Cricket / Third Test: A lone man among the best: Henry Blofeld ponders Malcolm's place among the greats following his nine-wicket Test haul

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THERE was a ferocious irresistability about Devon Malcolm at The Oval on Saturday, the hallmark of genuine fast bowlers at their very best. That complicated mechanism - which produces rhythm, control and pace - was in full working order.

The mild irony is that Malcolm, whose inconsistency has been a byword, should have produced this form in the last Test of the summer. It will surely have won him a place to Australia, but there is now a long wait before we will know if he can produce it again in a Test match.

Malcolm took nine wickets for 57 and he will, I am sure, be the first to admit that there have been better bowlers who have never returned such figures. Fred Trueman and Ray Lindwall are the first of many to come to mind.

It requires luck as well as skill to take this many wickets in an innings. Luck that the batsmen played genuine fast bowling as badly as the South Africans; luck that the edges went to hand and stuck; luck that the pitch had the necessary pace. None of this is to detract from Malcolm's performance, it is to help put it into a proper perspective.

Malcolm is a physical fast bowler. The Australian, Jeff Thomson, is another of the same sort when he and Dennis Lillee devoured all batting sides in the mid-70s. There could hardly have been a greater contrast between the primeval force of Thomson and the controlled precision of Lillee in approach, delivery and product. His spell of bowling in England's first innings during the Centenary Test in Melbourne in 1977, when he took 6 for 26 and bowled England out for 95, was the greatest piece of fast bowling I have been lucky enough to see.

Yet Lillee and Thomson had one important piece of luck in that they bowled together in partnership. Trueman and Brian Statham, Lindwall and Keith Miller, Peter Heine and Neil Adcock, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding were all formidable partnerships.

At The Oval, Malcolm did it on his own. Suddenly and for no obvious reason, it all came together with a vengeance. When a bowler starts taking wickets like this, success leads to success; the rhythm gets better and better, the batsmen more and more apprehensive and introspective.

The one important lesson is that, like Mike Atherton, captains should only ever use Malcolm in short, sharp bursts. He will never control the ball like a Trueman or a Lillee, but if two or three times in a series he can remember how to fine tune the mechanism as he did on Saturday he could easily win England a lot more Test matches.