Cricket: Malcolm can win test of the fast men: Wayward son of the islands allies accuracy to pace as he tries to match the threat of Ambrose and co: Stephen Brenkley talks to the speed merchant who is also a fast learner

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The Independent Online
IT IS well known that Devon Malcolm bowls like the wind. Unfortunately, he can be blowing a big north-easter one ball, and kicking up a fair old south-wester the next. The reputation for admirable pace allied to a less vaunted adherence to points of the compass remains with him almost five years after his first Test appearance. He remains mildly miffed about it. But whatever the state of his direction Malcolm is England's solitary genuine reply this winter to the West Indies' array of shock troops.

These are epitomised by Curtly Ambrose, the most lethal bowler in the world, a winner of matches and of series from impossible situations as both South Africa and Australia can testify. Malcolm is no Ambrose - nobody is - but his job is similar: to instil fear and perpetual insecurity.

He readily admitted last week on the eve of his departure that his precision level might once have been less William Tell shooting apple off head than William Tell apple bobbing at Hallowe'en but was adamant that this perception, unlike his bowling, is now misguided. 'A lot of other bowlers pitch it off line and nobody takes much notice except to mention run-up problems or something,' he said. 'I come on, get a couple a foot shorter than they're meant to be and suddenly it's everywhere that he's quick but he sprays it all over. That reputation tends to linger.'

It does but there is no doubting the Derbyshire man's contention that he has learned, that he is a better bowler. 'I'm more experienced now, more confident. When I was picked for England I thought 'yeah, terrific' and came off the field thinking 'so that's what Test cricket's about'. (He had taken one for 166 against Australia.) I know a lot more about batsmen, I'm as fit as ever, and I'm still quick.'

The speed, if not everything, is the essence of Malcolm's game. Not being able to see his deliveries is what makes him watchable. The velocity alone has impressed Michael Holding. The great West Indian fast bowler, a team-mate of Malcolm for five seasons at Derbyshire, said from the service station he owns in Kingston, Jamaica: 'There never was any doubting his speed. He's consistently quick. I would think he's quite capable of scaring batsmen on this tour.'

Nor does Holding think it especially pertinent that, in pace terms anyway, Malcolm will dish out the rough stuff alone while the West Indies will have their customary posse shooting from the hip and are likely to hit that and many other parts of English bodies. A lone fast bowler, he said, can cause considerable damage.

'You only have to look at Sir Richard Hadlee and the wickets he took for New Zealand, without anybody at the other end who was quick, to know what damage can be inflicted. England's other bowlers aren't stupid, and it's in the nature of the game that wickets can be taken by other bowlers as a result of the quick man.'

But Holding is aware too that four might just be better than one. He was reluctant to compare the present West Indies attack with the one in which he bowled. But it was, he said, quick, it was learning and there was no arguing with Ambrose's credentials.

Holding delivered two riders which gave clues to Malcolm's potential effect on the series. A bowler's subtleties, his variations could not be overestimated; nor could his approach to the game. Had Devon, he wondered, developed these qualities? And then there was the question of whether he would have made the West Indies team had he not emigrated.

'Coming from Jamaica he would have been emerging in the game at the time Courtney Walsh, Patrick Patterson and myself were around. It's probably doubtful all four of us would have been picked for the same team. I'm not surprised at all that Devon has become a Test bowler. His pace sets him apart, but I have to say I never saw him as somebody who might take 250 Test wickets.'

Malcolm has 83 so far. He will be 31 on 22 February (six days after Holding, a boyhood hero, is 40), so it is not difficult to deduce that this assessment is likely to be correct. However, England have 16 Test matches in the next 14 months. If their speed merchant remains active he might be nudging 150, might also improve his strike rate of one wicket every 67 balls (which compares to Holding's one every 50).

He also has support from closer to home which suggests that this is not entirely fanciful. According to Kim Barnett, his captain at Derbyshire, Malcolm is now at the peak of his career, that point when ability, fitness and maturity coincide to make you as good as you are likely to get. Barnett has been protective of Malcolm - and the bowler talks almost lovingly of his handling. 'It's well known that I thought he was being overbowled by England at one time,' Barnett said. 'He came back from Australia two years ago absolutely shattered and it took him a long time to recover. His action wasn't right.'

1deally, Barnett would like five bowlers to be in the England side, all of them rotated, with Malcolm as the shock bowler being used in short bursts. But he well understands that cricketing life is not always so straightforward. 'When Devon's been bowling for Derbyshire and going well, say, or trying to get back his England place it can be difficult sometimes to take him off or to get the ball off him. He's certainly got his appetite back for the game, and that's good for everybody. He looks as quick as ever to me and people should realise he's got some away swing.'

That last comment should gladden all English hearts. Pace is a wondrous weapon but pace with swing is a gift of the gods. Barnett, of course, hopes that some of both will be intact for Derbyshire next summer. At least he has enough bowlers at the county to give Malcolm a proper rest on his return. 'I know the lads from way back all talk about bowling 1,000 overs a season and you can't take that away from them. But the game really is different. The fielding alone makes it so.'

It seemed appropriate to ask one of the old-timers what he thought. Les Jackson took 1,733 first-class wickcts, most of them for Derbyshire, seven of them in two Tests. In the second he was 40 when he opened the bowling with Fred Trueman against Australia. He epitomises what fast bowlers used to be because he was called from the coal face to do Derbyshire's bidding. 'I like Devon Malcolm,' he said. 'He's quick, but he can slow it down a bit too, try to work out the batsmen. What bowlers are lacking today is hard work before they took up bowling. That's what we had.' Jackson is 72 and claims not to have a solitary creaking joint.

For the moment neither does Malcolm. He was mightily relaxed too the afternoon before the flight to the Caribbean as he surveyed the storm sweeping his home ground at Derby and looked forward to a new England. 'I think I'll be at my most effective in five- over spells,' he said. 'The trouble with that is that if you don't strike like a strike bowler you can get frustrated. I hope I don't show it. But I won't be worried about having a go, at trying different things to get a batsman out. And if it looks a bad ball then I'll have to put up with it.

'Having Gussy (Angus Fraser) at the other end is a comfort. We just about started together in Tests and we get on well. We take the mickey out of each other all the time, all in fun. But he's a hell of a bowler.'

Fraser, restored, a nation hopes, to fitness is likely to be Malcolm's opening partner once more. While Fraser wears down, Malcolm can let them have it. That is the plan. Malcolm plans more profoundly than some may assume. He is a close watcher of the game, trying to work out batsmen's weaknesses. He is also a great respecter of captaincy. His admiration for Barnett is brighter than the shiny side of a doctored ball, and he feels that Mike Atherton already has him worked out, that they know what they want from each other. Presumably, a couple of wickets every session.

In a month's time this easy-going, muscular man will once more be in Sabina Park, Kingston, where his unlikely throw from long leg in 1990 ran out Gordon Greenidge and provoked the West Indies collapse which led to a famous victory. He is unsentimental about returning to his home ground, and woul settle for a repeat.

'I tell you, cricket for me, it's England first, second, third and always.' This winter first would do.

(Photographs and table omitted)