At last, a nice guy has finished first

Written by: S K Sham
Published: Thursday, March 30, 2000, 0:00 [IST]
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While overtaking Kapil Dev's world record haul of 434 wickets on his home ground, the Sabina Park Oval, Kingston, Jamaica, Courtney Walsh exploded one of the biggest myths in cricket and that is: Nice guys do not make successful fast bowlers. The sobriquet mentioned above and which has almost always been true of the West Indies fast bowlers in particular, is the equivalent of saying that kind-hearted men can never become world heavyweight boxing champions.

But in the case of Courtney Walsh, a thorough gentleman to the core, both on and off the field, the mean world of fast bowling has made one of the very few exceptions.

The coaching manuals on fast bowling do not have it, but somewhere along the line, a bowler wanting to succeed as a paceman has to develop a streak of sadism and believe that he has to put the fear of God into the batsman if he has to get the better of him. As the world has seen, from the time of England's controversial bodyline bowler, Harold Larwood, a fast bowler, if he is really fast, has the red cherry in his hand and a curse on his lips.

If the men in the fast lane are hit or countered efficiently by the batsman, his anger grows. In today's world of cricket, Australian Glenn McGrath and South African Allan Donald, not to mention the fastest of them all, Shoaib Akhtar, are classic examples of that supreme antagonism.

Courtney Walsh, however, is made of quite a different stuff, fast, wily and always efficient, but never quite so mean to wear his anger of batsmen on his shirt sleeves or even his visage. The one and only one expression that this writer has seen on the face of this tall and lanky bowler, when greatly disappointed, is that of the act of merely curling his lips in a whistling posture and then breaking into a grin. Even in his most unguarded moment, one could never see an expression of anger or even hostility.

When the great leg-spinner of the Bradman era, Big Bill "Tiger" O'Reilly was asked by a radio commentator what he hated most, the great Australian, who had dared to cross swords with even his captain, Don Bradman, had a one-word answer. "Batsmen," he shouted.

Similarly, when I had the opportunity to interview Courtney Walsh, when he had come to India leading the West Indies side a few years ago, I asked him how he could be such a good fast bowler without all the familiar hostile trimmings of his lot. His reply was typical of the man.

"Right from the time I started out to be a pace bowler, I believed that like all forms of bowling, this one too was an art. Of course, you need greater strength to be a fast bowler, but that strength must come from within. Cursing batsmen and getting angry every now and then can only destroy your own concentration. However great a batsman, you have to be better than him to get him out and that needs a lot of concentration."

And so he has been better than the best. Today, Courtney Walsh stands at the pinnacle, as the highest wicket-taker in the history of Test cricket. He has just overtaken Kapil Dev's record of 434, which stood for half-a-dozen years.

May be, he will be overtaken by Wasim Akram one day. But Courtney Walsh has taken the business of fast bowling to the heights of a fine art, far removed from the brute force that it is associated with.

Off the bowling crease too, Walsh has been amongst the most polite and well-mannered cricketers that I have met. He has always carried himself with great dignity. Once when he was captain and a three-day match was arranged at one of the smaller centers, which did not even have a regular cricket ground, he cooled down his agitated colleagues by saying: "Stop complaining Man, let us think of the crowd which has gathered here since early morning to see us. We are here to play for them."

Walsh has toiled for almost two decades to reach the target, which Kapil Dev achieved in 16 years, but had taken 17 more Tests to get. One would be tempted to compare the two, the new emperor and the one who has just been dethroned.

It is not that Kapil Dev was rude and mean. No, certainly not. But he could be a very angry player and could not at times contain his emotions. The one thing common between the two is the level of fitness both achieved and maintained.

While Walsh has had a few niggling injuries, like a strained neck during a Test in 1994, nothing was so serious that it made him miss a few matches. Kapil Dev never missed a Test or a one-day match in his whole career on account of any injury. The only Test match he missed was the one at Calcutta against David Gower's England team in 1984-85, when he was dropped from the team on disciplinary grounds. It had so happened that in the previous Test at Delhi's Ferozeshah Kotla, Kapil was accused of throwing away his wicket by playing a rash stroke and captain Sunil Gavaskar had insisted on some action being taken against the all-rounder. If this unfortunate break had not taken place, Kapil Dev would have had the unique distinction of playing 131 Test matches on the trot.

Coming back to the comparison, it must be accepted that Walsh has commanded his place in the West Indies team as a bowler. He is even now such a rabbit with the bat that he was bracketed with India's Venkatesh Prasad as the worst number eleven in world cricket.

Without detracting from the fantastic achievement of Courtney Walsh, give credit to Kapil Dev that he was not just a pure bowler, but an all-rounder in the truest sense of the term in cricket, and indeed one of the finest that the game has seen so far. And for an Indian bowler to capture those world-record number of wickets, especially bowling more often on the heartless Indian wickets (for pace bowlers) is an achievement of which he has been so worthy, as any pure fast bowler would have been.

Coming back to Walsh, aptly described as a "gentle giant," he today represents not only the holder of the record for the highest number of Test wickets, but also as the longest-serving player in contemporary cricket.

"Mentally, it has drained me," was Courtney's immediate reaction on bettering Kapil Dev's world record haul of Test wickets. For a man who has spearheaded the West Indies attack for almost two decades, it indeed must have been some drain, both mentally and physically.

One cannot visualise Courtney Walsh carrying on for too long hereafter. May be a few matches, both Tests and one-dayers, more before he calls it a day. The abiding memory of one of the greatest fast bowlers, when he hangs his big boots, will be about the way he has so far played the game, straight and upright, just as is his famous bowling style.

The West Indies are proud of their long list of great fast bowlers, from Wesley Hall to Joel Garner, Michael Holding to Malcolm Marshall and the present pair of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, the last-named having defied time and fitness to be on top of the heap of wicket-takers for them.

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