The decade-and-half from 1976 onwards was the period when the West Indies ruled world cricket. Though there were the occasional losses, the West Indies were considered to be the top team in the world, especially in the longer version of the game. This supremacy was fashioned by a side that had in its ranks five of the top 10 batsmen in the world, a surplus in the fast bowling department, a reliable wicketkeeper and a skipper who could bring the best out of them. The sheer excitement that followers of the game experienced whenever the West Indies strode out in their maroon caps was something without parallel.
In those times, the West Indies had such a surfeit of top class fast bowlers that it was impossible for a newcomer to even break into the side. One can easily reel off the names of at least 10 fast bowlers from the Caribean islands who would have walked into any international side. However, among them one speedster stood out, not only for the speed with which he could hurl the red cherry but also for applying his considerable intellect to attain perfection as a fast bowler. This was Malcolm Marshall, the doyen of West Indies' fast bowlers through the whole of 1980s.
Marshall hailed from Barbados, the island nation that has produced a cricketing great like Gary Sobers and fast bowler Wes Hall. He lost his father early and was brought up by his grand father who introduced him to the game. He made his first class debut for Barbados during the 1977-78 season and was fortunate in getting a call into the national side that toured India under Alvin Kallicharran the next season. The exodus of top players to the Kerry Packer sponsored World Series Cricket (WSC) created plenty of vacancies in the squad and selectors saw in Marshall an exciting prospect worthy of investment for future, enabling him to make the journey to India.
The second Test of the series between India and the West Indies, played at Bangalore in December, 1978, does not have any statistic worth recollecting except the debut of Marshall. However, for the player concerned, it was a shattering experience. He was dismissed for a blob in the first innings, but, even worse, felt that he was given out incorrectly by the umpire based on loud appeals made by the Indians.
He was sledged and taunted by the Indian close-in fielders, especially Dilip Vengsarkar. This incident created such an impact on the mind of Marshall that he swore revenge, when the opportunity arose. For the record, he bowled 18 overs, picking up the solitary wicket of Chetan Chauhan, conceding 53 runs.
Marshall played in two more Tests in the series. Though he did not make any impact in either of them, he was selected to be part of the West Indies squad that played 1979 ICC World Cup. However, he did not get many opportunities as the quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner took up the places for bowlers in the playing eleven. But his skills brought a contract with Hampshire to play in the English county circuit that he grabbed with both hands.
It was the beginning of a long partnership that was to prove fruitful for both parties. Marshall immediately made his presence felt in county cricket and benefitted immensely from pitting his skills against the best batsmen in the world. When the West Indies toured England in 1980, he made the best out of an opportunity that he got in the third Test in the series and grabbed three middle order wickets in quick succession to trigger a collapse that saw seven wickets fall for just 24 runs.
It was only after Croft left the scene in early 1982 that Marshall could cement his place in the side. When India visited West Indies in early 1983, he was the fastest among the pacers but was usually brought in as first or second change by skipper Clive Lloyd. In the last Test of this series he dismissed Vengsarkar in both innings, when six short of a century in the first essay and for zero in the second, to end with 21 wickets from five matches.
In his autobiography “Marshall Arts” he has written in great detail about his tussle with Vengsarkar, and how his anger reached a crescendo when the batsman, while standing at non striker's end, pointed out to the umpire that Marshall was overstepping and bowling no-balls. Those days the West Indian umpires seldom called the fast bowlers for over stepping or intimidatory bowling and it is to the credit of
Vengsarkar that he chose to point this out, knowing fully well that it would bring on him the ire of the bowler.
Marshall was shattered when the West Indies suffered a shock defeat at the hands of India in the final of the 1983 ICC World Cup. He had been planning to use his share of the prize money for the champions to buy a new car and had been so certain of victory that he had even placed the order for it, which had to be subsequently cancelled.
He took out his anger on the Indians when the West Indies toured India for a series of six Tests and five One-Day International (ODI)s towards the end of the year. In the first Test at Kanpur, he helped skipper Lloyd to steady the innings with a knock of 92 after which claimed four wickets in each innings. More than the number of wickets, it was the pace he generated and the menace he conveyed that shocked the Indians. He dismissed Sunil Gavaskar for a duck in the first innings. In the second innings, he bowled a snorter that knocked the bat out of Gavaskar’s hand even as the ball deflected off its edge for a comfortable catch to Winston Davis at slip. When Gavaskar bent to pick up the fallen bat as he trudged back to the pavilion, it appeared to the viewers that the Indian great was being made to bow his head in obeisance before the West Indian quick.
Marshall ended the series with 33 wickets and did not look back after that. He had a special affinity for England and reserved his best for them. In the third Test of the series at Headingley, Leeds, in 1984, he fractured his thumb, while fielding, during the first session of play and his left hand had to be placed inside a cast. But when the ninth West Indian wicket fell he strode in to help Larry Gomes complete his century. And when the West Indies bowled in the second innings, he opened the attack with his hand still in cast and bowled 26 overs to pick up 7/53! He did not tour the subcontinent for the 1987 ICC World Cup and the four-Test series against India that followed.
But he was there to greet the Indians when they visited the Caribbean in 1989. He picked up 11 wickets at Port of Spain, the venue that had traditionally favoured the tourists, to help seal a 217-run win for the hosts.
After his retirement from the game in 1991, Marshall served as coach of both the West Indies as well as Hampshire sides, which shows the high regard in which he was held by the management and players of the two teams. He also played and coached Natal in South Africa. However, before long, he was diagnosed as having cancer of colon (lower part of gastro intestinal tract). He succumbed to the disease after a brief battle, on November 4, 1999. He was cremated with full state honours in his home state of Barbados.
Through the early part of 1980s Marshall was easily the fastest bowler in the world. At 5 feet 9 inches, he was not tall for a fast bowler but he compensated for that by his fast paced sprint to the bowling crease and the high speed of his bowling arm. As a wag once remarked “he runs in as fast as he bowls!” but during his later days, he cut down on his pace and went flat out only occasionally.
His bowling action was unorthodox in that it was open chested, and not side on as recommended in coaching manuals. He was adept at moving the ball both ways and his in swinger was a regular wicket-taking delivery. Few bowlers could move the ball, and that too both ways, when bowling at his pace. He also developed a beautiful leg cutter, the most difficult of all crafts to master, which he deployed with excellent results on slow and dusty pitches. He had a wicked bouncer that used to skid off the surface and rise rapidly towards the chin of the batsman, making it even more potent. He could bowl effectively from around the stumps too, where his strategy of approaching the wicket from behind the umpire used to give batsman even lesser time to read his thunderbolts. Thus, he possessed in his arsenal all the weapons of trade and, more importantly, knew the opportune times for using them.
Marshall scores above the other fast bowling greats of his era on two aspects. The first was his performance in the subcontinent. Lillee never played in India and had a miserable tour of Pakistan in 1980 when he picked up just three wickets. But Marshall had no qualms about touring India and Pakistan, playing 19 Tests wherein he bagged 77 wickets at an average of 23.05. These figures would appear more impressive if his first tour to India, as a complete rookie, is omitted. The second was the fact that a high percentage (63.30%) of his 376 victims from 81 Tests were top order batsmen. He seldom ran through the tail, leaving that job for the others as can be seen from his record which reveals that only 17.5% of his victims were those who batted at No. 9 to 11. He bagged five wickets in an innings 22 times in his Test career and picked up 10 wickets in four matches.
Followers of the game would remember Marshall as a complete fast bowler and consummate professional. He was not a character who would attract crowds for his histrionics but a passionate cricketer whose top quality fast bowling would ensure a packed house. His early demise, at the age of 41, was a huge loss for the cricketing world, particularly the younger generation, who could have gained from his expertise and experience.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)