Malcolm Marshall July 19, 2010

The epitome of fast bowling

Mike Selvey
Swing and cut, speed and bounce, and smarts above all - Maco had everything except height, and even that lack he turned into an asset

They laid Malcolm Marshall to rest in the churchyard of St Bartholomew, out near Grantley Adams airport, the gateway to Barbados. His funeral service, at the Garry Sobers Gymnasium, had been conducted by the Reverend Wes Hall: one giant of West Indies cricket helping another on his way. It had been a state occasion in all but name, broadcast not just in Barbados but across the Caribbean. But the rest of the cricket world grieved too. Those who knew him and played with and against him, of course, but also those who revered and recognised the untimely passing of a great player. Such was the esteem in which Marshall had been held.

Can it really be 11 years ago this November that the colon cancer that ravaged him for six months finally took him? He was only 41 years old, his prime long since past, but still good enough to make good young players acting above their station look foolish when he chose to turn his arm over in the nets. Perhaps, just as Don McLean recognised the death of Buddy Holly as the "day the music died", November 4, 1999 was the day West Indies cricket, no longer top dog, began its final descent from such sustained dominance as no side had ever managed before, into turmoil and obscurity. In life, Viv Richards and he, above all, represented the central pillars of supreme excellence within the West Indies side. In his passing, he became a metaphor for the demise of cricket in the Caribbean.

Marshall was central to the West Indies side through their most dominant period in the mid-80s, when happenstance not heritage, history now tells us, produced such a rich crop of fast-bowling talent, the like of which had never been seen before or since, and they brushed aside opposition as if flicking away irritant horseflies. Traditionally fast bowlers have been seen to hunt in pairs, their names synonymous with one another: Gregory and McDonald, Constantine and Martindale, Lindwall and Miller, Trueman and Statham, Hall and Griffith, Lillee and Thomson, Wasim and Waqar, McGrath and Gillespie, Donald and Pollock. But in that glorious period, West Indies hunted in packs: Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Patterson, Daniel, Clarke, Bishop, Walsh, and Ambrose.

And, of course, there, as the linchpin, was Marshall. For a period of three years, from 1982-83 to 1985-86, he was irresistible, the best, taking 21 or more wickets in seven successive series, with an average in the last five of less than 20. In India in 1983-84, he took 33 wickets, a staggering achievement, including one of Test history's seminal new-ball spells on the disheartening track in Kanpur, where he claimed Sunil Gavaskar, Jimmy Amarnath (for ducks), Anshuman Gaekwad (4), and his arch-enemy Dilip Vengsarkar (14), to get figures of 8-5-9-4.

Yet it was England, his second home, that suffered most, it seemed. At Headingley in 1984, he broke his left thumb while fielding earlier in the match. But with his hand in plaster, and in considerable pain, he bowled 26 overs in the second innings to take 7 for 53 and win the game. Four years on, at Old Trafford, with the England team in a maelstrom of unrest, he showed versatility on a pitch deliberately prepared to negate pace and give excessive help to spin, by simply pitching the ball up and swinging it, taking 7 for 22 as England were humiliated for 93. "Don't ever try that on us again," said Richards in the aftermath.

He was open-chested at delivery, against the teaching of the manuals, but in such a neutral position that he didn't need telegraph, through a change in action, any intention to swing the ball one way or another. And his arm was wickedly fast - twitch fast, as could be said, for example, of the golf swing of Tiger Woods

Perhaps most telling, though, is the fact that in such stellar fast-bowling company, where duty and the spoils were shared, he took five wickets in an innings 22 times and four times claimed 10 in a match. For the bulk of his career, he averaged five per match.

He could outshine anyone. In 1987, as part of their bicentenary celebrations, the MCC staged a match at Lord's against a Rest of the World side. The assemblage of fast bowling was magnificent: on the MCC side came Marshall, Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice; on the other team were Imran Khan, Courtney Walsh and Kapil Dev. This was to be an exhibition of batting, however, on a pitch designed for runs and the emasculation of pace. Only Marshall rose above the conditions. Gavaskar was palpably lbw to the first ball of the game from Marshall, but was allowed to stay and went on to make 188 (revenge came second time around, when Marshall did away with the need for the umpire's help and castled him for nought), but he reserved his greatest effort for Dilip Vengsarkar. The antipathy went back to Marshall's first Test tour to India in 1978, when he believed Vengsarkar claimed an unfair catch. Marshall - what a name for the purpose - got his man, going round the wicket, extracting pace where none ought to have existed, and with no way out of the road bombarded his man brutally into submission. And yes, when unrestrained by strong umpiring, he could be brutal.

Marshall's supreme excellence created debate that, from the rum shops of Oistins to the clubs and bars around the world, continues to this day. Who has been the fastest? Who is considered the best? Was it Ray Lindwall, the supreme craftsman, with complete control of swing, yorker and bouncer, or his compatriot Dennis Lillee, bristling and explosive, with a command of cut like no other of his pace before? Could it be the aristocratically haughty Imran Khan or Wasim Akram - both magicians of reverse-swing - or the deadly Waqar Younis, whose strike rate in his pomp was second to none? What about Curtly Ambrose, portrayed in calypso as The Master, the professor Andy Roberts, the inquisitor Glenn McGrath, or the surgeon that was Hadlee? Will the rampant South African, Dale Steyn, one day be so regarded?

Always the argument seems to come back to Marshall. There was nothing he seemed to lack, except perhaps height. But at 5ft 9in or so, around the same as Harold Larwood, he managed to turn that to his advantage, skidding the ball on where others might stick the ball in the pitch. He offered swing and cut, searing pace, a bouncer that seemed to climb to chin height rapidly and then level off, coming skimmingly flat; a supreme cricketing intellect that could spot flaws in an instant and smell fear, and a ruthless streak that made no concession in the pursuit of success for his team or, as in the case of Vengsarkar, occasionally of a personal vendetta.

We can start with his action. In his younger days he ran a distance, the vogue thing that had little to do with rhythm and everything to do with menace. He came in on the angle, slithering to the crease, his twinkling feet encased not in heavy bowling boots but little more than carpet slippers. Later in his career he recognised that his speed did not depend on the length of the run, but that stamina did, and he cut it down. He was open-chested at delivery, against the teaching of the manuals, but in such a neutral position that he didn't need to telegraph, through a change in action, any intention to swing the ball one way or another. And his arm was wickedly fast - twitch fast, as could be said, for example, of the golf swing of Tiger Woods.

Next came the tools of the trade. He swung the ball - manipulated it with hand and wrist rather than relying on a body action to do the job as many so-called swing bowlers do - outswing and inswing at will, the latter being the pace bowler's googly. He was all but impossible to read, though, for his grip remained essentially the same for both, the change coming only in a movement of the supporting thumb. Of his bouncer, we have already spoken, a potent weapon, occasionally used to excess when allowed, occasionally, for no apparent reason, against lesser batsmen, who were left bemused, not to say bruised, by the assault.

From Dennis Lillee he learned the legcutter, which he employed on dusty wickets. Against England in Gwalior, in the Nehru Cup of 1989, he produced a first ball of such startling pace to Allan Lamb - a rare England thorn in West Indian flesh during his career - that it pitched around middle stump, squaring the batsman, before jagging away and plucking out off stump. In its way it was as devastating a delivery as can ever have been bowled. He could assess the pace and productivity of a pitch, could adjust accordingly, and possessed the gift of analysis allied to instinct, which could undermine any batsman. Finally came resilience, stamina and courage.

Almost invariably the debate returns to the two figures: Lillee, the prototype modern fast bowler, and Marshall. Most would admit little more than a coat of varnish between the pair. None would quibble if the other got the nod. But Lillee had no record on the heartbreaking pitches of the subcontinent, in the days before reverse-swing made their abrasiveness into a virtue, not playing a single Test in India, and managing only three wickets in as many Tests on desperate surfaces in Pakistan in 1979-80. Marshall succeeded in Pakistan and in India. Both were complete fast bowlers. When they buried Marshall though, they interred the epitome of sustained fast-bowling excellence. He really was the best of the very best.

Former England and Middlesex bowler Mike Selvey is cricket correspondent of the Guardian

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