There have been several bright stars in the fast-bowling pantheon - and indeed, many from the West Indies - but the luminosity of Malcolm Marshall stands out even in such exalted company. He was relatively short-statured for a fast bowler, but in all aspects of his craft he stood taller than almost anyone else. He could swing and seam the ball both ways from an open-chested and quick-arm action that gave batsmen little indication of what was coming their way, and the skiddy bounce he obtained further added to the batsmen's woes. Whatever the conditions or the quality of the opposition team, Marshall had a way - and sometimes several - to breach their defences. Little wonder, then, that in the eyes of many pundits, Marshall ranks on top of the list of modern-day fast bowlers.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Marshall's bowling stats is the sheer consistency of his numbers across various parameters. For example, he played against five opponents, and the difference between his best and worst averages against them was slightly more than three runs: his lowest average was against England (19.58) and his highest against Australia (22.51). Of the six countries he played in (including the West Indies), the only place where he averaged more than 25 was in New Zealand (and he only played three Tests there). The difference between his home and away averages was 1.51, and it didn't matter much to him whether his captain won or lost the toss, and whether he had to bowl in the first innings or the last.
His introduction to Test cricket wasn't an auspicious one, though: in his first series, in India in 1978-79, Marshall managed only three wickets in as many Tests, and leaked more than 88 runs per wicket. He didn't play Test cricket again till the summer of 1980, and till the end of 1982 he played only nine further Tests.
Thereafter, though, the transformation was stunning. When India toured West Indies in 1983, Marshall took 21 wickets at an average of less than 24, but the series that announced his class and talent came later that year in India, with West Indies seeking revenge for that utterly shocking World Cup final defeat. Marshall was simply unstoppable, claiming 33 wickets in six Tests, including that of Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar five times each. That period started an amazing run that continued almost uninterrupted for the next eight years, during which period Marshall took 342 wickets from 69 Tests at an average of less than 20.
During the nine years from 1983 to 1991, he was one of only two bowlers who took 125 or more wickets at a sub-20 average - Richard Hadlee was the other. Marshall was the only one, though, with a strike rate of less than 45 balls per wicket.
As a match-winner, Marshall was among the very best again, with 254 wickets at less than 17. Again, only one bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan, has a better average, and one, Waqar Younis, has a better strike rate. Marshall's performances didn't drop much in defeats either: in the nine Tests in which he played in a losing cause, he still managed an average of less than 28.
Perhaps the biggest compliment to Marshall is the fact that he stood out even when he played with other great fast bowlers. The 1980s were an exceptional period for West Indian fast bowling, and yet in the Tests that Marshall played, he took almost a third of the wickets taken by their fast bowlers (31.37%). Marshall was clearly the leader of the pack - the next-highest wicket-taker in matches Marshall figured in was Courtney Walsh, with only 137 wickets from 42 Tests, while Curtly Ambrose had 128 from 29. (Click here for the full list.) Marshall's average and strike rate were significantly better than his other fast-bowling mates, and he took as many five-fors as all the other West Indian fast bowlers put together.
Not only did Marshall get many wickets, he also generally dismissed the top batsmen from the opposition line-ups. Among the batsmen he dismissed most often were Graham Gooch (16 times), Allan Lamb (13 times), Allan Border (11), Vengsarkar (10) and Gavaskar (8).
On the other hand, he didn't get rid of the tail that often; he usually left that job to the others. Of the 376 Test wickets he took, 238 were of batsmen in the top six, which is a fairly impressive percentage of 63.30. Only 17.55% of his wickets were of batsmen in the bottom three, which is the lowest among the bowlers listed below. Allan Donald and Glenn McGrath had a higher top-order percentage, but Marshall's numbers are quite a contrast to those of Wasim Akram, for whom almost 28% of wickets were of batsmen in the bottom three.
Another factor that puts Marshall above many other high-class fast bowlers is his stats in the subcontinent. The relatively slow pitches in the region have thwarted many a fast bowler, but not Marshall, whose varied skills helped him take 71 wickets in 19 Tests at an average of 23.05. Those numbers look even better if his first series in India is excluded: in the 16 remaining Tests he averaged 20.17. His overall average here, though, remains one of the best among overseas fast bowlers who've taken at least 50 wickets in the subcontinent.
The team he tormented more than any other, though, was England, against whom he took 127 wickets at 19.18 - both numbers were his best against any side.
Some of Marshall's most memorable performances came against England: on the tour of 1984, he took three five-fors in five Tests, the most memorable of which was at Headingley. Having sustained a double fracture to his left thumb, Marshall came out to bat with his hand in plaster to help Larry Gomes to his hundred; then he destroyed England in the second innings with a fantastic haul of 7 for 53. Four years later, Marshall's 7 for 22 at Old Trafford destroyed England on a pitch that was supposed to aid spin. Among bowlers with at least 75 wickets against England, Marshall's average is one of the best. (And is it a surprise that the list is dominated by West Indians?)