Cricket: West Indian pacemen all bowled out: Where are the Michael Holdings of the future? Tony Cozier reports

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The Independent Online
IT MAY come as something of a surprise to Mike Atherton and his England colleagues after their traumatic experiences in the Kingston Test a fortnight ago, but there is genuine concern among West Indians that fast bowling, the lifeblood of the game in these parts, is on the wane.

The retirement of Malcolm Marshall after the 1992 World Cup left an unfillable void compounded more recently by the back injuries that have limited Ian Bishop to five of the last 20 Tests and the disenchantment that has effectively ended Patrick Patterson's career. When Curtly Ambrose, the meanest and most effective of the current crop, hinted in January that he is tiring of the game and considering early retirement, West Indians weaned on a fast-bowling culture were thrown into a state of panic. The concern is understandable.

From the days when George Francis, George John, Learie Constantine and Herman Griffith so devastated batsmen on the 1923 tour of England that they were quickly promoted to Test status, the West Indies have relied heavily on pace. Manny Martindale, a squat barrel- chested Barbadian rated as quick and as dangerous as any, came on to the scene in the 1930s and the successors have proliferated in the past 30 years - 'Pace like fire' Wes Hall, first with Roy Gilchrist, then with Charlie Griffith, to be followed by the unending fearsome quartets of the modern era.

Yet there is the feeling that current stocks are low. 'Ambrose is a great bowler but, like any great bowler, he needs support,' Sir Gary Sobers observed. 'He's not getting any younger, has played a lot of cricket and can't be expected to be spearhead as well as stock bowler. The days when we had a full hand of really outstanding fast bowlers are gone and there are not many candidates around.'

The four used in the first Test were Ambrose, the durable Courtney Walsh (60 Tests and 203 wickets) and the unrelated Benjamins, Winston and Kenneth. Ambrose is 30, Walsh 31, Winston Benjamin 29 and Kenneth 26, so the hunt is on for the new breed.

David Holford, the former Test all-rounder and now chairman of selectors, agrees with Sobers, his first cousin. 'This is the biggest problem facing the selectors, that somehow we don't seem to have the obvious replacements for our strike bowlers,' he conceded. 'This is not to say that there are not good bowlers around. It's just that they're not bowlers you would think of as consistent match-winners. They're good, steady bowlers who do the basics right but they haven't got that extra bit of pace you'd expect from those you want to replace your top men.'

The attack was nevertheless adequate enough to take care of England easily in Kingston, even without any significant input from Ambrose, who only took two wickets. But it is the future that Sobers, Holford and others are concerned about. Those next in line are Cameron Cuffy, a 6ft 6in replica of Ambrose from the Windward Islands, two tall strong Barbadians: Vasbert Drakes and Ottis Gibson, who joins Glamorgan this summer, Franklyn Rose, a rangy Jamaican, and Barrington Browne of Guyana.

'Most of those are in their mid or late twenties by which time they would have shown whether they are going to be new Holdings or Marshalls,' Holford said. 'I don't mean to suggest that any of those aren't capable of making it at international level or that I am writing them off, but the great fast bowlers are usually spotted early in life.'

Rose is 22, Cuffy and Drakes 24, the others over 25. By that age, Michael Holding had scattered his 14 English wickets at The Oval in 1976, Andy Roberts, now a selector, had broken Hall's wicket record for a series in India and Marshall was a Test cricketer of two years' standing.

Sobers has gone as far as to suggest that it may be time to give spin a chance - a revolutionary thought and unlikely to gain much currency. Holford put it in perspective: 'We'll remain competitive, there's no question in my mind about that,' he said, 'but we like to be a little more than that. We want to remain top of the heap.'

And while there may be no Holdings in sight today, there may be tomorrow. 'That's one thing we shouldn't lose sight of, that fast bowlers tend to arrive on the scene rather suddenly,' Holford added. 'So maybe we shouldn't lose hope.'