Cricket: Double act star in long-running show

Tony Cozier pays tribute to the enduring quality of Ambrose and Walsh
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THERE have been a host of great West Indian fast bowlers and fast bowling pairings before them. But Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh stand out from all the rest for their longevity, their resilience and their undiminished ability to save their team from the frailties of their batsmen.

Walsh is 35, into his 14th year of Test cricket and within one match of his 100th Test. Ambrose is a year younger and has been the spearhead of the attack since he burst on to the scene against Pakistan in 1988 in his first full season of first-class cricket. Both have more than 300 Test wickets to their names and are still harassing the game's best batsmen - as they have always done.

None of their illustrious predecessors either lasted or were as consistently effective for quite so long. Wes Hall was 31 and Charlie Griffith 30 when they made their departures after the 1968-69 tour of Australia and New Zealand.

Andy Roberts was sent into premature retirement by unsympathetic selectors at the age of 31, while Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall voluntarily bowed out at 33. Of the earlier men of speed, only Marshall played more than 60 Tests. Yet Ambrose and Walsh show few signs of declining ability or enthusiasm. Without them, the West Indies would have endured an even more difficult time than they have done over the past few years.

These two are never more dangerous than when they are needed most. Repeatedly they have plucked extraordinary victories out of thin air. South Africa started the final day of their one-off Test in Barbados in 1992 with eight wickets standing and needing fewer than 80 to win. Curtly and Courtney wiped them away as they did England for 46 here four years ago, and Australia to secure a win by one run in Adelaide in 1993.

Already in this series they have struck at crucial junctures. With England 219 for 4, leading by 232, starting the fourth day of the Second Test, they somehow summoned the energy and inspiration to claim the last six wickets for 40 and limit the winning target for the batsmen to manageable proportions. When the batsmen once more betrayed them with their ineptitude in this Third Test, there were the indefatigable two responding on Friday evening and again yesterday with an assault as fast and as penetrative as any seen on the ground since their unforgettable burst in 1994.

It is impossible to say what the state of the series would be at present without them, but it is a fair bet the West Indies would not have won the Second Test and would now be battling against the odds in this one.

Ironically, the longer they continue the longer the West Indies must wait to blood their eventual replacements. While there are no obvious new Hoopers or Chanderpauls around - far less any upcoming Laras - fast bowlers of genuine promise abound.

One, and only one, Nixon McLean is showing his worth in this series. Others who have already done so previously must watch with the frustration of the pavilion. For the sake of the future of West Indies cricket, it is hoped that Franklyn Rose, Mervyn Dillon and Reon King will be watching, listening and learning from the masters in the middle.