conscious of having picked up niggles by trying too hard too soon on tours before," his room-mate Mark Ramprakash said. As the ineffably wise Raymond Illingworth ought to know, only fools rush in, particularly on the stodgy pitches England have shrewdly been given as preparation for the speedways to come.

When touring means trouble

Philip Tufnell (1992-93 tour to India): During a three-day game in Vishaknapatnam, the Middlesex left-armer kicked his sun hat all the way back to his fielding position at cover after the umpire had rejected another lbw appeal. Tears and a fine cleared the air.

Mike Gatting (1987 tour to Pakistan): His famous finger-jabbing encounter with Shakoor Rana during the Faisalabad Test is now legend. Instead of a reprimand, the TCCB paid Gatting and his troops a pounds 1,000 hardship bonus.

Chris Broad (1986-87 tour to Australia): Considering this was Broad's tour de force, smashing the stumps with a bat after scoring a third successive Test hundred did seem a little churlish.

David Gower (1990-91 tour to Australia): Bored with the regime, Gower took to the air in a Tiger Moth and buzzed his team-mates as they played Queensland. The jovial gesture was mistaken for insubordination. He never toured again.

Graham Dilley (1988 tour to NZ): A series of failed appeals during the First Test led to an outburst of swearing for which he was fined. Upset, Dilley packed his bags, vowing to return home, until persuaded otherwise.

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