Come to Think of it

Why Courtney Walsh should be regarded as more than just another West Indian bowling great

While we remember the likes of Marshall and Ambrose for their unique traits, Walsh's legacy remains nebulous. It shouldn't be

Courtney Walsh lived under the considerable shadow of Curtly Ambrose for much of his career

Courtney Walsh lived under the considerable shadow of Curtly Ambrose for much of his career  •  Rebecca Naden/PA Photos/Getty Images

In Come to Think of it, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This time: should Courtney Walsh be viewed as much more than merely one of West Indies' fast-bowling greats?
Okay, so what is to follow is not exactly revisionist, because who is going to argue that Courtney Walsh is not great? But beyond that, what would you say about him? Andy Roberts was ferocious, Malcolm Marshall was astute, Joel Garner was accurate, Michael Holding was smooth, Curtly Ambrose was scary, but Walsh?
The last keeper of that incandescent fast-bowling torch that was lit in the 1970s? Sure. Sometime captain, and all-time comedy batsman? Absolutely. But he deserves more than this, right? A closer look at the contours of his career, a microscope run over his numbers - this is what we are aiming for.
To start with, perhaps it's important to take stock of why Walsh's legacy has been mired in this relative nebulousness. Perhaps it is because although he had plenty of height, pace, smarts and control, and could generate prodigious seam movement, none of these virtues defined him. Or at least, none defined him to the extent that they defined another great West Indies bowler. (It cannot have helped that for the majority of his career, he was partnered by Ambrose - arguably the most intriguing and magnetic of all.)
Where Walsh pulled ahead of the pack, however, was through his durability, playing 133 Tests over 16 years and a bit. In truth this is among the most useful characteristics for a quick, but unfortunately, also one of the least sexy. Still, his 519 Test wickets represent a 28% increase on the tally of Ambrose, who is the next best on the West Indies charts. And unlike Ambrose, Walsh claimed a significant majority of his wickets away from home - 56%. Walsh's away tally is greater than the career tallies of Holding, Garner and Roberts. (More on Walsh's away record later.)
Although on the surface it is difficult to compare the long-term excellence of Walsh with the shorter - and at times more explosive - careers of many of his compatriots, perhaps it is worthwhile putting their numbers on a more equal footing by comparing the most lethal streaks in each of their careers. For Walsh, his best 150-wicket stretch brought dismissals at an average of 20.35. This is not as good as the averages of Marshall (the clear leader by this and many other measures), Ambrose and Garner during the best 150-wicket sequence in their careers, but better than for Holding, Roberts and Ian Bishop.
Where for every other bowler on the chart below, the most productive periods came towards the start or the middle of their careers, Walsh's best years were actually his last few. His best 150-wicket streak didn't start until his 92nd Test, and stretched until his 122nd. Where James Anderson, the most prolific late-career fast bowler in history, took the vast majority of his wickets at home, Walsh was taking big hauls all around the world through the final phase of his career, while also playing ODIs. The most successful year of his career was actually 2000 (when he turned 38), which brought him 66 wickets at 18.69.
Where Walsh comes into his own and breaks emphatically into all-time territory, however, is with his performances outside the Caribbean. No fast bowler in history has claimed as many away wickets as Walsh. Glenn McGrath is second, with 274 away wickets. James Anderson - the most successful quick bowler in history - is sixth on this list, with only 36% of his dismissals having come away from home. Among the ten quicks to have taken over 200 away wickets, Walsh's average of 25.03 and strike rate of 57 are worse than those of Marshall, Ambrose, Hadlee, and McGrath, but he is in the company of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, and well ahead of the more recent operators - Anderson and Zaheer Khan.
Typically for Walsh, it is also possible that the feather in his statistical cap is a narrative altogether unexplored. In Asia - the continent that has traditionally been the most difficult for quicks - Walsh was arguably the best touring fast bowler ever; his average of 20.53 (across 76 wickets) and strike rate of 45 are only (slightly) worse than the numbers of Wes Hall, who took 54 wickets on the continent in the era of uncovered pitches. Marshall and Dale Steyn - both of whom also dominated in Asia, and whose records there are the jewels in their crowns - have significantly higher Asia averages than Walsh, though Steyn's strike rate is better. Walsh was especially good in India and Pakistan - the two best Asian sides for much of his career - taking four wickets or more on ten occasions, across 29 innings in those countries.
So while Walsh is in the middle of the great West Indies pack across many measures, this is perhaps his area of clear distinction. In the four Tests West Indies won in Asia during his career (they lost seven and drew six), he took 21 wickets at an average of 16.04. His best performances in victories came perhaps in the Lahore Test of 1986, when his seven wickets helped West Indies blow an outstanding Pakistan side away; and the Delhi Test of 1987, in which he took five wickets in the second innings to set up a series-defining victory. His five wickets in Mohali in 1994 - and his nasty lifter to break first-innings centurion Manoj Prabhakar's nose - also prevented the breaking of West Indies' long, unbeaten series streak going back to 1980. The next year, Australia would finally bring the West Indies' dynasty to a close.
When West Indies went into sharp decline in the years after that, Walsh only raised his game.
With stats inputs from Shiva Jayaraman

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf