Memories of Marshall stir in Barbados
Feats of best fast bowler of all time, who died in 1999, recall era when West Indies ruled game
England had the first practice of their West Indian tour at the 3Ws Oval on the university campus at Cave Hill, where they will have four days of match practice ahead of the first Test starting a week on Wednesday. The ground was named after Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes (who is still alive), all Barbadians knighted for their services to cricket.
The nets are also named after a Barbadian, Malcolm Marshall, although he was never knighted. In the West Indies, as in England, gongs go to batsmen, not bowlers.
Marshall, nevertheless, is still widely regarded as the best fast bowler ever. Of all pacemen, only the Australian left-armer Alan Davidson has taken 100 Test wickets for a lower average than Marshall, who took his 376 at 20.9 each.
In Marshall’s first decade in the side, West Indies lost three Tests and were world champions.
Marshall died, aged only 41, of colon cancer in November 1999. He is buried on the south coast of Barbados, in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s, near the dark, shimmering blue of the Atlantic. A couple of miles up the west coast is St Michael’s, where the Caribbean is aquamarine, and where Marshall grew up playing cricket in a park with a soft ball and any implements he and his friends could find. His father, a policeman, had died in an accident when Malcolm was one, so he was brought up by his extended family, playing cricket in every spare moment.
The turnout at St Bartholomew’s for Sung Eucharist at 9.30am was about 200 including choristers. All windows and doors were open wide. It was the First Sunday after the Epiphany, the first lesson taken from Isaiah 43, 1-7. Plenty of his in-laws attended, according to a church warden: he had married Connie, from the next village, two months before he died.
The grave, of black marble, has a poem written by Marshall’s young son Mali while his father wasted away. No cut flowers in the vase attached to the grave, but poinsettias in the hedgerows, and casuarinas waving in the wind coming off the sea – from mid-off, from the point of view of the grave, so Marshall might have opted for inswingers if bowling at England’s batsmen. Marshall – also known as “Maco” as it says on the headstone – was the best there has ever been because he was James Anderson-plus. He had all the skills to swing the new ball both ways, and to cut the old ball both ways, but also the ability to crank it up above 90mph, as fast as anyone has ever bowled.
He took more than 1,600 first-class wickets – it is remarkable that Hampshire, for whom he took half of them, never won the championship in his time – as well as scoring 11,000 firstclass runs. Other challengers for his title as the all-time best, such as Dennis Lillee or Fred Trueman, had side-on actions and could not bowl an inswinger – not without a blatant change of action. After sprinting in, Marshall looked at the batsman on the inside of his leading arm. He had strong shoulders, developed in childhood, and the quickest of arms.
Maco pioneered a terrifying form of attack, that of bowling bouncers at right-handed batsmen from round the wicket – when the laws permitted six bouncers an over.
Skiddy they were too: had he been taller than 5ft 10½in, some bouncers might have flown harmlessly over heads, instead of hitting them, like Andy Lloyd’s in his sole Test for England. Nobody, even now, has been able to replicate this form of attack. Mitchell Johnson, with a different arm but from the same angle, came closest in 2013-14, to England’s horror.
When the ball aged, instead of waiting for the second new ball, Marshall became even more skilful. As he was picked for the West Indies tour of India in 1978-79 after one first-class match, for Barbados, he had to learn fast on the job – and did. He could cut the old ball both ways as well as swing it both ways, as nobody of his pace has done.
He admitted to one weakness: “If I have a blind spot, then it is bowling to left-handers: I hate them. I struggle to get my angles right,” he confessed in his autobiography, Marshall Arts. It is just as well: against right-handed batsmen in Tests, Marshall had a bowling average of 16, which is ridiculous.
Only because he averaged 24 against left-handers did it go up to 20 overall. And if he were playing now, he would have DRS to help when he swung the ball back into a left-hander’s pads: Marshall had to make do without technology or neutral umpires.
Perhaps his finest hour was when he overwhelmed England with one hand. It was the Headingley Test of 1984 at “the only ground in the world where I have experienced any form of racial prejudice … There is a hard core who are never slow to voice their hatred for the West Indian players”.
Having broken his left thumb while fielding, and after batting with only his right hand to help Larry Gomes to his century, Marshall steamed in with a plaster cast on his left arm and took seven for 53.
Dr Ali Bacher offered Marshall $1 million to go to apartheid South Africa for a year. Maco refused. He was priceless. He was the all-time best.
Turning back time: Ben Stokes (above) in front of nets named after Malcolm Marshall (inset). He is buried on the south coast of Barbados (left)