Jeff Thomson's spell at Barbados in 1978 was the fastest I've seen: Tony Cozier

Tony Cozier © Getty Images

By Saj Sadiq
 
Regarded by many as one of the leading commentators on TV and Radio, Winston Anthony “Tony” Cozier has been a cricket writer and commentator for West Indian cricket since 1958. Cozier is widely renowned for his extensive knowledge of cricket facts and statistics dating back to the 1950s and he has turned this passion for writing and numbers into a prolific career.

Cozier made his debut as a Test match commentator on radio during West Indies-Australia series in 1965. He has also commentated for Channel Nine in Australia, Test Match Special and also provides his expertise for the Sky Sports West Indies Cricket commentary team.

It’s rare that one watches or listens to cricket from the West Indies without hearing Cozier’s voice and cricket coverage from various eras and formats has been enhanced with his distinctive voice. The author of ‘The West Indies, ’50 Years of Test Cricket’, Tony’s memory and expertise of cricket history and statistics has led to him being lauded worldwide. Some notable honours bestowed upon him are having the press box at the Kensington Oval being named after him as well as being granted an honorary lifetime membership with the MCC.

In an exclusive interview, Cozier spoke about his recollection of the best moments and the current state of West Indies cricket, the great fast bowlers hailing from the Caribbean over the years, his views on the talent of Brian Lara, the role of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and his thoughts on the recently-concluded series against Pakistan.
 
 
Excerpts from an interview:

PakPassion.net (PP): Over the years you must have commentated on many exciting and memorable series. Any in particular that stands out?

Tony Cozier (TC): I wouldn’t say that any really stand out although there have been ups and downs in the fortunes of the West Indies over the years. When I first came into commentating, back in the ’60s, West Indies were on an up — under the captaincy of Frank Worrell — and I covered the 1963 tour of England when West Indies won 3-1.

We had Sobers as captain and we went for some time when we were unofficial World Champions. In 1969 when [Wes] Hall, [Charlie] Griffith, [Conrad] Hunt, [Seymour Nurse, and one or two others all went at the same time, we went downhill and West Indies didn’t win a single Test match between 1969 and 1973.

There was regeneration under Rohan Kanhai when he was captain. We then had the great period of Clive Lloyd, who took over from Kanhai and moulded the team. New players came in on the tour of India in ’74-75; [Gordon] Greenidge, [Andy] Roberts, [Viv] Richards, most of them made their debuts in India and they were the backbone of the team which served West Indies cricket so well for such a long period.

PP: Any one particular match that stands out as being memorable for yourself?

TC: There are so many that I couldn’t pick one. I can think of so many that were exciting and thrilling and show the West Indies in the best light possible. Then, I can think of others that were pretty depressing as far as West Indies cricket is concerned. And so, I couldn’t really pick one particular match or even a particular series as being more memorable than the other. There have been so many!

PP: What’s the fastest spell or the most intimidating spell of pace bowling that you’ve ever commentated on?

TC: I think it was Jeff Thomson, in Barbados in the Test match in 1978 when Australia came to West Indies with their back up players. He was the only one of the established Australians who came because he hadn’t yet signed a contract with World Series Cricket. They were badly beaten in the first Test match in Port of Spain.

In Barbados, Australia were bowled out for about 180 and that left the West Indies about an hour and a half’s batting before the close of play. It was Thomson from one end and from the other end it was Wayne Clark, a medium pace swing bowler.

Thomson really generated enormous pace with some hostility. He got the wickets of Greenidge, Richards and Kallicharran and there were thrilling confrontations between himself and Richards, as you would imagine. Eventually he got Richards.

There was also the first time I toured England as a correspondent in 1963. It was the Test match at Lord’s where Hall bowled for something like two and half hours on the last day, non-stop from the Pavilion End. Towards the end of the day, Colin Cowdrey came out with his hand in a caste — Hall having fractured it the previous day with a short delivery. Cowdrey came in the last over and didn’t have to face a single ball. He was the last man in, and David Allen — who was at the other end — played out the over and the match ended in a dramatic draw.

Then you had spells from the likes of Michael Holding, Roberts and Malcolm Marshall — who was generally acknowledged as being perhaps the best fast bowler that West Indies has produced — in that he swung the ball at pace, he could do anything with the ball. He was a tremendous competitor as well a bowler who bowled some wonderful spells.

However, I would have to say Thomson’s spell in Barbados in 1978 was certainly the most awesome and fastest I have seen.

PP: You’ve mentioned some great West Indian fast bowlers, but do you think that Marshall was probably the most skillful of the West Indian fast bowler?

TC: Probably the most skillful in that, he worked out batsmen very, very quickly. He could pick up weaknesses and strengths of those he was bowling against. He had the ability to swing the ball both ways in the air and that was a tremendous advantage for someone who was bowling as fast as he was.

Of course, he didn’t have the size of so many others like the Halls and the Griffiths or the height of Holding, the body strength of Roberts and Croft or even the big and tall Garner — Marshall didn’t fit that stereotype. He was just about six feet tall, he was lithe, he was happening, and he was tremendous. If you talk to those who played against him, I think most of them will accept that while in that era there were so many great West Indian fast bowlers, Marshall was perhaps number one.

PP: If you had to describe Viv Richards to somebody, who had not heard about him or seen him play cricket, how would you go about doing that?

TC: I would say Viv Richards was intimidating. You hear a lot of talk about West Indies fast bowlers being intimidating. But when he came to the wicket and walked out onto the ground — you could see that this guy really meant business.

There was really an aura about him — I suppose they call it these days in the modern jargon as ‘The X Factor’. When he walked onto the field — even simply walking out to the middle — you felt that this guy was going to impose himself on the opposition. He was intimidating in that regard. He never wore a helmet, he was hit more than once; he was hit on the head by Rodney Hogg, the Australian fast bowler in Australia in the 1980s at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and he had to receive a bit of attention on the field. The next ball Hogg bowled a bouncer to him, he hooked him four or five rows back at the MCG for a six!

He was that type of character, he believed in himself, he believed in West Indies, he believed that West Indies cricket was a show piece for the people of the Caribbean and there was no one better than Richards to carry that out [the belief]. He really was such a fierce competitor and a tremendous sight — just a great player — but beyond that, he was someone who had that aura about him which certainly accentuated his greatness as a player.

PP: There seems to be an endless debate regarding the great West Indian team under Clive Lloyd and the great Australian team. In your opinion which was the better Test team?

TC: I don’t think we can compare teams or compare eras — the thing is that players move from one generation to the next, and there’s always a link. If you look through the West Indies history, for instance, [George] Headley towards the end of his days played alongside the three Ws, for instance Worrell, [Everton] Weekes, and [Clyde] Walcott; and they continued. Then Sobers and Kanhai played alongside Weekes, Walcott, and Worrell, and when they were moving on, in came people like Lawrence Rowe, Alvin Kallicharran and Lloyd. When Lloyd and Kallicharran were moving on, in came Lara, Greenidge and a few others. So, there’s always a link in the game between individuals and perhaps between teams as well, but I wouldn’t like to compare West Indies team with any other team of any era because there were different conditions and they were playing against different opponents — it’s very difficult to make that type of comparison.

With the batting, you had one of the top opening pairs at the time and one of the greatest of all time in Greenidge and [Desmond] Haynes, and then you had Richards at three to begin with.

In the 1975 World Cup final, Lloyd rightly got the man of the match award for his 100, but it could have easily gone to Richards, who from the outfield, with his throw — the accuracy and the strength of his throw — dismissed the two Chappells and Allan Turner – three of Australia’s premier batsmem. He could field anywhere!

Roger Harper every now and again would come into the side as a spinner. He was probably the best if not certainly among the best fielders of his time. He would catch anything at slip, prowl the outfield with those long legs of his, had a tremendous throw and fitness as well.

The Australian physiotherapist and trainer Denis Waight was assigned to them during the World Series Cricket era. He remained with them all the way through and all the players would say it was the fitness regime that he instituted that contributed to that. So when you look now for instance you can see so many teams can’t keep a full team on the park all the way through. You can look at the Australians of today for instance, they have some outstanding young fast bowlers coming up but they just can’t play from one Test to the next because of their fitness. That was a big factor as far as the West Indies were concerned during their period of dominance.

PP: Imran Khan and Javed Miandad — two contrasting characters but two huge names in the world of Pakistani cricket. Your thoughts on those two as individuals and also as cricketers?

TC: Well I suppose you could compare Imran with Worrell and Lloyd for his leadership and then again for his contribution as an all-round cricketer. He was an outstanding all-round cricketer, strong, genuinely quick, able to move the ball, and a good striker of the ball as well. An outstanding all-round cricketer but more especially a leader and that’s what we are seeing now in politics in Pakistan. Imran looked as if when he was on the field there was no question of who was captain, he was a leader and of course led the Pakistanis to the World Cup in 1992 in Australia and he had the players with him.

Miandad was a tremendous player, a fighter, not stylish by any means but you just couldn’t get him out. He had this impish aggression, he would be chattering away all of the time looking to aggravate the opposition but a tremendous player who would take on anyone. It didn’t matter for him if you were bowling a million miles an hour, he thought he could handle you even if you were turning the ball square. He believed in himself and I think that’s the big thing too for any player in any team — the self-belief.

PP: Let’s turn our attention to Brian Lara, a mercurial talent who perhaps didn’t always use that talent and also had question marks over his leadership. How would you describe Lara’s career?

TC: Well certainly from the start from a time when he was a teenager everyone recognized the immense talent he had as a batsman. There was never any doubt about that whatsoever, he was brilliant. I’ve spoken to Ramiz Raja recently during the Pakistan series in the Caribbean and he said that there was no doubt in his mind that Lara was the best player of spin bowling by far that he’s ever seen. With Lara, you just felt that if he put his mind to it he could do anything.

When he went to Sri Lanka on a tour there — I think it was 2001/2002 although I’m not certain of the exact date — when he went there his average was below 50. He said he was going to Sri Lanka for three Test matches with the purpose of pushing his average above 50. It meant that, I think he had to score something like 500 runs in three Test matches — a very taxing target he set himself. Of course he easily surpassed it, by taking on Muttiah Muralitharan — making a century and a double century in one Test match and a century in another. West Indies lost all 3 Test matches but the confrontation between himself and Muralitharan was one never to be forgotten and of course Lara came out well on top in that one.

He went to South Africa in 1998/1999 with the players going on strike before they left for that tour — so it was a very controversial time. The West Indies lost 5-0 in the Test matches and I think it was 5-1 in the six ODIs. When he came back the Board gave him two match probation and said they were not satisfied with his leadership and Lara’s response was a double hundred against Australia in the 2nd Test match in Jamaica which West Indies won. He then scored the memorable unbeaten 153 not in Barbados in the next Test match to lead West Indies to a 2-1 lead in a series. It was all down to him because he just set his mind to it.

A brilliant player — someone who would do things you never considered possible or even thought of. In the last over of day three of the 1st Test match in Johannesburg (2003/2004) against South Africa, Robin Peterson the left-arm spinner was bowling to him. Given that this was the last over of the day, you would expect Lara to play out and come back the next day. Instead, he hit him for 28 from the over and I think hit him for four sixes or something like that. That was unheard of but Lara had that kind of confidence that he knew he could do it and did it.

Lara didn’t have the discipline as far as captaincy is concerned; he was constantly at odds with the board. I think he apologized seven times to the board for one indiscretion after another but they kept putting him back as captain. He was made captain three times mostly because the West Indies were going through a very difficult period. Perhaps they needed someone who was more disciplined and someone who understood that not everyone on the team had the capabilities to bat as well as him. Unfortunately, Lara didn’t seem to recognise that. The players needed someone not only to lead them in terms of scoring runs but someone to lead them in another way as well. In a more significant way, they needed someone to get them together and ensure that each player would play to his best potential.

PP: A lot of your commentary has been during a generation where the West Indies were amongst the top tier of Test teams. Of late, the West Indies Test team has not been quite as effective. What needs to be done with regards to West Indies cricket in order for them to become a force in Test cricket again?

TC: I don’t know if there is anything that can be done now. I fear for the future. We’ve now gone something like twenty years where it’s all been downhill without producing players for a variety of reasons. One of which is the weakness of the West Indies board itself and also the ‘militancy’ for some time of the player’s association which called the top players to strike on two occasions.

The first was when we went on a tour to Sri Lanka, and next was here in the Caribbean just after the West Indies had won the Champion’s Trophy in England at the Oval in 2004. Within no time, the players had gone on strike with Bangladesh coming for a tour. It was very disruptive and there was a lot of suspicion between the board and the players and it did absolutely nothing but harm to West Indies cricket.

In addition to which, the standard of pitches and umpires are all factors that have contributed toward this decline. Because of the fact that the West Indies are not doing well and have not done well for some time, you’re not attracting the sponsors.

West Indies cricket have been declining because they haven’t managed to get players into the county championship which was a big boost for the West Indies back in the 1970s. Players had the opportunity of going to England and playing in different conditions against different opponents. Many of the counties had players from other countries and other teams — Australians, Pakistanis, Indians and so on. That was good grounding for younger players coming through. The administration is very weak and divided and it [problem] starts from there. Of course, anything starts from the top, whether it’s good or bad. I am afraid as far as we’re concerned, it’s bad. The administration has its own problems to solve.

PP: Would you say the great era of West Indian cricket was largely down to natural talent and those players being produced by the individual islands and that now it’s more a case of those great players not coming through?

TC: No, I think we still have the talent. The talent is there but it was always nurtured by a high quality first-class competition and club competition. So you would play in club teams. In the stronger club teams, you would have a couple of Test players and certainly a few first-class players with a good reputation.

The clubs in most of the territories were pretty strong and would be almost on a level with first-class teams anywhere. Nowadays you just wouldn’t get that because most of the players now don’t participate in the club system for one reason or another.

You’ll find that the majority of those who play Test cricket or are leading players are not available for the first-class season. They play one or two matches but they are playing in the Big Bash League or the Indian Premier League or playing somewhere else across the world and not playing within the West Indies. That’s a big issue as well and I’m afraid it’s one that’s not easily solvable.

PP:  We’ve seen the launch of the Caribbean Premier League (CPL). There are a lot of sponsors, a lot of interest, and players from around the world competing in this tournament. Do you think there is an overemphasis within the West Indies of gearing players or the players themselves are geared towards the shorter formats? Is the Caribbean Premier League enhancing that concept — whereby the players are looking at the shorter formats with more seriousness than the five-day format?

TC: The Caribbean Premier League (CPL) is well financed and it needs to be. The promotions are outstanding. It is international class. WICB has got into absolutely no promotion whatsoever for its various competitions. I am not talking about spending millions on promotions, but even a basic promotion is not done by the WICB in relation to any of their competitions. They are well financed by Digicel which is the big mobile telephone network. They’re pumping money into it and they’ve got sponsors. I think they’ve got nine or ten, whereas the WICB hasn’t got a single sponsor for any of its competitions such as the T20 — which is now being shifted to CPL — or the 50-overs competition, or the first-class tournament. They say the tournament is not properly promoted and not advertised properly.

As far as the effect of the Twenty20 is concerned, quite clearly, players are going to look to see what tournament they can play which will maximise their earnings. That is taken as read. I’ve read a lot about this in England, for instance and Australia where people are saying that T20 has affected the quality of the batting that is coming through. I take a slightly different view, certainly as far as the West Indies are concerned.

When I look around and see our Under-19 teams, I don’t know who is coaching them but they are the first in the nation of young batsmen in the Caribbean who are playing in the three-day (two innings) tournament. They still play two innings matches and inter-school tournaments — it’s not a Twenty20 operation at all. However, they are playing very defensively. The first thing you see in young batsmen coming up is they are playing forward and blocking, as used to be the case in England. For instance, I remember the coaching in England in 1940s and 1950s with young batsmen being coached en masse to play forward defensive — head over the ball, elbow right forward. That’s what you’re getting more and more here in the West Indies. I think T20 cricket will make them more aggressive and that’s what we need — to get some more West Indian aggression back into the batsmen. T20 within limitation can bring those traits forward which is needed as far as batting is concerned.

PP: Recently Pakistan toured the West Indies and played the one-day and T20 series. What did you make of the two sides — the one-day and the T20 team?

TC: It was very difficult to judge that series. A lot of the cricket was very bad cricket. The batting on both sides left a lot to be desired as did the tactics by the captains, Misbah-ul-Haq and Mohammad Hafeez who shared the 50-overs and T20 captaincy and Dwayne Bravo and Darren Sammy who shared the captaincy for the West Indies in the 50-overs and the T20 format. It’s very difficult to judge as there was a very disappointing standard of cricket played in the series. It just emphasises why those two teams are towards the bottom of the ICC rankings.

Umar Akmal got his chance. He has a rich talent. He was very exuberant behind the stumps to the point that he might well have been cautioned or fined for his exuberance or over-exuberant appealing, but he’s got something to him. He’s here in the CPL as well. As far as the left-arm quicks for Pakistan are concerned, all are good. Mohammed Irfan, 7’1 is a serious customer to deal with, but he’s now into his 30s already. You just wonder with the bulk that he’s carrying with that height, how much longer he can bowl. As far as the West Indies, the selectors were very conservative and didn’t introduce any new batsmen at all. They didn’t introduce any new players in that tournament. The top players — Chris Gayle could hardly get a run, Kieron Pollard was dropped eventually, Marlon Samuels got a hundred but his strike rate was very very low. It was just above 55, which was unusual for someone who dominated last year in international cricket. West Indies cricket stood still in that period. If anything, it went back a little bit in that tournament against Pakistan and in the preceding Tri-Nation tournament with India and Sri Lanka.
 
(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net, from where the above article has been reproduced. He can be followed on Twitter at @Saj_PakPassion)