Jamaica's durable genius in top gear

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The Independent Online
It is not the personal assessment you would expect from a fast bowler aged 32 after 11 years in international cricket but, as he starts his 71st Test for the West Indies against Australia here tomorrow, Courtney Walsh believes he is at the peak of his powers.

"It's a close thing between 1992 and now as to when I've felt at my best," he said. "I feel comfortable with my bowling and am pleased most of all with my consistency, which is what any bowler, any cricketer, aims for."

In 1992, Walsh led his native Jamaica to the regional Red Stripe Cup with a tournament record 36 wickets in the first five matches before returning to his county, Gloucestershire, to head the English averages with 92 wickets at the miserly cost of 15.96 each.

The past year has been even more eventful. His 89 wickets for Gloucestershire made him the leading wicket-taker in the County Championship; he spearheaded the West Indies' bowling in India in November and December with 17 wickets in the three Tests in the absence of the injured Curtly Ambrose; and his match haul of 13 wickets for 55 in a massive victory over New Zealand at Wellington in early February has only been bettered among West Indians by his fellow Jamaican, great friend and mentor, Michael Holding, who took 14 for 149 against England at The Oval in 1976.

Walsh did all this while leading Gloucestershire to their highest position in the table for years and successfully captaining the West Indies while Richie Richardson recuperated from the acute fatigue for which doctors recommended a six-month rest. Somehow the tough grind that is now international cricket has not devastated the salient parts of his slim, elongated body as it has done those of a host of other prominent contemporary fast bowlers.

His celebrated team-mate Ambrose is now overcoming the crippling effects of an overworked shoulder that kept him at home while Walsh led the way in India. The talented Australian Craig McDermott has had to abort another tour here with torn ligaments in his left ankle even before the Test series started. Wasim Akram's knees have required surgery and stress fractures of the back have struck down Waqar Younis and Ian Bishop in their prime.

Walsh is at a loss to properly explain his durability beyond thanking the Lord. "I've always found that it's as much a matter of being mentally prepared as physically," he said. "Before any series I ensure I am physically ready by training but, with the amount of cricket we now play, bowling as much as I do tends to serve that purpose adequately.

"What's more important is to condition your mind to what lies ahead. When I first went into county cricket in 1985 it was a new experience for me and I took some time to get used to the daily grind. I realised you had to pace yourself to keep going."

Although muscle pains in his back - a legacy, doctors claimed, of too many long-distance flights in aircraft seats not designed for 6ft 51/2in cricketers - obliged Walsh to sleep on the floor of his hotel rooms in New Zealand, they did not affect his bowling. His only long term injury so far is a wonky shoulder joint that prevents him throwing from the outfield.

He has played in 70 of the 83 Tests the West Indies have had since his debut against Australia in Perth in 1984. Those he has missed have been mainly on the judgement of selectors rather than doctors.

In Wellington he passed Holding's 249 and became only the fourth West Indian to take 250 Test wickets. Now with 255, he has his sights set on 300.

"When I set out I didn't know how long I would play for and, to be honest, 200 was my aim," he said. "Things started to fall into place and I said if I could get to Mr Holding's figures, then the bonus would come after that."

All things being equal, he can look forward to 10 more Tests in the next five months - four against Australia in the much anticipated series starting tomorrow, six in England in the summer. In his last 10, he has taken 52 wickets.

Yet he will not commit his career beyond the end of the England tour in late August, although his contract with Gloucestershire, extended last year, does run to 1996.

"I'll listen to my body and I'll know when enough is enough," he said. "I'll wait and see how it feels in September."

For the time being the job at hand is in seeing off the challenge presented by the confident Australians to the West Indies' proud record of not losing a Test series since 1980 - therefore, not since Walsh has come into the team.

"That record is always going to be in the back of my mind and I am very keen to keep something intact that's been set by those before me," he said. "Australia are going to be tough, they always are. But we beat them in Australia not so long ago and I don't see why we can't beat them again at home. But we'll have to be at our best." On recent evidence Walsh certainly will be.