West Indies add guile to velocity

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The Independent Online

Cricket Correspondent

The publicity blurb accompanying the West Indies' first official press conference in London yesterday referred to them as the world champions, which suggests the tourists' memory is even shorter than their fast bowling. Nor will this summer offer them an early opportunity to regain the unofficial crown they recently lost to Australia, in that beating England does not so much represent the taking of a prized scalp as the removal of a bald man's wig.

However, whenever the West Indies are in town the most talked-about item of head covering is a batting helmet. Keith Fletcher once said that he even began ducking when he watched them on the television highlights, although the question now is whether - like Fletcher himself - the West Indian mean machine has temporarily passed into Test match history.

Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh remain the sort of opponents batsmen feel disinclined to upset, although the comparative lack of younger fast bowlers in the Caribbean nowadays has prompted the West Indian selectors to take another chance on the injury-prone Ian Bishop.

Furthermore, the West Indian coach, Andy Roberts, is doubtful whether Bishop can ever regain his former 90mph pace after his long history of back trouble, and is sufficiently mindful that Ambrose is approaching (in fast-bowling terms, anyway) old age, to be contemplating trying to teach an oldish dog some new tricks.

Roberts, whose early career persuaded a generation of Test batsmen to contemplate putting in for a nappy allowance, latterly became - as did Malcolm Marshall - a supreme exponent of brisk outswing, and he feels that if Ambrose can add guile to his declining velocity he could not only extend his Test career by a few more years, but also end it with the accolade of the best fast bowler ever to play international cricket.

"When I was young," Roberts said, "I just ran in and bowled fast and straight, but as you get older you have to learn to adjust, and it was by playing county cricket here in England that I developed the ability to swing the ball. For various reasons, I've never had much chance to work with Curtly, and now, on a long tour of England, is a good time to start. It's not too late, and Curtly has always been the sort who is willing to learn."

Roberts does not, however, subscribe to the theory that the West Indies' heavy annual workload (the series against Australia only finished last week) is a factor in their fast bowlers now being regarded as occasionally nasty rather than relentlessly lethal.

"Curtly had two months off before the Australia series, and when he came back he had lost his rhythm and his power in the delivery stride. This tour is the key for him, and I'm still not 100 per cent sure he can still bowl with extreme pace. We'll soon see."

Whether or not Roberts is working on a bit of psychology here (as the Australians successfully did on the last Ashes tour by suggesting that Craig McDermott needed to pull his finger out), England's memories of Ambrose blowing them away in Trinidad two years ago, and Walsh working them over in Jamaica, are still fresh enough for them to require some harder evidence before they start practising their front-foot shots.

As for England's prospects of winning the series, Roberts rates them at roughly nil. "The only possibility is if we beat ourselves," he said. England, on the other hand, first have to acquire the knack of beating someone else before they can concentrate on beating themselves.