Yet another barren period for pace

TONY COZIER

AS India set out on their eighth tour of the Caribbean, they will find the West Indies desperately searching for the bowlers of pace and penetration who made many of their earlier visits distinctly uncomfortable.

Except for the decade that followed the resumption of Test cricket after the second World War, when they relied on the spin of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, and for the few years that separated the Wes Hall-Charlie Griffith era from the advent of Clive Lloyd's four-pronged brigade in the 1970s, fast bowling has always been the West Indies trademark.

Now the retirements over the past year and a half of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh have created a void they have found impossible to fill and increased the prospects of yet another barren period for pace.

Ambrose and Walsh spearheaded the attack for 10 years, creating mayhem and miracles with their cunning and craft. The exit of Ambrose following the 2000 tour of England and Walsh eight months later has removed two great bowlers with 924 Test wickets between them in virtually one fell swoop.

The effect has been startling. In the six Tests since Walsh waved his last farewell at his native Sabina Park last April with a Test-high 519 wickets in his bag, the average innings total against the West Indies is 404.

In three Tests against Sri Lanka last December, it was 508; in two against Pakistan in Sharjah in February, 452. There has been one total above 600 in that time, two over 500 and two over 470.

Such heavy scoring against West Indian bowling is rare and hasn't occurred since they went seven winless series between 1968, when Hall and Griffith were coming to the end of their days, and 1973. In 31 Tests in that time -of which they won only three - the average total amassed by opposition teams was 408.

Seeking to prevent such a lengthy recurrence of an unwanted phenomenon, the fast bowling quest has turned to a couple of virtual novices prior to India's latest Caribbean challenge, in the coming Cable & Wireless series.

Darren Powell, a strongly-built Jamaican who turns 24 on April 24, and Adam Sanford, a similarly powerful 25-year-old Dominican who plays for the Leeward Islands, are two newcomers in the squad of 22 at the pre-series training camp in Trinidad.

The selectors went on the evidence of promising performances in the 2002 regional Busta Cup tournament and their turn of speed. Neither is express but both are direct, with encouraging control over line and length. The word batsmen used most in describing them was "stiff."

Powell, in his second season of first-class cricket, had 24 wickets at a cost of 17.68 runs each in seven matches leading up to the final.

Sanford's 41 wickets, at 25.19 each, were second to Guyana leg-spinner Mahendra Nagamootoo's tournament high 43. He had only one first-class match behind him, for his native Windward Islands, before turning out for his adopted Leeward Islands this season.

There was a mixture of hope and despair in their selections. It is not usual for fledgling West Indian fast bowlers to burst on to the international scene with immediate effect.

Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Ambrose are prime examples of those who started celebrated Test careers with backgrounds as limited as Powell and Sanford.

The newcomers might just have what it takes to follow suit. The selectors can only find out by putting them to the test.

For a host of reasons, some obvious, some obscure, several recent newcomers have simply flattered to deceive.

On debut against India in 1997, the smooth, athletic Jamaican, Franklyn Rose, outbowled even Ambrose and Walsh with 18 wickets, triggering India's sensational second innings collapse to 81 all out and defeat in the decisive third Test in Bridgetown with the first three wickets.

His potential was confirmed with a 7-84 return against South Africa a year later and a Man of the Series award against Zimbabwe in the Caribbean in 2000.

Yet, he was bedevilled by injuries and temperament. Clive Lloyd, then team manager, once described him as "a very talented young man whose priorities and attitudes to work undermine his development and progress."

He hasn't made the team since the 2000 tour of England and, reading the signs, headed for South Africa and a contract with Gauteng last season. Once more, injury, to his left knee, put him out of action.

Nixon McLean is another who has drifted out of the West Indian picture and gone to ply his trade in South Africa. He was big, strong and undeniably swift but Jonty Rhodes, who was instrumental in signing him for KwaZulu-Natal, felt the West Indies never used him properly.

"Nixon has real pace and bowls for wickets but the West Indies would give the new ball to Walsh and Ambrose and were then looking for maidens from Nixon," was his assessment.

Like Rose, Reon King looked the business in his early series with 28 wickets at 22.32 in seven Tests against New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Pakistan in late 1999 and early 2000. A poor return in England that summer followed by a stress fracture to the foot and a hernia operation took the wind out of his sails and he now finds himself omitted from even the current list of 22.

Corey Collymore and Colin Stuart are others also missing from among the possibles for the Tests against India.

On Test debut against Australia in 1999, aged 21, Collymore possessed the aggression that marked him out as the latest in the long line of great Barbadian fast bowlers.

The recurrence of a stress fracture of the back put paid to that notion. He was obliged to alter his action to prevent further injury and is now categorised by the selectors as purely a limited-overs specialist.

Stuart came late onto the scene, aged 27, in Australia two seasons back but soon showed he was the liveliest among those available. He regularly recorded in the high 80 miles per hour when claiming 12 wickets in two Tests in Zimbabwe last July.

He had a tough time contending with the flat pitches and high quality batting in Sri Lanka late last year, was dropped for the subsequent series against Pakistan in Sharjah and couldn't play in the 2002 domestic season because of a knee injury.

Merv Dillon, similar to Walsh in height, style and pace, if not effectiveness, has come through as the leader of the pack five years after his first Test during India's last series in the Caribbean. But he has paid 31.81 runs for each of his 76 wickets in 21 Tests.

None of the other fast bowlers among the 22 has more than 20 Test wickets to his name - and Cameron Cuffy averages 42 a wicket, Marlon Black and the left-armer Pedro Collins both over 50.

It is no wonder the hunt goes on for it is obvious that the West Indies won't break out of their current rut until they can find worthy successors to Ambrose, Walsh and the other magnificent men of speed on whom their reputation and success has been based.

The full list of the 22 called to training for the Indian series: Carl Hooper (captain), Marlon Black, Gareth Breese, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Pedro Collins, Cameron Cuffy, Mervyn Dillon, Daren Ganga, Chris Gayle, Ryan Hinds, Wavell Hinds, Ridley Jacobs, Brian Lara, Runako Morton, Junior Murray, Mahendra Nagamootoo, Darrell Powell, Dinanath Ramnarine, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Devon Smith, Adam Sanford and Stuart Williams.