Cricket: Pace preying on body and mind: Derek Pringle believes that umpires are the real culprits in not applying the guidelines

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FOR any batsman of the last 20 years, playing against the West Indies has always been the ultimate in rites of passage. Scoring runs against spin or swing may earn a player plaudits, but true greatness can only be bestowed on those who can handle pace and score regularly against it. Since 1976, West Indies have possessed a series of destructive bowling quartets, the likes of which the game had never seen.

With England losing the first Test, nothing much has changed: West Indies still have formidable fast bowlers and our batsmen still find them hard to counter. It has been a year of extremes for England, though results have largely remained constant with just one win in the last 11 Tests. Against India and Australia, they were consistently undone by spin and its mysteries. Now, under a new leader and with several new faces, they are confronted by the unrelenting delights of fast short-pitched bowling.

Until Sabina Park, things had gone swimmingly well for Mike Atherton and his team. A near perfect start to their tour had been augmented by an emphatic one-day victory in Barbados. But like a caterpillar that has successfully reached pupation only to be gobbled up by some passing predator the moment it hatches as a butterfly, England have likewise fallen prey to some classically hostile West Indies bowling. In Test matches at least, 'twas ever thus.

The coup de grace - and its effect may well be felt throughout the series - came in two torrid spells from Courtney Walsh, either side of the rest day. The first - having already done for Robin Smith - was clinically directed against Atherton. The second, at the end of the England innings, ruthlessly accounted for Devon Malcolm, after he and Andy Caddick had put on 39 for the last wicket.

Lengthy and hostile, but deeply considered, Walsh's spell to Atherton kept delivering tactical blows to both body and mind, bruising the former and dissuading the latter, like a persistent Muhammad Ali, whereas his encounter with Malcolm was every bit as brief and brutal as a mismatch with Mike Tyson.

It is a long time since Walsh has delivered as powerful an argument and he virtually admitted as much when he said: 'I've bowled as well as that before, but not for as long. With the rest day in the back of my mind I was happy to keep going and try to take wickets.' Of all the bowlers in the match, Walsh found the perfect length during his 14- over spell. So easy was the surface that anything that was pitched up or short and wayward was thrashed away.

And yet he only really came alive once Alec Stewart had been run out, needlessly gambling over the price of a third run. Had this, or the fact that it was Robin Smith - instead of the injured Graham Thorpe - who had come into bat, been the catalyst that sparked his subsequent blitzkrieg? 'When we started the light wasn't good,' Walsh said. 'We didn't want England to come off the field, so Curtly (Ambrose) and I bowled accordingly. After that it got lighter.' With the murk lifted, and the handbrake off, Walsh exploited the cracks in both pitch and psyche.

With a loose gangly action that is all arm and awkward angle, Walsh is a bowler who is hard to pick up and equally difficult to get into a rhythm against. With his tail up on a pitch showing occasional uneven bounce, the challenge was as stern as it gets. So it proved when Smith, frozen in the headlights like a dazed rabbit, gave a preview of Atherton's dismissal by turning his head and fending the ball off his midriff, to the scavenging Jimmy Adams at forward short-leg.

With Atherton's dismissal, a replica of Smith's, Walsh had two prized scalps in the kind of spell that wins Tests. He showed England's bowlers the importance of never allowing the new batsman to settle. The tourists did that with all the docility of a children's game show host.

As ever, West Indian methods were not without controversy. Walsh's systematic 'working over' of Atherton, was ghoulishly fascinating, but totally brutal in the way it flouted - yet fully exploited - the present experimental legislation (brought in during October 1991) on short-pitched bowling. With only one bouncer per batsman per over allowed to pass over the shoulder of the striker, standing fully upright at the crease, Walsh's pinpoint vertical accuracy - varying somewhere between throat and lower rib - showed it is still possible to intimidate without transgressing this addition to the law. West Indies' bowlers have always looked to win games first and friends later.

The law was brought in to prevent the cynical over-use of the bouncer, something that had turned Clive Lloyd's dogs of war into the pariahs of world cricket. The ICC, keen to emasculate fast bowlers, missed the point. True, the change was thought necessary because excessive fast short-pitched bowling made for many a one-sided spectacle. But at the heart of the problem lay weak umpiring. By failing to apply the guidelines under the existing law, umpires, not fast bowlers, were the real culprits.

Overall, it seems, batsmen are meant to be protected under law 42.8 providing that 'in the opinion of the umpire at the bowler's end (in this case Ian Robinson, the neutral from Zimbabwe) it constitutes an attempt to intimidate the striker'. The definitions continue: 'Umpires shall consider intimidation to be the deliberate bowling of fast short-pitched balls which by their length, height and direction are intended or likely to inflict physical injury on the striker. The relative skill of the striker should be taken into consideration.'

Littered with ambiguity, the law is obviously an ass. Who knows what any bowler is intending or exactly which length on any given pitch is short, or what height - below the present guideline of the shoulder - is dangerous?

In the case of Malcolm, now sadly on his way home injured, perhaps Desmond Haynes, the acting West Indies captain, or Robinson should have had a quiet word with Walsh. Tired of being warded off and occasionally scored off by someone with the eyesight of a Rhino and the batting panache of Robocop, Walsh softened Malcolm up before coming around the wicket to bowl him leg stump. In these parts they have a saying directed at fast bowlers: 'If you are going to dish it out, you've got to learn to take it.'

With bowlers in the 'pressure' business of trying to win Test matches, these were understandable tactics. Walsh may have provided the means for decapitation - had the ball got up higher - but with no proof of intent, Haynes and Robinson seemed powerless to prevent the execution. As Walsh put it: 'I just try to take wickets within the ICC guidelines.'

Whatever the inadequacies of the regulations as regards a batsman's protection, they cannot guard against a player's shortcomings. As Graham Gooch always maintained, nobody likes playing fast bowling; it is just that some people play it better than others. The key is positive thought and courage. These attributes, according to Sir Garfield Sobers, help achieve the correct movement of the feet.

Perhaps Graeme Hick has been taking note. Before this latest Test match, he possessed an average of 10.71 against the West Indies. Compare this with Robin Smith's average of 50.57 against the same team, and you have the difference between a Rolls Royce and a Skoda. Yet at Sabina Park Hick looked the better player. Having worked hard to overcome his 'freezing' towards the short ball, his willingness to duck positively but also to hook short balls selectively has made him look far less fragile. Smith on the other hand looks hesitant. A good talker, Smith will have to improve his body language. For unlike when facing Merv Hughes, whose sledging Smith relies on to get him going, all is eerily quiet on the West Indian front.

'In some ways,' Sunil Gavaskar reckons, 'it boils down to courage more than skill. You can't play it if you have any doubts in your mind.' He's right, and not just at this rarefied level either. County cricket has sundry talented players who can't put their technique into practice because they are frightened of getting hurt.

But what of the West Indies batsmen themselves? Do they play their own formidable bowlers consistently well? According to Michael Holding, not really, not consistently at least. 'When he first started, Richie Richardson was one of the best, but he wasn't the same once he'd been hit on the head by Danny Morrison back in 1986. But other than him, nobody got runs consistently and convincingly.'

Not even Vivian Richards? According to Tony Cozier: 'Viv's average in domestic competition at the Kensington Oval in Barbados was around 20. Mind you, Kensington was quick in those days. With a bowling attack of Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Sylvester Clarke and Wayne Daniel there weren't many who got on top.'

What is generally thought to have kick-started this unceasing production line of West Indian fast bowlers was the 5-1 drubbing that Australia gave Clive Lloyd's young side in 1975-76 after they followed England to the slaughterhouses of Lillee and Thomson. Holding, however, disagrees: 'What really convinced Clive Lloyd that fast bowling was the way to win Test matches was when we played India in Trinidad during the same winter. Because it was traditionally a spinner's pitch we played three,setting India 403 to win in a day and a half. They walked it by six wickets, the most runs ever scored in the fourth innings of a Test match.'

But which combination of fast bowlers was the best? In Holding's opinion it would have to be Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, Joel Garner and, of course, Holding himself. All fast, but all different in their ways. Roberts the great thinker who would hold his bouncer across the seam, so that when he bowled it it would skid on. Croft, all menace and dread with an even greater stamina and angle of attack than Courtney Walsh. When he tired it was usually time for the stock bowler, Joel Garner, who could hit a handkerchief five times out of six, though when he took the new ball and ran in he was as frightening as they come. And finally 'Whispering Death' himself, Michael Holding; the perfect athlete, fluid and sublime, yet savagely fast.

If the present line-up may not be quite as awesome, it will take a lot more than an addition to Law 42.8 to topple the West Indies. But if England's batsmen can win their private battles, as Hick appears to have done, their skirmishes in public are halfway won and this series will have a long way to go.

(Photographs omitted)