Cricket: Beware the new quicks on the block

'There's no team better for a fast bowler to make his debut against than England'; Tony Cozier warns the tourists they can expect more West Indian barrages
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The Independent Online
AS West Indians - and at least 16 apprehensive Englishmen - waited anxiously last week for Courtney Walsh finally to make up his mind that he would play under the new captain Brian Lara in the forthcoming Test series, a group of tall, strapping young men also followed cricket's unfolding serial with interest.

They were the fast bowlers who would have had to take Walsh's place had the former captain's disappointment at being deposed prompted him into earlier retirement. Even though their entry into the Test team is now to be delayed it will not be for long. Walsh is 35 and his accomplice in menace, Curtly Ambrose 34, and few here expect they will extend their careers beyond the present series - or that the selectors will allow them to.

Theirs are big boots to fill, literally as well as figuratively. When they go, the West Indies will simultaneously lose two bowlers with more than 300 Test wickets each. No Test team has ever had to contemplate such a haemorrhage. Yet not everyone is discouraged by the prospect.

Michael Holding, one of the quartet who earned the West Indies such a fearsome reputation in the 1980s, believes the tradition of fast bowling will not be interrupted when Walsh and Ambrose make their exits. "There are quite a few replacements around with real potential," he said. "You never know how good they'll turn out to be but I'm heartened by what I've seen."

Bryan Davis, the former West Indies opening batsman who is now coach to the Trinidad and Tobago team, has even suggested that it would not be a bad idea to phase out Walsh and Ambrose and bring in the best of the young fast bowlers now. "They are straining at the bit and I believe there is no team better for a fast bowler to make his debut against than England," he said. "They tend to worry about players they don't know."

They certainly know Walsh and Ambrose. But they have only a nodding acquaintance, in more ways than one, with two of the emerging lot, Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon, from the Champions Trophy limited-overs tournament in Sharjah in December. And the first sight they will have of Reon King, Nixon McLean and Pedro Collins will be on Thursday at the picturesque Chedwin Park ground, an hour out of Kingston, when they take on West Indies A.

Like so many fast bowlers before them, including Holding himself, Rose and Dillon came from out of the blue last season to move straight into the Test team against India and Sri Lanka. Rose, 26, had been spoken of before but, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, dropped out of cricket entirely in 1996. He returned with renewed enthusiasm, gained his West Indies selection on his figures in the Red Stripe Cup and promptly proceeded to outbowl Walsh, Ambrose and Ian Bishop, announc- ing himself with a six-wicket haul against India on his debut.

Dillon had not even appeared in a first-class match a year ago. He spent the summer of 1996 playing club cricket in Southampton and, by chance, Malcolm Marshall, now team coach, happened to spot him in a match for Hampshire seconds. The rest, as they say, is history.

Marshall wanted to put him in the West Indies team for Australia right away, but that would have been too extreme. So he had to wait for the home Tests against India, when he had played all of six matches for Trinidad and Tobago, before he could be slipped in courtesy of an injury which temporarily eliminated Bishop, who is, ironically, his cousin.

The presence of Walsh and Ambrose and the return of Bishop has kept him waiting but, at just 23, he cannot be held back for much longer. In what was only his third Test, on the recent difficult and disastrous tour of Pakistan, he showed character as well as quality to take 6 for 111 from 29.4 overs in Karachi, where he filled in for the injured Ambrose.

Holding is full of praise for Rose, his fellow Jamaican. "Rose has a smooth run-up, a good action and stamina that means he doesn't lose pace," he said. "In addition, and this is very important, he's very keen and committed and does a lot of physical work to keep himself ready and in shape."

Dillon is a bit quicker and a bit taller. Colin Croft, another member of the 1980s strike-force, says he has the closest bowling style he has seen to his own - full-chested with a high arm action. Now Croft is advising Dillon to develop the speciality which served him so well, the leg- cutter delivered from wide of the return crease, to become the finished article.

The fact that both are fast, safe, strong-armed outfielders - not adjectives readily attributed to Walsh and Ambrose - boosts their value still further.

Only slightly behind them come McLean, King and Collins, who were three of the few successes with the A team on the tour to South Africa which exposed the many weaknesses of West Indies cricket at present.

McLean, from the Windward Island of St Vincent, is 24, as tall as Walsh at 6ft 5in and pacy. The Guyanese King is 22 and, in the words of the A team manager, Joel Garner, "like lightning". The problem with both has been injury. McLean was out of the game for eight months when he was on the edge of the Test team last season; King broke down with knee trouble in South Africa. Both are fit again and their progress against England will be carefully monitored.

Collins, 21, from Barbados, does not have express pace but, in the professional jargon, hits the deck hard and has the benefit of being a left-armer. Garner and the coach Roger Harper were glowing in their praise of his development in South Africa. He is clearly one for the future.

Or, if the selectors decide to bite bullets and live dangerously, he and the others might be ones for the present.

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