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Andy Roberts – The expressionless assassin

Andy Roberts – The expressionless assassin
Andy Roberts (centre) was lethal, laconic and menacing. He was the Silent Assassin, with a chilling lack of animation while carrying out his deeds of destruction © Getty Images

Andy Roberts, born January 29, 1951, was the leader of the supreme pace battery of the West Indies.  Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was equally known for his express pace and expressionless face.

Placid menace

He used to walk back to his mark, the eyes cold and calculating, the face expressionless and half hidden behind the beard, the shoulders hunched and alert, the mien brooding and ruthless. Then he would turn and rush in, building up his speed along the way, exploding as he reached the crease. His arm would come over, at right angles to his torso, but would reach a height as his shoulder dipped. He would glide along his right toecap and hit the crease with his full weight. And then the leather would streak out of his hand in a blur of red, zooming towards the batsman at a rate rarely matched by any man. The natural movement would be from off to leg, but sometimes the away swing would flummox the best. And often the ball would lift – steep and disconcertingly, putting the batsmen in immense physical peril. To make life miserable and endangered, the bouncer had two variations. The slower encouraging the hook, lulling the men into a false sense of security. The other rushing through with violent force, often crashing into the body, sometimes the face, and always resulting in a thud against the heart.

Many a time a batsman lost his wicket, often a stump or two, and not infrequently blood and teeth. The reaction would remain the same. Whether the catch was held at slip, or the woodwork went for a cartwheeling saunter, or the ball crashed into the face rearranging the features forever, Andy Roberts would peer at the result of his handiwork, mull over it behind his expressionless face and walk back to his bowling mark.

At Queen’s Park Oval in 1977-78, Peter Toohey had shaped to hook – rather, we should say he had dared to. The ball had struck him on the forehead, just above the bridge of the nose, with a sound that still recurs in the worst nightmares of many who were on the ground that day. The batsman, tottered, fell, and was held in the throes of unconsciousness in the strong arms of Viv Richards. Desperate gestures were made towards the pavilion. And the face of Roberts did not change. He just went up to the spot where the near murder had taken place, interested in the outcome in the dispassionate manner of the academic. “The sympathy was here,” he demonstrated years after his career was over, pointing towards his heart. But, not a flicker of emotion disturbed his visage.

How fast was he? Gordon Greenidge often wore a protective box, while fielding to Roberts in the slips.

He was lethal, laconic and menacing. Michael Holding approached the crease in silence and was named Whispering Death. At the other end, Roberts was the Silent Assassin, with a chilling lack of animation while carrying out his deeds of destruction.

And he was the pioneer – in more than one way. Before he arrived, not many had heard of Antigua, certainly not the cricketing fraternity. There had been no Test player from the tiny island. Roberts was the first, closely followed by Viv Richards. And then they came one after the other – Eldine Baptiste, Richie Richardson, Winston Benjamin, Kenny Benjamin, Curtly Ambrose and Ridley Jacobs.

Finally, he was the undisputed leader of the pack – a pack such as the world has never seen before or since. A pack that roared in a chorus of fours, and terrorised and conquered the world. He was the first of the many men who ran up to the wicket for the great West Indies team and pulverised batsmen around the world with pace like fire. The pool of talent was enormous. There followed Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Wayne Daniel, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall – and further down the line Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and Curtly Ambrose. Among all of them, Roberts remained the trendsetter. In all the 47 Tests he played, he shared the new ball. In all but eight, he bowled the first over. Even among the immense treasure trove of riches, he stood out as a special gem.

Obscure origins

Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts was born in the Urlings Village in Antigua. He was one of the fourteen children of an island fisherman.

Strangely, he never played his first cricket match until he left school at the age of 16. There had been occasional tennis ball games, when he would run in tremendously fast in the cornfields and the beaches. But cricket was not encouraged in his family.  His parents did not really want him to take up the game.

However, Roberts made his debut for the village at 16, and played for his parish, St John’s, a year later. At the age of 18, he was helping his father haul back his day’s catch and working as a salesman for the beverage company Fruity when he was included in the Leeward Islands side.

The first time he played for the Combined Windward and Leeward Islands team, Roberts found himself bowling to a strong Barbados side. He took four wickets, including that of the great Garry Sobers. However, he was dropped for the following game against Trinidad. He was recalled against Guyana and scalped the wickets of Roy Fredericks and Rohan Kanhai.

Along with him there was another young man working as a waiter in the island. The following year this unknown batsman called Viv Richards was also included in the Windward and Leeward Islands team. The Volunteers’ Cricket Committee on the island took note. A member, Brian Jacobs, wrote to Hampshire, asking them to take a look at Roberts. The two youngsters were sent to London to attend Alf Gover’s indoor cricket school at Wandsworth.

Neither of them had been coached before. Gover told Richards to keep his bat nearer the pad when he drove. He told Roberts to get his elbow nearer the ear when he bowled and taught him the value of follow-through. It was bitterly cold for the two young men used to the sun and the sea of the Caribbean. The rooms they rented were not provided with hot water bottles. Fighting loneliness, the two summoned enough courage to walk into a pub. They did not see a black face, were greeted with stares, and did not stay long. Their time was spent at the indoor nets, in the cinemas and once at Highbury as Arsenal played Leeds.

They were happy to return to their jobs of waiting and fishing, but not before Hampshire captain Richard Gilliat had visited the Gover nets and taken a good look at Roberts. There was an invitation to join the Hampshire staff in the summer of 1973 and play a qualifying season for the second eleven. When he returned to Antigua, Roberts was done with all the coaching he would receive in his life – a period of six weeks.

Hurricane in Hampshire

Bowling in the Shell Shield during the 1972-73 season, Roberts suffered a serious knee injury. He was told that he would never play again. He did not agree. He struggled to get fit through the season, determined to get to the trial at Hampshire. He managed just three matches before travelling to England. And he ran in to capture 40 wickets for the Second XI, and hurt a lot of batsmen. At the end of the season, Hampshire had to choose between Roberts and David O’Sullivan, the New Zealand slow left-arm bowler. O’Sullivan had been a useful asset for Hampshire, and had his backers. However, a genuine fast bowler comes few and far between. Roberts got the nod.

If they had decided against Roberts, the Antiguan might have never played in county cricket. “I wouldn’t have wanted to join another county. I am very happy with Hampshire, but had they not kept me, I think I would have gone home for good,” he said in an interview shortly after his career had zoomed ahead.

He returned to West Indies for a while, on invitation of the cricket Board. England was touring the islands, and Roberts was kept on standby for the first two Tests. When Keith Boyce withdrew due to injury, Roberts was included in the third Test at Bridgetown.

He had an ordinary time with the ball in the first innings, claiming Chris Old as his sole victim. In the second he did dismiss Dennis Amiss and John Jameson in quick succession. However, he was dropped after the Test.

It was the summer of 1974 when Roberts got down to real business. The county championships were played on tracks generally slow and featured a pool of batsmen including some of the best in the world. His haul in such circumstances was 119 wickets at 13.62. Nine wickets were claimed in each of the matches against Essex, Sussex, Northamptonshire and Glamorgan. The worry about the knee was over – he had bowled more than 700 overs in the season. Hampshire were on the course to retaining the championship crown but for the rain which kept them waiting helplessly in the dressing-room in the last match of the season against Somerset. In the end they finished two points behind Worcestershire. Captain Gilliat observed that Roberts was a “Very shrewd person who knows what he can do and what he can’t.”

The sight of this six foot two 13 stone man terrorising batsmen caught the imagination of the spectators. However, one of them had reservations. In Sunday People Freddie Trueman wrote, “Roberts is a good bowlerbut he could be a great bowler if he brought his arms a bit higher.” The piece was accompanied by a photograph of Roberts with both his hands wide and a long way off the ground in the delivery stride. The bowler went to work on this aspect of his bowling for a year till his arm got higher. The natural inward bent of the deliveries was augmented with excellent outswingers. From 1975 Roberts was perhaps not as fast as in his first English summer, but he was way more effective as a bowler.

The Hampshire experience of 1974 also taught Roberts the benefits of pitching the ball up. The slow wickets could turn short deliveries into hittable balls. Roberts therefore sent down offerings that were quick through the air, and straight. This was the bowler that the Indians saw when he visited in the winter of 1974-75.

The great years

Unaccustomed toextreme pace, the Indian batsmen withered before his scorching pace. The start was tempered, with three wickets in each innings at Bangalore and four in the match at Delhi in convincing wins. It was at the Eden that Roberts emerged as the lethal bowler in Test matches for the first time. Sudhir Naik was dismissed off the first ball in the Test. In both the innings only the little Gundappa Viswanath managed to stand up against his pace as he claimed five for 50 and three for 88. India won a close match by 85 runs.

The following Test at Madras saw another phenomenal Roberts performance and ended in another surprising win for India. The spinners won the day for the hosts, but Roberts produced figures of seven for 64 and five for 57. His main weapon was the dangerous bouncer, but it was used for taking wickets and not intimidation. His final tally in the series was 32 wickets at 18.28. It would remain his most successful series ever.

The summer of 1975 brought further success in the county arena followed by the historic triumph in the first ever World Cup. Apart from eight miserly wickets while giving away runs at less than three an over, the tournament was also memorable for Roberts the batsman. Chasing 267 to win against Pakistan at Birmingham, West Indies found themselves at 166 for eight. Deryck Murray and Vanburn Holder put on a gritty 37. As many as 64 remained to be scored when last man Roberts joined the wicketkeeper Murray at the wicket. It was then that the imperturbable mindset of the fast bowler paid rich dividends with the willow. The runs were scored witheerie calm, with minimum fuss. Roberts remained unbeaten with 24, turning Wasim Raja to mid-wicket to clinch the one wicket win. For all his brilliance with the ball, Roberts the batsman had some more memorable moments down the line.

The Australian summer of 1975-76 has gone down as nightmarish for the West Indians. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson tore through the talented young batting line up and reduced them to shambles. According to Roberts, they were aided by umpires who allowed them to overstep by half a foot. However, he himself did not have that leeway. But, even then he broke the back of Australian batting with seven for 54 in the second innings at Perth, during the only triumph on the tour. Roberts accounted for the first seven batsmen in the line-up. For a moment it seemed the West Indians would answer fire with fire as the series stood at 1-1. However, in the end West Indies surrendered 5-1. Roberts ended with 22 wickets at 26 apiece, standing head and shoulders above the rest in the team.

This was the defeat that spurred captain Clive Lloyd to build his battery of superfast pace bowlers who would go on to rule the world for two decades. Andy Roberts became the spearhead and guide to the younger ones.

It is rumoured that when Tony Greig uttered the infamous ‘Grovel’ word, Roberts had to be physically restrained. There was no one to check him when he ran in to bowl. Five wickets came in each innings at Lord’s, three in the first and six in the second at Old Trafford. It was in the second innings at Manchester, after Holding had given Brian Close that famous battering, that Greenidge dropped Mike Selvey at slip, denying Roberts a hattrick after he had removed Alan Knott and Derek Underwood off successive balls. Yet, his most spectacular spell was bowled at Headingley, when he knocked over David Steele, Frank Hayes and Chris Balderstone in quick succession and would have had Peter Willey first ball if the umpire had not turned down a vigorous appeal.

During the 28 wickets in the series, he captured his 100th in just his 19th Test.

It was perhaps unfortunate for Roberts that two Test playing years were cut off due to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket  when he was at the absolute peak of his powers. There was some fierce cricket during these two seasons, the West Indians turning out in whites in the Supertests and in shocking pink in the One Day matches. Great battles were waged, but without official recognition.

In the interim, Roberts pulverised a substandard Australian team in two home Tests of 1977-78. This was when poor Peter Toohey was knocked out. And then the leading cricketers were banned from action. He did not play Test cricket again until late 1979. By then, he had left Hampshire and signed up with Leicestershire. He was still one of the top bowlers of the world, but his greatest days were perhaps behind him. His pace had just about dropped from superfast to fast, and several dollops of guile had been augmented to make up for the slight reduction of speed. But, there were injuries, minor niggles to major operations, and these took their toll on his performances.

The second phase

He still led the attack and enjoyed some glorious moments. At the first Test at Nottingham in 1980, he captured five for 72 and three for 57, before coming in at 180 for seven and banking on his nerveless placidity to hit 22 to take West Indies past the target of 208.

When India visited the islands in 1982-83, Roberts enjoyed another great series, capturing 24 wickets at 22 apiece, including nine at Kingston.

There were the characteristically steady spells in the Prudential World Cup 1983, including a potentially match-winning three for 32 in the final. However, chasing 183, he found himself walking in to bat at 119 for seven. This time there was no encore of the heroics essayed against Pakistan. Roberts was trapped leg before at 124. As he trudged back there was a curious bespectacled character who accompanied him for the last few steps, speaking with fervent gestures. All the while the facial features of Roberts remained as placid as ever. It was rumoured that the individual was one of the recruiters who hired rebel cricketers to play in South Africa. Lawrence Rowe, Alvin Kallicharran, Sylvester Clarke, Colin Croft and others had taken the bait. Roberts did not.

The final tour was not a happy one. Before going to India in the winter of 1983, Roberts underwent a knee operation. He worked diligently on his fitness, but the recovery was slow. Additionally he strained his back before the first Test.

He played in four of the One Day Internationals and almost all the tour matches, but he himself doubted whether he could last five days of a Test match. Besides, there were growing problems with the management.

According to Roberts, the rookie of the tour, fellow Antiguan Richie Richardson, was going through a terrible time. He had lost his luggage and did not have sufficient clothes. The tour management did not help in any way. Roberts spoke out and this did not endear him to Clive Lloyd and the decision makers. In the nets, Richardson was being neglected, given a hit only after the bowlers had finished their batting stints. Roberts decided to bowl to him and ensure that he got some batting practice.

Finally, Roberts was played in the fifth Test match at Eden Gardens. On his first Test at the ground, he had dismissed Naik off the first ball of the match. On this occasion, it was Malcolm Marshall who got Sunil Gavaskar off the first ball. Roberts bowled the second over, and finished with three for 56. In response to India’s 241, West Indies were 213 for eight when the Antiguan pacer walked out to join his captain at the wicket. The two men, not enjoying the best of equations, batted together for three hours and 40 minutes and added 161. Roberts, unfazed as always, took turns between stubborn resistance and some flamboyant hits, scoring 68 with five fours and three sixes. It was his highest score in Tests.

Roberts played just one more Test in his career, the final match of the series at Madras. In the year that followed, he bowled as well as ever. He played the domestic season of 1983-84 and was as lethal as ever in the English summer.. After his last Test he picked up 54 wickets at an average of just over 21. However, his differences with the Board ensured that he was not called to play for West Indies any more.

Roberts captured 202 wickets in his 47 Tests, at an average of 25.61, with 11 five wicket hauls and two ten-fors. His average climbed a bit in the later years, and it is agreed that his best days were in the mid-1970s. In the One Day game, he took 87 wickets at 20.35.

He could be a dour batsman at times, as shown in the World Cup game against Pakistan in 1975 and once again during the Test at Eden in 1983. His batting numbers are quite curious, which demonstrate that he became significantly better with age and experience. The first 27 Tests of his career, before the hiatus due to Packer, saw him score 229 runs at 7.38. During the post-Packer period he played 20 more Tests, scoring 533 runs at a healthy 26.65 with three fifties. It left his overall career record at 762 runs at 14.64.

The honours

After retirement, Roberts worked as a coach of the West Indies in the 1990s and also an administrator in his home island. He was responsible for the preparation of the pitches in Antigua. In later years, he worked with medium pace bowlers of Bangladesh and also helped the Indian seamer Irfan Pathan. He became a member of the selection committee of the West Indies Cricket Board in 2006, but was surprisingly sacked in 2008 along with three other illustrious names – Ian Bishop, Desmond Haynes and Courtney Walsh. In 2008, he became one of the 12 West Indian former greats who promoted Stanford Twenty20 as the ‘Stanford Legends’.

In October 2005, Roberts was inducted into the United States Cricket Hall of Fame, becoming the second Antiguan to be thus recognised. In 2007 he was honoured in the Independence Day parade at the Antigua Recreation Ground with the Grand Cross of the Most Illustrious Order of Merit – the second-highest civilian decoration of Antigua and Barbuda. Two years later, he was inducted into the International cricket Council’s Hall of Fame. And in 2014 Andy Roberts was knighted for his services to the game.

In spite of the truckloads of awards and titles bestowed on him, Sir Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts is still remembered for his wondrous days in the sun – the slouching gait, the expressionless eyes, the inscrutable menace as he walked back to his mark, before turning and starting his run, accelerating with each subsequent step, transforming into the deadpan and deadly weapon of detached destruction.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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