31 December 1998

End of an era for Ambrose and Walsh

Trevor Chesterfield

Cape Town - Only a fool would have admitted to enjoying a batting session facing either Curtly Ambrose or Courtney Walsh or both; now there are signs are there that the last great West Indies bowling duo of the millennium is about to disintegrate before our eyes.

Feared and all too often treated with respect, even by Brian Lara, the fifth West Indies captain, if you count Walsh's own short tenure as leader of the Caribbean pack, the pairing have taken 740 Test wickets and often won matches, if not series, since they joined forces 11 years ago.

Now Walsh's hamstring injury at Kingsmead has ruled him out of the Newlands Test and most likely the fifth at Centurion Park. Which might be a relief for South Africa, but the absence of one, or both, is a sure sign that niggling injuries is going to determine their match fitness in future. With the series already lost here there is some argument, none of it too convincing, either, that both may be rested, especially with the series against Australia not so much just over the hill, as two months away.

So, what makes the possibility of Walsh being sent home early is the extent if his hamstring injury. Lara described it kindly as a new injury. And the anguish of seeing a great athlete removed from the field at Kingsmead under the prying eye of the television camera also upset the Windies management. It was an action which has summed up the tour: unpleasant and often disjointed.

Walsh is a purebred professional, as for that matter is Ambrose; yet Walsh, as the players' representative during the pay dispute with the WICB has, along with his partner Ambrose are not seen as the mercenaries who held their board to ransom holding up the start of what has been a largely controversial tour. Lara and the group who flew to London are regarded as the villains of a row which has seen the tour being buffeted by criticism from without and dissension from three divisions within.

Long before the start of the tour Ambrose and Walsh were seen as the two players who would provide the main thrust in their bowling, having a sledge hammer effect: they were to be the difference between success and failure; as the success rate has been minimal and Lara has hinted for the need to bring on Nixon McLean, Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon in time for the Australian series, they might consider resting them from the limited-overs series.

As the thought of the troops taking over from the lieutenants starts to emerge the 5-0 "colour rinse" between South Africa and the West Indies is now looming as an indigestible thought. It also means that Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and up to Kingsmead, David Terbrugge, have emerged as the stronger pace attack.

Amid the chaos and conflict at St George's Park, Ambrose and Walsh gave a glimpse of their greatness while support consisted of a band of rag and bone men beating a hasty retreat.

What has been missing from this series has been the expected bite of the fast bowlers.

One of the tricks of good fast bowling is that apart from attempting to intimidate the batsmen, the quicks would also have them playing balls they would not normally play.

Or, as Fred Trueman, one of great exponents of swing and pace in his day said, the difference between a fast bowler and a good fast bowler is not extra muscle but extra brains. Just the sort of argument Fanie de Villiers would support. Rose proved it at Kingsmead.

Yet extra pace and extra brains do, however, make a physical statement as they pound in and let rip: Dennis Lillee was such a firebrand, Donald is another; then we have the list of West Indies quicks who long before Leary Constantine laced up his boots and terrorised England in the late 1920s to the mid to late 1930s.

"You simply have to line them up and let them have it," grinned Sylvester Clarke of the West Indies pirate teams of the early 1980s when discussing the art, craft and psychology of fast bowling.

Lillee's view was equally simple; equally direct. "You don't go out there to be a Mr Nice Guy. Batsmen have it all going for them. There's no sense in shaking their hand until after the game is over and you have won. "You have to give it to them . . .and if you hit them . . . so what . .!" Which means once they have scared the batsmen enough they them in their sights; or as they would say, it's a question of easy pickings."

It is an old trick in terms of the modern game if you are of the school of thought which regards 1863, when over-arm bowling was legalised, as the birth of the modern game. Before then it had evolved from under arm to round arm, and all because the batting techniques and playing surfaces were improved to counter the likes of Lumpy Stevens.

South African batsmen of the rebel era of the 1980s soon learnt the differences between the brute skills of Hartley Allayne and the psychological warfare generated by Clarke and Ezra Moseley. It scare some; it was a challenge to others.

What South African batsmen learnt from those pirate tours was that the psyche of the modern fast bowler is more about mental advantage rather than brute force and skill. As Trueman (again), the first bowler to take 300 first class wickets and capped 67 times for England points out it is "all about thinking out a batsman". The feeling generated by this view is that there is more to fast bowling than watching hired hitmen in action with one thought in mind - to hit the batsmen.

Ambrose felled Donald in Port Elizabeth and the West Indians suffered. They did not try that strategy at Kingsmead; they had learnt all too well that it does not pay to bang them in, giving away too many four-ball shots, if the opposition can bite back more savagely.

For some the West Indian game is a different one to that elsewhere: this may explain why the Ambrose and Walsh combo have been so effective. Walsh needed nine wickets in two Tests to become the third bowler to pass the 400 mark barrier. Now, his fitness in doubt, means he might have to wait until the series against Australia to reach that target.

Rejected by Gloucestershire, not the ultimate snub, the hamstring injury may yet write finis to a great career. If so, it is a pity it ended the way it did.

Source: Trevor Chesterfield, Cricket Writer, Pretoria News, t_chesterfield@hotmail.com