Joel Garner March 16, 2008

Big bounce, big laughs, Big Bird

Derek Pringle
A killer with the ball in hand, geniality itself off the pitch



'At 6ft 8in tall he was a fearsome sight and sound, his bellowed appeal in deep basso profundo making the air quiver with expectation' © Getty Images
 

Envy is never a particularly productive emotion in sport unless you can do something about it. But try as I did during my own career to figure out ways to emulate my favourite cricketer, Joel Garner, I knew that short of being stretched on the rack such class was always likely to elude me.

Garner, or "Big Bird" as he was known in cricket circles after the Doctor Bird (a Caribbean species distinguished by its stilt-like legs), was a giant fast bowler possessed of an unerring control of line, length and temperament. His pace was not express, at least not until late in his Test career when they wound him up and gave him the new ball, but he was quick enough to keep the ambition of most batsmen pegged back to somewhere between survival and singles.

Occasionally he would get collared, something Graham Gooch managed in a brilliant 122 for Essex against Somerset at Taunton in 1981. But such occurrences were rare. Bird had already scrambled my stumps in that match despite warnings from team-mates to "watch out for his yorker". What the clever clogs never mentioned was the set-up that preceded it, where he pushed you ever further back with a series of jarring lifters before delivering - with a cunning extra yard of pace - that guillotine ball.

Actually his yorker was a sucker ball for scuppering the callow and the tailender, and he rarely used it when trying to dismiss proper batsmen. Against them the game was to give away as few runs as possible, wear down any resistance with unwavering accuracy and pick up three or four wickets for spit. It wasn't a cunning plan but boy was it successful.

At 6ft 8in tall he was a fearsome sight and sound, his bellowed appeal in deep basso profundo making the air quiver with expectation. In nature, plenty of animals make themselves bigger or louder to frighten others but in general it is a bluff. With Bird there was no pretence and you got exactly what was threatened: quick and bouncy bowling that tested a batsman's mettle and technique to the max.

His Test record of 259 victims in 58 matches at an average of 20.97 does not look especially remarkable now that Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan have broken the 700 barrier. But since Test pitches were first covered in the 1970s (a huge advantage for batsmen), only his fellow Bajan and West Indies team-mate, Malcolm Marshall, has a lower average (20.94) among those with over 100 wickets to their name.

Bird never took ten wickets in a Test but that was more to do with those around him than any failing on his part. For the first half of his Test career, from 1977 to 1982, he was part of the greatest pace quartet the world has ever seen. Sharing the stage with fast bowlers as deadly as Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Colin Croft inevitably meant the spoils were shared around. In any case, his role - as the Lomotil that blocked up the scoring-rate - rarely afforded him the luxury of mopping up the tail.

What set Bird apart from his peers - and remember this is when West Indies ruled the cricket world with a ruthless swagger - was his geniality. Okay, he was programmed to kill when he had a ball in his hand, but off the field I have never seen him without a face-splitting grin.

Our friendship began 28 years ago when I was at Cambridge and I took him and a few of his Somerset team-mates to a party the night before we played them at Fenner's. Joel must have had a good time as he reminds me of it even now: "Man, those student chicks were friendly."

Like many Bajans he is a devotedly social animal, liking nothing more than to regale friends with rum bottle in hand. We've had crazy nights out in Sydney, Brisbane, London and Bridgetown, the last all the more special for being his home turf. But you need a supple neck (at 6ft 5in even I have to look up to him) and real stamina, for it takes a long time for those long, hollow legs to fill.

Once in Barbados, he took me for lunch to a kiosk in Oistins, well away from the reddening tourists on the west coast. It was, he insisted, the best food on the island, the cooking done by the dinner lady from his old school. "I been eating this since I was six. How else you think I get this big," he chuckled as we tucked in to a delicious feast of chicken stew, callaloo and macaroni pie.

When you were as good as him there was no need to worry about the small details, as his masterplan when captaining Barbados in 1986 revealed. "It's quite simple. Me and Macko [Marshall] open the bowling and nip out the top order. We have a rest and the other bowlers come on and keep it tight. Then me and Macko come on and blast out the tail. We have a bat, get a hundred lead and bowl them out again."

Six years earlier, the Barbados attack had been even more fierce: Bird, Marshall, Sylvester Clarke and Wayne Daniel. With Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes to open the batting it was probably the best club side there has ever been. They should have been sponsored by Carlsberg.

He's been retired 20 years now, a period in which West Indies cricket has slipped down the gurgler. Unlike many of his generation he is not bitter about the decline and has even tried to help. But that is Bird - great bowler but even greater human being.

Derek Pringle is cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. This article was first published in the February 2008 issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here