July 30, 2011

'Perfect the basics and then improvise'

Courtney Walsh is giving back to cricket by mentoring West Indies' Under-19 players. He tells them to keep things simple and to enjoy life on tour

It's a hot Saturday afternoon in south Florida and West Indies Under-19 have just thrashed USA Under-19 in the first of four matches. While the players cool down, the team management warms up for a series of races around the boundary. One man towers over the rest of the group, but on this tour he wants to blend in and help the teenagers get the most out of their experience.

"It's something I'm very keen to do because of the love I have for the game," says Courtney Walsh, the former fast bowler who is the West Indies U-19 team manager for this tour. "I've had that love since I've been at school. So anything to do with cricket just gives me a buzz and it's something that I want to do."

When Walsh retired from international cricket at the age of 38, he thought he would spend his days relaxing on the beach. But he couldn't stay away from the game for long. So after dabbling in TV commentary, he's now trying to be a helpful presence for the next generation of West Indies players, and to aid the U-19 head coach Roddy Estwick in any way he can.

"I think it's a way of putting something back into the cricket, or pass down your experience to the younger players, and that's why I specifically wanted to try to do some work with the younger players," Walsh says.

"It's an area where, if you can organise them from now - the workload should be lesser when they get to the higher level - to try to maintain standards, focus on the discipline and just help them to think about the game and learn more about it because the more you learn now, the better it's going to be for you at a later stage."

Seeing the kids full of energy and excitement on this tour, Walsh can't help but think back to his early playing days. "The fun you can have from touring, obviously when you look at these kids it brings back memories, and you remember your days as a youngster and what you used to do," Walsh says. "You miss it obviously when you retire. You miss playing a little bit, but once you don't focus on that, it becomes a little bit easier.

"You remember the people you met, the friendships that grew when you worked, and the bonding from touring. I've met many a people in different parts of the world that today are still my friends. That to me is very important. That's some of the stuff you want to rub off on these kids - that don't just see it as a cricket tour you go on and finish. You're going to meet people who might have an effect on your life down the road, meet people who can become your friends, who live in another part of the world."

For kids in the United States it's hard to fathom being able to hone your cricket skills right down the street from a proper cricket ground, but Walsh was able to do just that at the prestigious Melbourne Cricket Club in Kingston, Jamaica.

"The first time I saw the [West Indies team] on TV, I just said, 'Wow, that's something I want to be a part of.' Fortunately for me, I grew up right next to the Melbourne. So I was at the cricket ground every day I can think of. Whether I was playing football, cricket or just watching or just hanging out, I was always at the cricket ground. So cricket was embedded in me from a very early age. I played cricket for the club before I played cricket for my school."

"I was at the cricket ground every day I can think of. Whether I was playing football, cricket or just watching or just hanging out, I was always at the cricket ground. I played cricket for the club before I played cricket for my school"
Walsh on the early presence of cricket in his life

Not only was he always at the ground but he also got to receive guidance from a legend who was part of the same club, Michael Holding. Eventually Walsh made his Test debut in the same squad as Holding and many of the other greats. At the time he was just grateful to be on the same field as them but little did he know that when he retired he would be just as famous.

"I remember we toured England in 1984 and I didn't play any international games on that tour. My Test debut was in Australia. I remember when my name was called in the XII - you kind of have an idea as a player based on the make-up of the team - I called home and said, 'I'm in the XII and have a very good chance of playing but I won't know until the morning', because you didn't want to take anything for granted.

"I wouldn't say it was a sleepless night. It was a very exciting night. I would lie if I say I wasn't nervous. I would lie if I say I went to bed as if everything was normal. You had butterflies thinking about it and you start thinking about what you want to do, how you want to perform. It's a chance to try and make a name for yourself, to get into this team led by Clive Lloyd, and all the greats - Michael Holding, Viv Richards, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, just to name a few. We had Gordon Greenidge. When you look at the names of the people among whom I had a chance at making my debut, it was just exciting stuff."

Walsh didn't expect or think about lasting another 17 years at the international level, saying he only wanted to have "a good career" when he first broke through. "It's something I'm very thankful for but at no point in time did I plan or dream that it was going be as successful as it was."

Walsh thinks that it's possible for the members in this touring party, including the West Indies U-19 captain Kraigg Brathwaite, who has already made his Test debut, to have long and fruitful careers as long as they don't try to master everything in one go.

"I just try to keep it simple for them at this stage, in terms of giving them as much information as you can but advising them that they don't have to do everything all at once," Walsh says. "If they ask questions about swinging the ball and cutting, you pass on those tips because it's information to pass on, but at the same time you don't want them to be doing everything all at once. Explain to them that there's practice time, when you practise things, and match time, when you do your basics.

"The main advice I've always passed on to them is that the basics will not change. Perfect the basics first. Once you do that you have a base to work from, and you can improvise from there."

It is to be hoped that cricketing youngsters in the USA might one day have a homegrown role model to look up to. Such local role models were influential in Walsh's life, and now he's doing his best to be one for the next generation of players in Jamaica and across the West Indies.

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey