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Courtney Walsh: The man who stood on top of Test cricket’s bowling summit for four years

Courtney Walsh the man who stood on top of Test cricket s bowling summit for four years

Partners-in crime … Curtly Ambrose (left) and Courtney Walsh took 412 wickets between them at 22.10 from 52 Tests © Getty Images

Courtney Walsh, one of the greatest in a pantheon of formidable West Indian fast bowlers, was born on October 30, 1962. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of the first bowler to take 500 Test wickets.

It is a wonder why Courtney Walsh is not considered as great a fast bowler as his predecessors or contemporaries. In 2000, he went past Kapil Dev’s tally of 434 Test wickets, and stood at the summit for four years. True, he had legendary contemporaries: if you made your debut alongside Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Joel Garner, and once they quit, they were replaced by the likes of Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop, it’s not really your fault that you have to pursue an entire career as a stock bowler, bowling into the wind.

He was not as intimidating as his colleagues, but he outlasted them all, turning out to be the most durable of the crop: 519 Test wickets at 24.44 along with 227 ODI wickets at 30.47 (and an economy rate of 3.83) meant that he was up there with the very best. Walsh survived like no one else did. He bowled 30,019 balls – a tally of 5,003.1 overs – the highest ever by any fast bowler in the history of the game. He was the workhorse around whom the West Indian pace attack was formed. His 132 Tests seems an almost impossible feat for a fast bowler.

Despite the fact that he came to the forefront mainly in the 1990s when West Indies were on their decline, Walsh – along with Ambrose (and Bishop) – bowled defiantly, delaying the inevitable decay by a few years. Indeed, in Tests they bowled together, Ambrose and Walsh took 412 wickets between them at 22.10 from 52 Tests. Only Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis have managed more.

Unlike Ambrose, Walsh began serious cricket quite early. A string of wickets in the early 1980s for Jamaica meant that he was in the contention for Test cricket at a very young age. However, stiff competition at the top level for the best team in the world meant that Walsh had to sit out for some time.

Andy Roberts’ retirement, however, opened up a fast bowler’s slot in the line-up that looked so formidable otherwise. With none of Winston Davis, Wayne Daniel and Eldine Baptiste quite living up to the expectations and several upcoming fast bowlers receiving a ban due to a rebel tour of South Africa, Walsh managed to break into the Test side at Perth in 1984 when he was barely 22 in Clive Lloyd’s farewell series. So strong was the West Indian attack, though, that Walsh did not get a chance to bowl in the first innings as Holding, Marshall and Garner bowled out Australia for 76; in the second innings, Walsh picked up two for 43 as West Indies romped to an innings victory.

Playing alongside the legendary trio often made that Walsh was often the fourth fast bowler of the attack and got to bowl very few overs. This meant that five-fors were hard to come by. Indeed, his 63 Tests (till March 1994) yielded just five five-fors; the last 69 got him 19 more.

He first made his mark at Lahore in 1986-87. The absence of Garner and Holding meant that Walsh had the lion’s share of the bowling with Marshall. Walsh took three for 56 and four for 21 to lead West Indies to an innings victory over Pakistan. The very next month, coming to bowl as the fifth bowler, Walsh returned the unbelievable figures of 4.3-3-1-5 – still the cheapest five-for in the history of the shorter version.

Meanwhile, thanks to Walsh’s contribution, Gloucestershire went through a phenomenal rise in the county circuit: they were last-ranked in 1984 – which was when they took Walsh aboard. Walsh took 85 wickets in 1985 as Gloucestershire rose to the third position. And then, in 1986, Walsh topped the national charts with 118 wickets as Gloucestershire became runners-up for the first time since 1969. His performance made him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1987. He topped the national wickets list four more times – 1992 (92 wickets), 1994 (89 wickets), 1996 (85 wickets) and 1998 (106 wickets).

His love affair with Asian conditions continued in the Reliance World Cup. Despite West Indies’ early elimination, Walsh created an impact with nine wickets at 25.44 at an economy rate of 4.12; he also won millions of hearts as he refused to ‘Mankad’ Saleem Jaffar – a gesture that ultimately cost West Indies a World Cup semi-final berth for the first time.

Then, with Marshall declaring himself unavailable, Walsh, along with Patrick Patterson, wrecked the Indians on Indian soil. Walsh ended the tour with 26 wickets from four Tests at 16.80. A year and a half later, he helped demolish the Indians at home with 18 wickets in 4 Tests at 14.88. He took 10 for 101 at Jamaica and West Indies won the series 3-0. And with Marshall’s return and Ambrose and Bishop’s arrivals, the West Indian attack looked formidable as before.

Between the two India series, Walsh became the first bowler to take a Test hat-trick in 12 years, and the first bowler ever to take a Test hat-trick spanning over two innings in the first Test of the Frank Worrell Trophy at Brisbane. His victims included Tony Dodemaide in the first innings and Mike Veletta and Graeme Wood in the second; uncannily enough, after the drought ended, Merv Hughes took another hat-trick in the very next Test at Perth – once again spanned over two innings!

Walsh famously ended the 40-run last wicket partnership between Tim May and Craig McDermott at Adelaide in 1992-93 with an unplayable delivery as West Indies won the Test by a single run – the narrowest in history. A year later, in his hometown Kingston, Walsh bowled what has been described by many as one of the fiercest spells of hostile fast bowling against England. Though the figures read three for 67, his unbroken relentless two-hour spell battered Michael Atherton on his captaincy debut. He extracted steep bounce off a length at an alarming speed, and was simply too unfortunate not to end up with six or seven wickets in that spell; and then, when Andy Caddick and Devon Malcolm got away with some slogging, Walsh came back and attacked Malcolm physically – somewhat uncharacteristically – bowling round the wicket and hitting him on the body, eventually bowling him.

With Richie Richardson being rested, Walsh got his chance to lead West Indies in India. This was a daunting task, especially in the absence of Ambrose. However, Walsh defied India a series victory as he, along with Jimmy Adams with the bat, virtually secured a 1-1 draw on his own: he took 21 wickets from 3 Tests at 21.23, and broke Manoj Prabhakar’s nose with a bouncer for good measure. On the subsequent tour – still as captain – Walsh had amazing returns as he took seven for 36 and six for 18 to bowl out New Zealand at Wellington.

As the 1990s progressed, Ambrose and Walsh became one of the most feared fast bowling pairs in the world. Though Walsh generally played a supporting role to his more illustrious partner, he played a significant role in the fading days of West Indies cricket. He took 62 wickets in 1994 at 21.75, and bettered that with 66 in 2000 at 18.69. He took 11 wickets at an unbelievable 9.81 in the 1999 World Cup (despite West Indies’ early exit), and performed consistently – both home and overseas – against all major opponents. In 2000, he went past Kapil Dev’s world record of 434 Test wickets, and became the first bowler to claim 500 Test wickets in his last Test series in 2001.

His zenith, however, came in England in 2000. Till then he was considered one of the best, but did not have a single series performance that would immortalize his name forever. In a series that West Indies lost 1-3, Walsh took eight for 58 at Edgbaston; ten for 117 at Lord’s; five for 69 at Old Trafford; four for 51 at Headingley; seven for 141 at The Oval: 34 wickets from five Tests at 12.82. Though he was well-supported by Ambrose (he took 17 wickets), the batsmen failed miserably, scoring only one hundred between them, and England eased to a series victory. Only Marshall (35) had taken more wickets in a series. This also included his famous slow yorker with which he completely foxed Graham Thorpe at Old Trafford.

Even in his last Test series, Walsh finished with 25 wickets from 5 Tests at 19.68 (including 6/93 in his last Test in his hometown, resulting in a victory) against South Africa at home, though West Indies lost the series 1-2. By the time he retired, West Indies were well past their days of glory. In 2004, along with George Headley, Holding, Jeff Dujon and Lawrence Rowe, Walsh was named among Jamaica’s five greatest cricketers of all time.

Batting
In the Melbourne Test of 1988-89, Walsh defied his natural batting style as he faced for an uncharacteristic 72 balls for an unbeaten 30 that would eventually turn out to be his career-best. It did not include a boundary, and involved a 56-run ninth-wicket partnership with Ambrose and a 24-run 10th-wicket partnership with Patterson. The innings had possibly made a few fans optimistic about his batting skills. If only they knew.

Walsh’s next batting feat came about ten years after, when he played out five deliveries as Brian Lara scripted a famous one-wicket win at Bridgetown. In between these two incidents, Walsh had earned a reputation as one of the worst sloggers of the 1990s. None of his slogs, though, are as ill-remembered as the one that defied all logic when he missed one from Damien Fleming in the 1996 World Cup semifinal with Richie Richardson at the other end.

His Test record of 43 ducks still stands, though Chris Martin, with 35 ducks, stands with a fair chance to go past him. His Test batting average of 7.54 was bolstered by a world record tally of 61 Test not outs, and every time he faced a ball, the crowd broke into a raucous cheer.

(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in)

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