Dillon finally fulfils a prophecy

TONY COZIER

THE search for the West Indies fast bowlers of the future was on and one of the greats of the immediate past was certain he had spotted one.

"We complain we haven't got any young cricketers in the West Indies these days," the late Malcolm Marshall, the West Indies leading wicket-taker in Tests, commented. "Well, here is one with a real future and the sooner he plays at the highest level, the better."

That was the summer of 1996 and Marshall had just seen a young Trinidadian, Merv Dillon, bowling for the second team of Hampshire, the English county for which he had played with great distinction and which he was then coaching.

Dillon was, indeed, soon brought into the West Indies Test team in the 1997 home series against India after only five first-class matches.

He bowled impressively in his debut Test on an unhelpful pitch at the Queens Park Oval and, later that year, on the traumatic tour of Pakistan, he was taking five for 111 including four of the top five in the order in only his third Test.

The career that Marshall was confident lay ahead of the lanky, loose-limbed athlete with a high action and a turn of pace seemed certain.

For a host of complex reasons, it hasn't worked out that way until now.

Five years on, Dillon was to be forefront of a West Indies victory, in the third Test over India at Kensington Oval when his four wickets in each innings earned him the Man of the Match award.

It was the first of its kind for Dillon, a lengthy wait for someone in his 24th Test. But there have been extenuating circumstances.

As Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh understandably continued to spearhead the attack into their mid-30s and beyond, Dillon and other potential successors found their options limited.

They rarely had the benefit of the new ball. They were often unfairly compared to the two incomparable giants of the art of fast bowling.

Anxious for immediate returns, selectors had little patience. As quickly as they picked some promising young prospect, they discarded him, like a nervous gambler searching for the right cards.

The list of those used to partner Ambrose and Walsh after Dillon's debut stretches as long as their run-ups.

Ian Bishop went 43 Tests before his back gave way for the second and last time. Kenny Benjamin played 26 Tests between 1992 and 1998. Only Dillon of the others - Franklyn Rose, Reon King, Nixon McLean, Colin Stuart, Pedro Collins, Cameron Cuffy, Marlon Black, Ottis Gibson, Corey Collymore and now Adam Sanford - has played more than 20.

It was obvious that once Ambrose and Walsh took their leave, as they did within eight months of each other between September, 2000, and April, 2001, the void would be impossible to adequately fill.

By pure perseverance, Dillon emerged from the lot as the spearhead but the trip has not been without its pitfalls.

In the background while others were tried and found wanting, he finally verified Marshall's assessment in successive series against Test cricket's strongest opposition, in Australia and at home against South Africa between November 2000 and April 2001, claiming 36 wickets in nine Tests.

But Walsh was yet to take his leave. The real test would come when he did.

The chance for Dillon to immediately claim the No.1 position was dashed when he twisted his right knee in a one-day international in Harare that eliminated him from the two Tests against Zimbabwe last July.

Fit again, he returned to encounter Sri Lanka in three Tests in Sri Lanka and Pakistan in two Tests in the neutral venue of Sharjah. The batsmen were some of the finest in the game and the pitches unforgiving for anyone dealing in pace and seam.

The West Indies were trounced in all five. Sri Lanka piled up totals of 590 for nine declared and 627 for nine declared, Pakistan 493 and 472. It was a tough grind.

In Sri Lanka, Dillon sent down 149 overs in four completed innings. In Sharjah, the count was 104 overs in the two Tests. The bowler's statistical returns did not make flattering reading but he still had 19 wickets in the five Tests and would have had more with a little luck and help from faulty fielders.

He also had disciplinary trouble. So concerned about the tense political situation in Sri Lanka, he refused the practice with the team on election day just after the third Test, even though the management had security assurances from the police.

He was warned of the consequences of going on his own but he remained adamant. The upshot was that he was sent home early, only the third West Indian cricketer expelled from a tour on disciplinary grounds.

It was serious blot on his c.v. and he feared it might end his career. Fortunately, the management acknowledged there was a reason for his behaviour, however defiant, and recommended no further punishment.

Now, he is the one Carl Hooper hands the new ball to bowl first, the bowler on whom the team relies as the most experienced in an attack in which no one else has more than a dozen Tests to his name.

But Dillon does not accept that he is now the leader of the pack.

"I don't see myself as the No.1 fast bowler," he said after his Man of the Match performance. "I see myself as just one of four bowlers out there in the middle. My goal is simply to help the West Indies start winning matches more often."

He acknowledged that it was beneficial to have a settled place in the team, a luxury he and so many others were never afforded in the selectorial chopping and changing when Ambrose and Walsh were around.

"I've been playing for a while and that's what you want, to be in the team and not having to worry too much about whether you're going to be in this match and out the next," he said.

"It's really comforting and I reckon it's helped my improvement in Test cricket," he added.

He also credits two great West Indian fast bowlers of the past.

"Andy Roberts has been very helpful at our recent pre-series camps and Mikey Holding chats with me almost every morning before a day's play before he goes onto his television commentary," he noted.

"They've both been there and done that and done more than that," he added. "They know so much about bowling and are keen to see West Indies back to where we were when they were around."

That might be some time coming but, as Malcolm Marshall foresaw, they now have a genuine leader of the attack.