Malcolm caught up in character clash

Derek Pringle on the pressures that caused a mild man to boil over
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is not unusual for disgruntled cricketers to air their grievances about authority. For example, in 1983, Norman Cowans accused the then England captain, Bob Willis, of mistreatment, and was fined by the Test and County Cricket Board as a result. However, it is quite another thing for a player to question whether he has been the victim of racism and Devon Malcolm has probably called time on his England career following his comments in a newspaper yesterday.

Malcolm, interviewed in the Daily Express, complained that he had been badly treated by Raymond Illingworth, the manager on England's current tour of South Africa, and added: "I have to ask: would this have happened if I had been a white bowler?"

It was this comment that brought an uncharacteristically rapid response from the Test and County Cricket Board spokesman, Richard Little. "That is an offensive remark," Little said yesterday. "We always pick the best possible players and take no account of any other element."

The TCCB, having tried to dissuade Malcolm from giving the interview, appeared in little hurry to discipline him, saying: "We will take any action we think is necessary in our own time."

What is not clear is why a mild-mannered man like Malcolm would take such a course of action, risking all in terms of his England career. For a self-confessed team man, it is a brash move, one which suggests he has either reached the end of his tether or has taken a calculated risk; one that may have included the likelihood of Illingworth's contract not being extended when it comes up for renewal at the TCCB's Spring meeting, soon after England return from the World Cup.

Either way, he must have weighed up the consequences as well as his chances of playing again for England, the likelihood of which now seems remote even by the TCCB's standards of optimism.

Apart from the early thrill in Soweto of meeting Nelson Mandela - who greeted him with the words: "I know you, you're the deystroyer" - Malcolm has not had a happy tour.

Long before his retreat behind sunglasses and Walkman, Malcolm's confidence must have been undermined after Peter Lever, the England bowling coach, claimed that his pace was his only asset and that without it he was a "nonentity" in cricketing terms. It was a clumsy and unthinking statement to make public, about any player, let alone a potential trump card like Malcolm, who was struggling for both fitness and confidence.

Mind you, his selection at the age of 32, after minimal rehabilitation on a knee that had been operated on towards the end of last season, was always going to be something of a gamble. Both Atherton and Illingworth knew this, and although he bowled reasonably well in the second Test at the Wanderers, taking six wickets in the match, he did not pose the threat England had hoped, rarely approaching the fearsome pace of old. And the way he hobbled about in the field suggested he was far from match fit despite his assurances to the contrary.

Malcolm, though, had already maintained, at least in private, that both his knee injury and the resulting lack of confidence (and hence lack of pace) were directly due to the attempts by Illingworth and Lever to change his action.

By getting him to stay more upright at delivery and to follow through straighter, Illingworth had hoped to minimise his tendency to spear the ball down the leg-side. It was a change Malcolm was asked to implement after last summer's Oval Test, and one he says resulted in his knee injury, sustained against Essex, less than a week later at Chelmsford.

There is no doubt that Illingworth and Malcolm clashed on this tour, though some of the incidents seem to have been over-dramatised. The England manager has a brusque manner that can easily be misinterpreted, and by all accounts Malcolm did not help himself by being frequently late for the team bus and thus providing the Yorkshireman with plenty of reasons to criticise him.

Malcolm does not have a thick skin. International cricket is a tough business and although players may not always appreciate being told harsh truths, or being cursed, it is something that should be tolerated when used in the heat of the moment.

It was in just such a moment that Atherton famously read Malcolm the riot act back at the Oval in 1994, after he had again been soft with the South African tail-enders. Although his transformation in the second innings, where he took nine wickets, has been widely attributed to the bouncer that struck him on the head, Atherton's rocket also played its part.

It is understood that Malcolm was virtually singled out by Illingworth after England's three-day hammering in the final Test in Cape Town. Although the batsmen were apparently reprimanded en block, it was Malcolm who received the brunt of the bowling criticism.

If this is true then Illingworth is out of order, for poorly though Malcolm bowled he was visibly trying. As he could not bowl at both ends, the other England bowlers were just as culpable.

Derbyshire, who have been quite vocal over Malcolm's treatment by the England set-up, claim they are waiting to hear the other side of the story before acting, though it is understood they are in the process of writing to the TCCB to complain about the management's conduct towards Malcolm.

In a way, Derbyshire must bear some responsibility for what has happened. Had the county not molly-coddled their bowlers over the years, by giving them games off, they may just have realised that international cricket is a hard game played in a far harder world than the one encased by the cosy rituals of county cricket.

The antipathy of Malcolm and Illingworth to one another is probably not even based on ignorance or misunderstanding. It is probably just a bad case of naivety all round: that of a Yorkshireman living in a politically correct world and a cossetted player unaccustomed to having his head bitten off occasionally.