It’s not just the West Indies cricket fraternity which is mourning the absence of the archetypical Caribbean fast bowler – the one with a towering frame, breathing fire with the ball in hand, the deliveries at the batsman’s throat and finishing with a cold stare.
Even the Indian players of the bygone era, when West Indies dominated world cricket, are saddened at the decline of their Test team. Their Twenty20 success notwithstanding, which is fuelled by big-hitting and slow, unorthodox bowling, the aura of West Indies cricket has been missing since the big, fast bowlers went out of business.
The West Indies team, formed of men selected from the cluster of Caribbean islands produced so many of the express kinds, it was said fast bowling was in their genes. The ball would explode off a length, start to rise and leave the batsman or jag in to terrorise the batsmen world over.
“It’s very sad to see the West Indies struggling. The ongoing Test matches have been disappointing, you don’t even feel like watching; their players seem to have no idea,” bemoans Madan Lal, star of India’s 1983 World Cup win over West Indies, who was also involved in three Test series against Clive Lloyd’s mighty team.
Players from the Indian team of the 1970s and 1980s have seen so much cricket, and like every other team of that era they were also on the receiving end of the Caribbean pace battery, yet you mention their topic and the excitement with which these players talk about their famed opponents, gives an idea of how special Clive Lloyd’s fast bowlers were.
“They (older generation) were different bowlers’ altogether, on any wicket they could beat you with sheer pace,” says Madan Lal.
“They had everything: skills, great speed, accuracy, swing and the hunger for wickets, and most importantly they were hungry for victories,” remarks Karsan Ghavri, who had made his debut against the West Indies in 1974-75.
“In my debut series, Andy Roberts was the fastest bowler in the world. He didn’t have a very long run-up, but was quick in the air, always at the batsman’s throat,” the former India left-arm pacer recollects.
Through the 1970s and 80s, they would have nine to 10 quality fast bowlers in the stable, with five to six in the team. Spoilt for choices, the captain had the headache of whom to unleash in the four-pronged attack. The speed demons were so intimidating even on docile wickets they would run though the sides.
The venue, the conditions, the opposition ceased to matter when these fast bowlers got into the act. Jamaica’s Sabina Park, where India is dominating the hosts now, was a feared battleground with the wicket, prepared by Michael Holding’s favourite groundsman Charlie Joseph, most of the time aiding the quick bowlers.
Cut back to the current game, despite putting in a fair bowling performance, the West Indies bowlers were not clinical enough to make any serious inroads in the Indian batting line-up as the home team continued to lag well behind in the second Test.
The lack of incisiveness is surprising. In the current attack, they have powerful lads, who are natural athletes. Of the three pacers in action at Jamaica, 24-year-old Jason Holder, around six feet 7 inch tall, along with 28-year-old Shannon Gabriel and 25-year-old Miguel Cummins have all the ingredients needed to be a good fast bowler. Yet, strangely, there’s not much in their bowling to make them standout, like their predecessors.
In the second Test, Gabriel touched 144ks, Cummins was consistently clocking 140ks and Holder hovered around 126 to 128ks. They have some catching up to do. In the 1975 Test against Australia at the WACA, Andy Roberts is measured to have clocked 159.5 kmp.
For the Indian experts who have seen the fury of Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Roberts, it is the skill factor which is missing.
Marshall & Co were not just good athletes, they were technically well equipped.
“The quality is not there in this West Indies outfit one bit,” says Ghavri, calling it a pedestrian attack, “They are like any regular first-class side bowlers. Their bowling lacks penetration.”
Balwinder Singh Sandhu, who had opened the Indian bowling in the 1983 final against the West Indies, says the West Indian bowling was much more than sheer speed. “Marshall & Co were quick and deceptive. It was difficult to pick them, because they had variation of pace, and had movement.”
Given the wealth of wisdom available in the form of legendary fast bowlers in the stands, the lack of improvement in the skill level is puzzling.
“They may be very slow learners or not ready to learn. The wicket-taking attitude is missing. That they (The West Indies Cricket Board) keeps changing the coaching staff, also unsettles the team,” reasons Ghavri.
“The current bowlers are most of the time trying to hit the deck, while the key is to get the release action right. Marshall could swing the ball prodigiously, while Holding had great control over movement,” says Sandhu.
“The likes of Garner and Roberts would also hit the deck but only on wickets where it was effective. They knew when and on which wicket to do what.”
“Holder’s men are only bowling, you can’t see the thinking. From the body language of a bowler you will know whether he is bowling to a plan. When Mohammed Shami and R Ashwin are in operation, you enjoy how their mind is working on the batsmen.”