Cricket: Five balls of fame with big Courtney

The West Indies are relying on a fast bowler who gets better with age. Simon O'Hagan faced him yesterday - and survived
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The Independent Online
MOVE OVER, George Plimpton. The great American sportswriter may have made his name by discovering what it was like play American Football and then turning his experiences into literature, but did he ever have to face a West Indian fast bowling legend? I think not.

Still, George would have at least been at home with a helmet on his head, which is more than I was as I tapped the crease at the Oval yesterday and waited for Courtney Walsh to begin his run-up. In the cricket I play, you'd be laughed all the way back to the changing room if you took protective gear that far. But on this occasion, none of us who had accepted the challenge of facing the great Courtney - a brilliant stunt dreamt up to help promote his autobiography - was taking any chances. Or maybe none of us wanted to appear guilty of bravado.

So how fast is...

That fast.

Which means you haven't even got time to be brave.

Ball one went down the leg side, flicking my pad as I thought about what to do. To ball two I played a textbook backward defensive shot - and missed by about a foot. Ball three caught the outside edge of the bat and dropped down short of the slips. Not bad that. It meant I hit it. Ball four flew off some part of me in the direction of fine leg. Ball five I managed a very nearly legitimate defensive stroke and pushed the ball towards mid-on. Ball six I sauntered down the track and lofted Courtney effortlessly back over his head. Actually there wasn't a ball six. It was someone else's turn then, which was probably a good thing because you don't want to get over-confident in situations like this.

Afterwards, Courtney smiled at me and said: "Hey, you got your bat down on it well." I think I shall treasure those words for a long time - not least because Courtney's never been a man to say very much. He's always been a gent, though, surely the least outwardly aggressive of any of the great fast bowlers. "I never get angry on a cricket field," he once said - a remark which was of some comfort to me as I checked my box for the umpteenth time.

Walsh's is perhaps the most remarkable career of any cricketer of the modern era. Most pacemen have had it by the age of 30. Their backs have gone - or their hips, or their shins. Not Walsh. "I got a bad back injury when I was still very young, 20 or 21, and that taught me to pace myself," he said. He's now 36, the holder of 110 Test caps, and about to take part in his fourth World Cup.

With 423 Test victims to his name, he also has his eye on Kapil Dev's all-time record of 434. One more Test series should do it. A projected tour to Pakistan this autumn has been cancelled; now West Indies may take on New Zealand early in 2000. "I just hope I'm selected," he said. I hope he is too. And don't worry, Courtney. I may know how to avoid being dismissed by you, but I shan't be telling anybody.

`Heart of the Lion: Courtney Walsh - A Life in Cricket' is published next Wednesday by Lancaster Publishing at pounds 18.99.