Cricket World Cup: Committed to the cause body and soul

The Paceman: Courtney Walsh of West Indies; Derek Hodgson assesses a thorough professional and unsinkable patriot
Click to follow
The Independent Online
COURTNEY ANDREW WALSH will be 37 in October, an age when fast bowlers start inclining towards a pavilion seat and a pint, yet, as Mark Waugh and several Australian batsmen will testify, there has been no diminution of his powers.

He now has 423 Test wickets and is 12 away from becoming No 1, ahead of Kapil Dev of India. He will go on bowling, medium fast to fast to occasionally very fast, for as long, he says, "as I go on taking wickets; when that stops, I'll stop".

The stock ball is still potent, the jagged break back that rises viciously towards the most vulnerable parts of the right-hander and has the left- hander frantically snatching his blade away. Then there is the fast leg cutter, that either straightens into the pads or whips away, the bouncer, used very sparingly, that whistles past the nose, and the yorker, not perhaps quite as devastating as the one delivered by his old mate and comrade in arms, Curtly Ambrose, but still fast and brutal enough to leave purple bruises or explode stumps.

Old Gloucestershire players - Courtney spent 14 years with the county until they parted company acrimoniously last December - reckoned that he had four different balls delivered without noticeable change of action or grip. If the pitch gives him some bounce, and the ball is hard and new, a batsman will need first-class protection or bones will break if he is hit on the glove.

Ah, batsmen, will be saying, but what has all this to do with the World Cup? Hasn't Courtney himself said: "One-day internationals are for the young people"? Doesn't he hold the record for Test match ducks? Doesn't wear-and-tear in his shoulder mean that he can no longer throw in over- arm? All true, and much the same could be said of Ambrose. The speculation must be that the West Indies' strategy will be to use their two champions sparingly, leaving the bulk of the seam bowling to the young, hungry Merv Dillon, Franklyn Rose, Hendy Bryan and Reon King.

Courtney was not sure he would be wanted and for a man who has just bowled 208 overs in four Tests in the 85-plus degree heat of the Caribbean in six weeks he might have fancied a rest. He knows that neither he nor Curtly are natural one-day players, but he had taken 26 Australian wickets, at an average of 20.73, and with that recent record behind him no selectors in the world would have left him out of their side.

Courtney, born in 1962, the year of Jamaica's independence, is an intensely patriotic man - it was he who suggested to the West Indies Board that their badge be switched from the right to the left side of the shirt, to signify commitment - and if his country called he would always be there. As far as fitness is concerned he has an astonishing record. He played his first Test match in Australia in 1984 and has missed only two, through injury, in playing 114 since. Only Kapil Dev, who played 131 Tests, has bowled more Test match overs, and in 1998, his last summer in county cricket, he took 106 wickets for Gloucestershire.

Some of his performances, under stress of injury, will surely be mentioned one day when physiotherapists start writing books. Dennis Waight, West Indies' physio for a quarter-century, still shakes his head in amazement at Courtney's feats. Like all fast bowlers, Courtney puts intense pressure on knees and hamstrings. During last winter's calamitous tour of South Africa, when West Indies lost 5-0 and sent the Caribbean into shock and mourning, he was under treatment for tendinitis. He had to have constant attention to a knee, was in nagging pain yet still managed to bowl 46 overs in the First Test and 47.3 in the Second, taking 14 wickets for a badly beaten team.

He had learned to live with the knee by the Third Test but in chasing a ball on the outfield pulled a hamstring. He missed the Fourth Test but still pulled himself together to play in the Fifth, and bowled 25 overs in the first innings to take 6 for 84 before his knee collapsed again in the second. He was not expected to play in the First Test against Australia in Trinidad last March but after treatment on his knee and shoulder in New York - West Indies have great faith in a one of their specialists based there - he not only played, he surged past 400 Test wickets to give Port of Spain another reason for a carnival only days after the annual fiesta.

Waight will tell you of Courtney's last Test in Australia, in Perth two years ago. His hamstring went and the team expected their then captain to be out of the match but he told Waight to strap him up: "He bowled 20 consecutive overs, taking 5 for 74, to win the match. He couldn't walk for a fortnight afterwards but that's Courtney; the team comes first."

He is ultra-professional, carefully measuring his food and drink intake, maintaining his fitness level, swimming almost daily. He exudes good health , dresses stylishly, drives a Mercedes imported from Bristol, his second home after Kingston, uses two mobile phones and in his lean, 6ft 5in frame must be one of the most handsome men on the planet. Certainly it seems every girl in the Caribbean, from eight to 80, thinks so.

Yet Courtney Walsh is also as close as a boy can be to his mum, Joan, who still helps make the traditional Jamaican dishes at the club where he started, Melbourne, near Halfway Tree, in Kingston, the same club, amazingly, that nurtured Michael Holding. Courtney likes to drop in for a game of dominoes and would be thrilled to bowl for them again, if Jamaica and West Indies concur.

In Jamaica he is revered; he has been presented with the keys of Kingston and been appointed an official ambassador by the government. He carries a diplomatic passport. He runs a sportswear company, works hard for many charities and community projects. He is president of the West Indies Players' Association and led the famous Heathrow "strike" when the team refused to fly to South Africa to start the tour last October until they had met officials from the West Indies Board. Yet his loyalty to West Indies cricket is unimpeachable.

He was displaced as captain by Brian Lara, a Trinidadian. The episode, badly managed, brought a storm down on the board and as the first Test, under Lara, was at Sabina Park, Jamaica, there were fears of serious crowd trouble. Lara expected to be greeted by a storm of booing, at least, when he led out West Indies. In fact, it all went off with little more than polite applause; at Lara's shoulder, clapping the captain on the back as the team walked on to the field, was Courtney Walsh.

What spectators should know, when West Indies take the field in the World Cup, is that in watching Walsh and Ambrose open the bowling they are witnessing history, for this pair rank with the immortals, with Lindwall and Miller, Trueman and Statham, Lillee and Thomson and their own Hall and Griffith, Holding and Marshall.We shall not see them in England again.

Courtney Walsh's life story, 'The Heart Of The Lion', written with Derek Hodgson, will be published by Lancaster next month.