Ageing Ambrose and Walsh feeling the pace

Fourth Test: West Indian cricket is split as to why their celebrated fast-bowling production line has so damagingly broken down
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When Curtly Ambrose takes his leave of international cricket after the final Test at The Oval early next month, the towering Antiguan will carry into his retirement one particular disappointment.

When Curtly Ambrose takes his leave of international cricket after the final Test at The Oval early next month, the towering Antiguan will carry into his retirement one particular disappointment.

It is that he, and his perennial partner Courtney Walsh, both now in their late 30s, have been unable to pass the torch on to any of the several younger fast bowlers to whom they have set the example and passed on their knowledge.

Ambrose vented his frustration in a television interview during the third Test, reflecting a concern for West Indians, to whom fast bowling has always been a statement of their cricketing virility and success.

"It's time for the youngsters to come through but they're not ready," said the 37-year-old Ambrose, who is two wickets away from 400 going into Thursday's fourth Test at Headingley.

"Courtney and I are still expected to do most of the work. That's unfair because the youngsters should be doing the bulk of it but that's just not happening."

Ambrose's beef has been most noticeable in the current series. Between them, he and Walsh have bowled 98.4 more overs than Franklyn Rose and Reon King, conceded 21 runs less and taken 22 wickets more. It is obvious that England's batting strategy is to see off the two old hands and then set about their lesser accomplices.

Michael Holding, part of the most menacing quartet of fast bowlers ever assembled in the heyday of West Indies' domination in the 1970s and 80s, believes that the situation is prompting Ambrose to quit, even when he remains a high-class performer.

"I think Ambrose would like to go to Australia this winter if only he had more support from the younger bowlers," Holding wrote in his newspaper column last week. "He wants to open the bowling, take a couple of wickets and then come back to knock over Nos 6 and 7.

Instead, he is having to bowl his second spells at Nos 3 and 4. "It is not a new phenomenon. Since the great Malcolm Marshall scattered wickets for the last time in the 1991 series in England and Walsh stepped up from first change to join Ambrose with the new ball, the West Indies have used 13 fast bowlers to provide support. Only Ian Bishop and Kenny Benjamin have been chosen for more than 25 Tests in that time and their appearances were disrupted by injury and, in Benjamin's case, compounded by disciplinary suspension.

Bishop had all the requisites for fast bowling. He was tall, strong and fast and possessed the classic action that produced late outswing. It also produced strain that caused two separate stress fractures of the vertebrae, resulting in a premature retirement and an early passage into the television commentary box.

Few bowlers of his time matched his record of 161 wickets at 24.29 apiece and, still only 32 years old , his has been a profound loss.

So why have the West Indies been unable to maintain this production line, given their great tradition of fast bowling, the presence of famous fast bowlers around every street corner and the use of two of the most famous, Marshall and Andy Roberts, as recent coaches to the Test team? Holding puts it down to nothing more than an inevitable "lean patch", noting the West Indies have gone down this rough road in the past.

Yet there is more to it than that. In their time in charge, both Marshall and Roberts complained that the emerging fast bowlers were disregarding their advice, an arrogant response from those supposedly eager to learn.

Marshall reportedly told his friend and former West Indies team-mate, Desmond Haynes, from his deathbed that his one wish was that young players would listen. It appeared also to be Ambrose's point.

Of the more recent crop, Rose, King and Mervyn Dillon have all made immediate impressions only to fall away. Rose, a natural outswinger, had six wickets in an innings on his debut, against India in Kingston in 1987 (including Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly) and outbowled both Ambrose and Walsh in the series. The following year in Durban, he took seven South African wickets in an innings.Then came a shoulder injury and a run-in with the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) that put him out of the game for almost a year.

He returned in New Zealand last December, was the Man of the Series against Zimbabwe in the Caribbean in March, missed a couple of home Tests against Pakistan with a finger injury and has struggled to regain form since.

Dillon, spotted by Marshall during a stint with Hampshire seconds back in 1996, was in the Test team against India the following season after only four first-class matches for Trinidad and Tobago. He looked the business but, unable to maintain consistency, lost his place and has been relegated to a role as a one-day specialist.

King capitalised on Ambrose's absence from the two Tests and five one-day internationals in New Zealand last December and January to announce himself as the fastest and most impressive of the bowlers, Walsh not excluded.

He confirmed his status against Zimbabwe and Pakistan and has now played all of the West Indies' last nine Tests. Suddenly, however, his rhythm has deserted him and, with it, his confidence. In seven previous Tests, he had not overstepped for a no-ball. Yet he has done so seven times in three appearances here, has repeatedly aborted his run-in and has seldom been at top speed.

For Holding, there was some encouragement from the recent Costcutter Cup, the world cup for the Under-15s, won by the West Indies in last Thursday's final at Lord's. It was no doubt prompted by the pacy Ravi Rampaul's reaction on being thumped to the cover boundary. True to the West Indian tradition, he pounded in a bouncer that laid the unsuspecting Pakistani batsman on his backside. That was more like it.

THE BACK-UP BRIGADE

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