Cricket: Powell tipped for starring role

West Indies have unearthed a young all-rounder who could take the World Cup by storm.
MALCOLM MARSHALL acknowledged that his judgement on the emergence of a new cricketing talent was tinged with an understandable bias, but the West Indies coach proclaimed it all the same.

"From the little I've seen so far, I believe Ricardo Powell could be one of the stars of this World Cup for us and, possibly, even overall as well," Marshall said of the young Jamaican who was only drafted into the West Indies team following the sudden retirement of Carl Hooper a week before their departure for London.

A World Cup, whatever the sport, is the stage for the established superstars to sparkle. Rarely does a new one appear across such a firmament. Inzamam- ul-Haq, then a 21-year-old, is the only unknown to have come to international attention strictly through cricket's World Cup when his bludgeoning batting carried Pakistan to the final, and ultimately the championship, in 1992. At 20, less than a year a first-class cricketer and without a single one- day match for Jamaica when he was called up, Powell is younger and is even more anonymous than Inzamam was then.

Marshall's initial sighting of the newest of his charges was in Bridgetown, during Jamaica's two matches against Barbados in the domestic Busta Cup tournament less than three months ago.

In the first - only his second match in first-class cricket - Powell started with a stupendous catch at mid-on. He followed it with the wickets of the Test batsmen Sherwin Campbell, Roland Holder and Floyd Reifer, conceding 75 runs from 34 overs of steady off-spin, and then rounded it off with an innings of 80 in a partnership of 124 with Jimmy Adams that helped save the match.

He next appeared in Bridgetown two weeks later in the Cup semi-final. Entering with Jamaica 25 for 3 on the first morning, he proceeded to hit a run-a-ball unbeaten 114 out of a total of 206. One stroke, a front-foot drive over extra-cover off the fast bowler Corey Collymore, later to make his Test debut in the series against Australia, is spoken of in awe by the discerning fans in Barbados.

"That was all I needed to see that this boy had `cricketer' written all over him," Marshall said. "He is just a natural."

Fast forward to last Wednesday at The Oval, the West Indies' last practice match for the World Cup, against Surrey. This time, Powell arrived with the innings shortened by afternoon rain and only 5.5 overs remaining. By the time he was out, with two balls left, he had hit 53 off 22 balls, stroking three sixes and four fours and allowing just one ball to go scoreless.

Back in the dressing room, the captain Brian Lara, recognising a kindred spirit, turned to a team-mate and exclaimed: "Did you see that?"

"It wasn't slogging, it was just good, clean hitting, genuine cricket shots," Marshall said. "And it was intelligent, too. He didn't try to hit the cover off the ball. He just played it as it came along."

At 5ft 9in and 178 pounds, Powell's every movement is that of an athlete. He moves with feline pace in the field and strokes the ball with a wristy fluency similar to that of his fellow Jamaican, Jeffrey Dujon, the Test wicketkeeper and batsman of the 1980s. The West Indies' manager, Clive Lloyd, noted that Powell's technique contrasts with most West Indians in that it is basically front, rather than back, foot.

"That is better suited to English conditions where the ball tends to move around more and not bounce as much as it does in the Caribbean or Australia," Lloyd said. "This is the first time he has ever played in England and he has taken to it right away. There's a lot of cricket to come in the next year, so he should be well-rounded by the time we come back next summer for a full tour."

In more than 20 years as the game's most feared fast bowler and, subsequently, one of its most respected coaches, Marshall appreciates there is always the danger of making too much of first impressions of a talented young player. It is heightened at a time when the West Indies are short of genuine talent.

Marshall has seen too many come and go to allow himself unrealistic hyperbole. "Sure, these are early days and there are rough edges to be smoothed out," he said. "But he has fitted right into the team and seems very mature for his age. He is quiet, he is mannerly and he is willing to learn."

Powell has progressed step by measured step into the West Indies team. He is from the eastern county of St Elizabeth where his father, Justin, was a useful club cricketer who batted left, trundled right-arm off-spin and encouraged his son's inherent talent. Young Ricardo was soon dominating his school teams for Newforest Primary and Holmwood Technical, for whom he once compiled a triple-century in the island's inter-school tournament.

His record duly gained him a place in the Jamaica team for the annual Under-19 West Indies championship. He captained them to the title last year when he was named the Most Valuable Player but the selectors still were not convinced he was ready for the promotion to the senior team, delaying his introduction until the third match last season. Since then, he has lost no time in catching the attention of Marshall and others who matter.

Whether or not he fulfils Marshall's high expectations in the coming weeks, Powell has already created a flutter of optimism among West Indians who had despaired for so long over the dearth of obvious new stars for the future.