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Malcolm Marshall and his two Ms: my most prized possession

Nobody in the past 20 years has gotten an autograph from Malcolm Marshall, and nobody ever again will

Samarth Shah
Malcolm Marshall wasn't physically intimidating; his intimidation came through sheer skill and attitude  •  Ben Radford/Getty Images

Malcolm Marshall wasn't physically intimidating; his intimidation came through sheer skill and attitude  •  Ben Radford/Getty Images

Among my treasured cricketing memorabilia is a tie embroidered with the Lord's logo, a USA cricket jersey, a photo with AB de Villiers at Kingsmead and a pavilion pass to the fifth day of the 2008 Chennai Test. However, my most prized cricketing possession is a simple piece of paper with a name written on it with a blue ball-point pen. And that name is Malcolm Marshall.
Marshall was the most fearsome cricketer of my youth - a nightmare for opponents and an absolute terror to behold. I never saw Dennis Lillee or Jeff Thomson live. The great West Indies pace quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft was before my time. I've also heard that the Indian spin quartet gave visiting batsmen sleepless nights. But I never saw any of those famous spinners in action, either. Viv Richards was the most intimidating batsman of my youth. He could pummel the ball and shatter a bowler's ego, but he wasn't out to cause you bodily harm. Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee and Ian Botham were all tremendously skilled, but not scary. No, to me, the most intimidating cricketer of the 1980s was Marshall.
It's hard to describe to a modern cricket-viewer what a terror Marshall was. In this T20 age, with sculpted batsmen, gigantic bats and all kinds of protective gear, there really doesn't seem to be that intimidating a bowler. Sure, they may be quicker. They are most definitely taller and stronger. But they all go at eight-an-over in the IPL. Somehow, it's hard for a viewer to feel the palms getting clammy when batsmen are dancing down the track to fast bowlers and when the scorecard reports how many sixes a bowler has conceded. It's a different era: there are impressive bowlers, but none that send shivers down a lay viewer's spine.
Marshall wasn't physically intimidating. He was about the shortest West Indies fast bowler there ever was. He was athletic, but not the fittest bloke in the West Indies team, let alone in world cricket. He was quick, but there were quicker bowlers before him and there have been quicker bowlers since. He wasn't verbally menacing. Indeed, he rarely said a word to an opponent on the field. Marshall's intimidation was through sheer skill and attitude. It is hard to put that fear into words, but I'll try. The fear was that if he had a ball in his hand and you had all the batting gear available on earth, he could still ping you between your eyes if he wanted to. And he often seemed like he wanted to. Mike Gatting knows what I'm talking about. If your nose was such an easy target, your wicket was simply no match for him.
"There are no cricketers like those seen through 12-year-old eyes," wrote cricketer and author Ian Peebles. I met Marshall when I was 12 years old. He was hardly seven or eight inches taller than me. I stood straight, out of sheer respect. He leaned casually against a desk, a black bag slung over his shoulder. Since we were almost level, I could look him straight in the eye. He had joyful, dancing eyes and a wide, lop-sided smile on his face. He didn't have a ball in his hand, and I wasn't holding a bat. There was no intimidation, even though he was the greatest fast bowler in the world and I was a gawky Indian kid.
He carefully put down his bag, gently took the autograph book and pen from me with each hand, and proceeded to slowly write his name in the book. He didn't carelessly scrawl his name. He didn't look elsewhere as his hands moved. He looked squarely at the target. He pressed the pen firmly down on the book. No half measures: the right hand that smashed a one-handed boundary at Headingley in 1984 - one-handed because the left hand was broken and in a cast - and then took 7 for 53 with the ball didn't do half measures.
Marshall's autograph wasn't a scribble: his handwriting was proud and neat. The autograph was so firmly signed, I couldn't use the next page of the book because his writing got etched on that one as well. This, too, was reminiscent of his bowling. When he blew one batsman away, the next one entered the field shell-shocked, the previous ball etched in his mind. Ravi Shastri, who once walked in to face the ball after Yashpal Sharma retired hurt, knows what I'm talking about.
Marshall returned the autograph book and pen, saying, "You're welcome," in response to my thanks. Still smiling widely, and lop-sidedly. If his autograph was reminiscent of his bowling, his manner was its exact opposite: slow and gentle. That evening, I showed my father the autograph book, with Marshall's name slanting across the page, much like his bowling run-up. My father ran his fingers over the two heavily stressed capital Ms and remarked, "He puts more effort into his autograph than you put into your cricket practices!"
Years later, my sister got an autograph from the great Carnatic classical singer MS Subbulakshmi, who was over 80 years old at the time. Her autograph reminded me of Marshall's: it was meticulously inscribed, gouging a deep rut in the paper and in a handwriting so neat that it could have been print. My sister was, to borrow a phrase, bowled over by how polite and gentle the great singer had been to a teenaged girl.
A decade after he signed my autograph book, Marshall was no more. He died of colon cancer at just 41 years of age. It was so sad that the most fearsome cricketer of his era was reduced to 25 kilos in the days preceding his death. I tried to imagine what a fully-grown man weighing 25 kilos looks like. Let alone wield a cricket bat or a 5.5oz ball, I imagined he might not have been able to write his full name with a pen. Never mind immaculate control over line and length, seam and swing.
Nobody in the past 20 years has gotten an autograph from the late, great Malcolm Marshall, and nobody ever will again. My drawer of memorabilia might get another t-shirt or a tie with some logo or the other. Maybe someday a picture with Sachin Tendulkar or Shane Warne might be added to it. But its most precious contents will always remain that old piece of paper with the two blue Ms pressed deep into it.

Samarth Shah is an avid club cricketer and fan, who played three matches for the USA national team in 2011.