England's erratic assassin
Michael Slater feels the full force of Devon Malcolm, during the 1994-95 Ashes series
"Ferocious, sometimes wild, and lacking in the touch of luck ...might he yet undergo a transformation such as Frank Tyson in 1954-55?" Thus wrote Wisden Cricket Monthly of Devon Malcolm's Test debut in August 1989. It was an apt commentary, and one that would serve to describe pretty much every one of his 39 subsequent Tests. Often woolly, always willing, but capable - just occasionally - of bowling like the wind, Malcolm was England's erratic assassin for the best part of eight years.
He was first selected for the fifth Test against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1989, at the tail-end of a disastrous summer for English cricket. The Ashes had long gone (seemingly never to return), as had half the Test team, who had been lured by the Krugerrand and defected mid-series to join Mike Gatting's South African rebels. England's selectors had already trawled their way through 21 players, and now - with nothing but pride to play for - their gaze settled on a man that Ted Dexter once introduced as "Malcolm Devon".
Malcolm was 26 at the time, and had recently qualified for England after being brought up in his native Jamaica. Nicknamed "The Dude" by his Derbyshire team-mates for his languid demeanour, he was belted for 166 runs in his first 44 overs of international cricket, as Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor added 329 for Australia's first wicket. At that stage of his career, the most terrifying aspect of Malcolm's armoury appeared to be his humungous spectacles - God help any batsman if they should fall off in the middle of his run-up.
Even in humiliating defeat, however, England's fans had identified a man after their own heart, although it was his performance on the subsequent tour of the Caribbean that propelled Malcolm into the major league of cult status. In front of his home crowd at Sabina Park in Jamaica, Malcolm nailed Viv Richards twice in the match as England achieved a scarcely credible victory. He then followed up with ten wickets at Trinidad, where only the rain and some cynical delaying tactics prevented England from taking an unassailable 2-0 lead.
Malcolm's final Test average of 37.09 is proof that the off-days were every bit as regular as the on, although it did not help that he was treated with suspicion by a succession of England captains and managers - between the end of the 1994-95 Ashes series and his final Test at The Oval in 1997, Malcolm never played in more than two matches in succession. He had a habit of plugging into his walkman and sitting quietly in the corner prior to any session in the field, which made his state of mind frustratingly hard to gauge. But like a hornet in a jam-jar, woe betide any team which riled him.
Fanie de Villiers and the South Africans discovered Malcolm's vicious streak alright. In 1994, Malcolm had been recalled in his now-customary fashion for the final Test of the summer at The Oval. England were 1-0 down and behind on points, when de Villiers misguidedly clattered Malcolm on the helmet and sent his England badge flying. Whatever it was that Malcolm said to the South Africans remains a matter for conjecture, but as Dave Richardson recently admitted: "It put the fear of God into us."
The beast had been unleashed. Malcolm tore in with the new ball, and scattered the South Africans in a never-to-be-forgotten spell. Gary Kirsten flinched a return catch in Malcolm's first over; his brother Peter flapped a wild hook to Phil DeFreitas at fine leg; Hansie Cronje was beaten by sheer pace despite an immaculate forward defensive. Only Daryll Cullinan escaped Malcolm's wrath with a gutsy 94, but Devon's eventual figures of 9 for 57 remain the third-best by a fast bowler in Tests.
His place in history was secure. Two years later, on England's return trip to South Africa, Malcolm was introduced to Nelson Mandela, who greeted him with the words: "Ah, you are the destroyer!" But destruction was far from Malcolm's mind on an unhappy trip, where he became embroiled in a very public row with Ray Illingworth and England's bowling coach Peter Lever, who were obsessed with line and length - never Malcolm's forte. When South Africa's last pair of Dave Richardson and Paul Adams added 87 series-turning runs in the final Test at Cape Town, Malcolm was singled out as a very convenient scapegoat.
With the ball Malcolm could be a misguided missile; with the bat and in the field, however, he was at times comically inept. But these were traits that endeared him to a huge cult following, and made his rare triumphs all the more glorious. At Sydney and Adelaide on the 1994-95 Ashes tour, for instance, his bludgeoning assaults on Shane Warne have become the stuff of legend, while England's famous victory at Sabina Park might never have been possible had it not been for Malcolm's slight fumble followed by an exocet throw to run out Gordon Greenidge.
Malcolm's public persona is hugely misleading. Injury has blighted his farewell season, but even in 2002, at the age of 39, he was tearing in and terrorising county batsmen to the tune of 60 wickets - including one last ten-wicket haul, against Yorkshire in June. His thundering run-up and surging-shouldered follow-through remained as potent on his final day's cricket as on his first, and it is to his credit that he has chosen to go out on top.
"I don't want to be remembered as a guy who scraped the barrel too much," he said while announcing his decision. "Instead of young batsmen licking their lips and thinking, 'Here comes the old man' I hope they will offer a sigh of relief that I'm stepping down." They will certainly be thinking that this morning. For the rest of us, however, we salute Devon's decision, though not without a tinge of regret.