Terror turned teacher

profile; Andy Roberts
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The Independent Online
JUST after the Packer revolution of the late 1970s, when the West Indies were arguably at their awesome best, an interesting story began to circulate around the counties. At its heart lay the tenet that raw talent and coaching did not always make for good bedfellows. The tale recounted how two promising young West Indians, a batsman and a bowler, had been flown over to England in 1972, to attend Alf Gover's famous cricket school in Wandsworth, south London.

Gover's assessment, based on long years as both player and coach, was that the bowler would - when he learnt to pitch the ball up - probably go on to better things; but that the batsman, with his front-foot whip across the line, would struggle to make the grade.

In the event, Gover's predictions proved only half right, for the bowler, Andy Roberts, did indeed go on to "better things", playing in 47 Tests and taking 202 wickets for the West Indies. The batsman, another Antiguan, did not fare too badly either. His name: Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards.

The bowler, now 44 and touring England as cricket coach to the West Indies, remembers the visit well. "That trip helped me a lot as I lacked a few basics. Alf taught me more about control and the theory of bowling more side-on. I was very open-chested in those days."

Open-chested perhaps, but very, very fast and at the behest of Danny Livingstone, a fellow Antiguan who had played for Hampshire, the county came to have a look at the slippery 21-year-old and promptly signed him for the 1973 season, the year Hampshire won only their second County Championship.

In fact, Roberts had no impact whatsoever on bringing home the silverware that summer. Hampshire already had three overseas players in Barry Richards, Gordon Greenidge, and David O'Sullivan, so Roberts had to spend a year qualifying for his registration in the second team.

However, even there he had a point to prove, not only to Hampshire who were still considering whether or not to retain the New Zealander O'Sullivan, but also to the West Indies, who were touring England that year, and for whom the young Roberts had always harboured a fierce desire to play.

It was something that had gnawed away at him since childhood, ever since he learnt the game at school. In his birth-place of Urlings he terrorised everyone, including the village chickens, by bowling as fast as he could with a tennis ball. Similarly, on the second-team circuit in England, he gave notice of the impending reign of terror that was to make Roberts the number one talking point among county batsmen.

During an early game against Gloucestershire, the fearsome pace was brutally on display. Andy Murtagh, one of Roberts's team-mates at the time and now a housemaster at Malvern College, takes up the story.

"We were playing at the top side of the square at Bristol," Murtagh recalled. "And if you were a Gloucestershire supporter walking in just before lunch with the score reading 60 for one you might have thought there was nothing amiss. Nothing that was until you noticed that numbers six and seven were at the wicket. Andy had hit four of the first five, forcing them to retire hurt. At least two of them had serious enough injuries to warrant visits to the Royal Infirmary."

That same year, he was unleashed against the touring West Indians when they visited Hampshire. It was the ideal opportunity to show his real pace to the men who mattered. He did not waste it, breaking Steve Camacho's jaw, which put a swift, painful end to the opening batsman's tour. A year later he was in the Test team proper, making his debut against England at Bridgetown, Barbados. He was the first Antiguan to represent the West Indies, having replaced the local favourite Keith Boyce. It was a moment the partisan Bajan crowd never let him forget.

Initially Roberts's fame centred around the use of two bouncers. The first, it was said, used to be hookable and was taken on by nave greenhorns and those who fancied the stroke. The second - often the next ball if the batsman had managed to hit the first with any conviction - was said to be yards quicker and lethally straight. Colin Cowdrey was a victim, as was Ian Botham, though the latter, having spat out two teeth, went on to win the match. It was, observers recall, a key moment in the blooding of Botham.

The early reputation of a fast bowler with a mean streak and a monosyllabic manner did Roberts a disservice. For a start, his bouncer was not, as many thought, the product of a mind intent on maiming, but one keen on experiment. The second, more effective, of his bouncers was deliberately held across the seam, so that the ball would skid off the pitch far quicker than anticipated with no discernible change in effort or action. In his first full season with Hampshire, he took an incredible 119 first-class wickets. But brawn only started what the brain finished.

"Andy was always a good thinker," Michael Holding, the fastest of the West Indies pace bowlers, said. "We used to room together and he helped me a lot when I first came into the team. He was always a very serious cricketer. Always looking and probing for weaknesses. About 1976 he decided to cut his pace and develop an outswinger, as well as use the crease to vary his angles. Bowling within himself, he would work batsmen out, rather than blast them out."

It is a method Roberts is hoping some of the present crop will adopt in time for this summer's Tests. Both Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh have passed 30, and can no longer sustain the pace and hostility of recent years. "It is no great secret," Roberts said as the West Indies squad netted at Lord's last week, "that we are not the same force we were. We still have two great fast bowlers, but we need the back-up to perform as well."

"I don't know if you can call it complacency," he said, explaining recent events against Australia. "It is just that as you get older, it doesn't get any easier. Our bowlers have been so successful that they've never had to look elsewhere for their wickets. Until the Australian series they never had to rethink their strategies of getting players out. That's what I'll be working on. Anyone who has watched Amby [Ambrose] bowl with that incredible control of his, knows that if he can learn to do something with the ball, he could be the greatest bowler there ever was."

Somewhat surprisingly, Roberts is not that alarmed by recent failings amongst the batsman and the seeming over-reliance on Brian Lara for the bulk of the runs. "If you look right back to the 1970s, we've always had problems with our batting. The West Indies have some of the best batsmen in the world, but on almost every occasion we haven't put it together, the bowlers have got us out of trouble. Although it didn't happen against Australia, I still think we are the best team in the world. If Zimbabwe beat us you wouldn't say they were world champions would you? But when Australia beat us, all of a sudden they are world champions."

Unlike many ex-players, Roberts is not of the opinion that a lot of cricket is counter-productive towards the players, particularly developing ones. "County cricket is a good place to learn as you play nearly every day. The amount of first-class cricket on this tour is more than most players will see in three years of Red Stripe competition back home, so it can only do them good. The more you keep playing the better the rhythm for bowlers, the better the timing for batsmen."

Since retiring from cricket in 1985, he has run two fishing boats catching snapper in the shallow waters between Antigua and Barbuda, as well as helping out as a pitch consultant at the Recreation Ground in St Johns. So what persuaded him give up his idyllic life on the ocean wave? And what did he see as the role of a modern cricket coach at this level?

"Cricket has been my main passion, so I've always wanted to give something back and I felt this was the best way. I don't think cricket has got to the stage like American sports where the coach constantly tells the players what to do. That's still a job for the captain. My role is to act as a motivator who can look at things from the outside and maybe spot something the captain misses from being so close."

The man they call "Fruity" because of his penchant for soft drinks, a habit formed as he refuses to touch alcohol, quickly gets very serious. "When we suddenly lost four great players [Richards, Marshall, Greenidge and Dujon] a few years ago, everyone thought we'd fall down. But we didn't, we kept hanging in there. As far as I'm concerned the pressure is on us to show everyone we're still the best."

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