Methods that made Walsh best in world

A change of style and staying injury-free in his long career has made West Indies paceman the top Test wicket-taker
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The Independent Online

Before Courtney WALSH broke the world record for Test wickets in front of an adoring nation, Jamaicans had three heroes. While pride of place still goes to Bob Marley, the other two, Lawrence Rowe and Collie Smith, are less obvious choices considering the wealth of athletic and musical talent the island has produced. Both were batsmen with a modest 56 Tests between them, which just shows the lengths Walsh, a mere bowler playing his 114th Test, has had to go just to get a foothold in the pantheon.

Sabina Park, where Walsh's removal of Zimbabwe's Henry Olonga gave him his 435th Test wicket, was the fitting place for both man and country. West Indies cricket is going through a slump and the region desperately needed a reminder of better times. The Prime Minister PJ Patterson was on hand to milk the occasion, even ending his eulogy to the big man with the street cred phrase - "Nuff respect".

If the whole island had an excuse to celebrate, none would have partied harder than those at the Melbourn cricket club in Kingston, where a young Walsh learnt the game at the knee of George Headley and where his mother Joan still does the tea and lunches. The sloping ground was also home to Michael Holding and it was no surprise that Walsh's early run-up was a carbon copy of the one used by the man known as "Whispering Death".

Like Kapil Dev, whose 434 wickets for India from 131 Tests he has overtaken, the 37-year old Walsh owes the record to longevity at the top. Unlike Kapil though, Walsh has always worn a box to bowl in, a legacy, he claims, that comes of protecting the "crown jewels" from the vagaries of Caribbean outfields.

Whether that unusual quirk helped keep other injuries at bay is doubtful, but since his debut against Australia in 1984, his tall willowy frame has sent down more than 25,000 balls in Test cricket with barely a twinge to speak of. When you consider that Gloucestershire also managed to extract a good 10 good seasons out of him, it is a feat of stamina that few pace bowlers are likely to emulate.

A lean, supple body have helped his cause, as has the careful avoidance of the "six pints and curry" culture that still pervades the county game. Apart from a penchant for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Walsh is a clean liver and although in the past his bouncer barrages have sometimes brought snorts of indignation from the posh seats - though never from those they were directed at - he has played clean as well.

At 6ft 6in his height and pace has tended to disconcert all but those on top of their game. Although he later added subtlety and a leg-cutter to his armoury, Walsh will probably never be considered the equal of Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram or Dennis Lillee. Admired yes, but not exalted, at least not outside Jamaica.

His method, at least on proper Test pitches of honest pace and bounce, has mainly been to bowl long probing spells from wide of the crease. By slowly chipping bits off batsmen, by judicious use of the short ball, he tries to gain psychological ascendancy over them and force a mistake. It can often looks worse from the sidelines and even now those waiting to bat rarely rest easy knowing Walsh had his tail up.

As quick as any of his peers in the early days, and they included Holding, Marshall, Joel Garner, Patrick Patterson and Curtly Ambrose, he now mainly restricts his efforts to bowling two kinds of bouncer.

The first, a sort of shot across the bows, is designed to disconcert and bring doubt into a batsman's mind and footwork. The second, used when an opponent looks comfortable, is usually yards quicker and always at the head, never above it. At Lord's once, Graham Gooch, having comfortably dead-batted the "slower" bouncer, suddenly had his chin split open when Courtney delivered No 2, with its added venom and mph.

Until age began to take its toll, the hostility could be sustained, as it was in the opening Test of England's tour to the Caribbean in 1993-94. Egged on by his home crowd at Sabina, he suddenly unleashed a torrid two-hour spell during England's second innings. The assault was used primarily to get rid of England's newly appointed captain Michael Atherton, but others, such as Robin Smith and Devon Malcolm got caught in the crossfire. It worked, and once Atherton fell, bruised and battered to a catch at short-leg, his team were not far behind.

For those who feel such bowling requires an aggressive personality, Walsh has, according to team-mates, only once officially lost his temper. The occasion occurred in a county match against Essex after 20 wickets had fallen in a day at Bristol and Bill Athey, the new Gloucestershire captain, had asked Walsh if would see the day out bowling into the breeze while David Lawrence was unleashed downwind.

Clearly upset at not being given choice of ends, Walsh refused. In the dressing-room afterwards an emotional fast bowler told his skipper: "Don't step on my corns, boy" and promptly packed his bag. He left the ground and was, after not turning up for the Sunday League game the next day, within a phone call of booking a flight back to Jamaica.

We should see him in England again this summer for one last hurrah with his old mucker Curtly Ambrose. The West Indies have been in turmoil, mainly due to some lamentable batting displays, but they have not lost a series to England for 31 years. Walsh, despite his wearying limbs, will surely want a crack at upholding that record.

With the Test series won, there is still some celebrating to be done back home. The Caribbean tend to fête their champions and when Brian Lara beat Sir Garfield Sobers' world record score of 365 five years ago, he was given a prime piece of real estate overlooking the Savannah in Port of Spain.

Whatever gifts bestowed Walsh by a grateful nation, the fuss will not change him. As his current captain, Jimmy Adams, once put it: "He's a mellow fellow with a fast arm and an even faster smile."

THE NUMBERS BEHIND A BOWLING LEGEND

LEADING TEST WICKET-TAKERS Matches and wickets C A Walsh (W Indies) 114 435 K Dev (India) 131 434 R Hadlee (NZ) 86 431 Wasim Akram (Pak) 92 383 I T Botham (England) 102 383 C E L Ambrose (W Indies) 90 377 M D Marshall (W Indies) 81 376 Imran Khan (Pak) 88 362 S K Warne (Australia) 83 362 D K Lillee (Australia) 70 355 R G D Willis (England) 90 325 L Gibbs (W Indies) 79 309 F S Trueman (England) 67 307

COURTNEY ANDREW WALSH

1962: Born on 30 October in Kingston, Jamaica 1979: Takes record 10 for 43 in Jamaican school cricket 1982: Makes debut for Jamaica 1984: English county debut with Gloucestershire 1984: Test debut, against Australia in the First Test at Perth 1987: One of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year for 1986 1988: Takes hat-trick in first Test against Australia in Brisbane with last ball of first innings and his first two in second innings 1994: Appointed West Indies captain for tours of India and New Zealand. 1995: Captures his Test-best 7 for 37 in second Test against New Zealand in Wellington. 1995: Reaches 300 Test wickets during sixth Test against England at Oval. 1996: Named West Indies captain, taking over from Richie Richardson for the second time. 1998: Dismissed as captain after West Indies lose all three Tests in Pakistan in late 1997. Replaced by Brian Lara. Becomes West Indies' leading wicket-taker in Tests when he passes Malcolm Marshall's 376 wickets in first Test against South Africa in Johannesburg 1999: Becomes only third bowler in Test history after Kapil Dev (434) and Sir Richard Hadlee (431) to take 400 wickets, during the first Test against Australia at Port of Spain 2000: Breaks Kapil Dev's world record for most wickets in Tests during second Test against Zimbabwe on home ground of Sabina Park, Jamaica.

* Walsh has bowled 25,186 deliveries in Test cricket, taking 435 wickets in 114 matches at an average of 25.24. He has taken five wickets in an innings 17 times and 10 wickets in a match twice. * He has made more Test ducks than anyone else with the one against Zimbabwe on Monday being his 36th. He has made 845 Test runs at an average of 8.20 with a highest score of 26. * In 205 one-day internationals he has taken 227 wickets - with a best of 5 for 1 against Sri Lanka in 1986 - at a cost of 30.47 and an economy rate of 3.83 runs per over. His batting average is 6.97. * 114 Test appearances ranks him equal 12th with Sir Colin Cowdrey and he has the third most appearances for the West Indies, behind the 121 of Sir Viv Richards and the 116 of Desmond Haynes.

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