Malcolm Marshall: Frightening pace mingled with subtleties


The West Indian team dominated world cricket for two decades like no other band of men.

They did not just vanquish teams, they terrorised them. Viv Richards, Godron Greenidge, Clive Lloyd and the others pummelled bowlers into submission around the world. And then opposition batsmen — the best and the boldest — would brace themselves before taking guard against the meanest pack of pacemen ever.

Four of them, each brimming over with unique talent, operating at pace like all-consuming fire, would rage at them, over after relentless over, right through the innings. It was a lethal cocktail of quality and quickness, an assembly line that churned out tall, strapping men who could hurl a ball down the wicket at the speed of bullets and hunted in fearsome foursomes.  

Amongst all these tall, dark, devastating men, there dawned one who hardly reached beyond average height and build, by no means gifted with the imposing physical presence of his fast bowling buddies. But, for once, size did not matter as this slight man emerged as the most lethal of them all.

The pace bowling pool of the West Indians of the 1970s and 1980s overflowed with talent that has never converged within the same space-time co-ordinates before or since. Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Pat Patterson, Wayne Daniel, Sylvester Clarke, Ian Bishop, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose … the names were numerous into submission all of them great, fiery, skilled and supremely fast. And even within this whirlwind wealth of wonders, that short man ended up standing taller than the rest.

Opinions do vary, but Malcolm Marshall is generally considered to be crème de la crème, the finest, the fastest and the meanest of them all on the cricket field. Besides, he was by far the best batsman among the fast men, almost an all-rounder. His willow was good enough to score seven First-Class hundreds, but never did he lose the fun and frolic that comes with a fast bowler swinging merrily from late in the order.

At an unimpressive five feet, 10 inches, whatever he lacked in height was made up by lightning- quick run up, followed by the fastest of releases.

Roberts ran to the wicket deadpan and deadly, Holding glided silently like an engineless Rolls-Royce, Garner ambled in with his huge strides delivering the ball from the clouds, Croft charged in like a raging bull. Marshall sprinted and slithered to the crease, at curious acute angles. His chest remained open as he delivered the ball with a whipping movement of the right arm. The action did not telegraph the nature of the swing. Whatever followed was often too quick to decipher. His shorter stature enabled a wicked, skiddy bouncer, which often thudded into the face of the most accomplished of batsmen.

But, his craft, built on raw pace, did not end there. It was enhanced by weaponry of the sharpest kind. He could swing it both ways, with his hand rather than movement of the body. This made his swing as difficult to read as the leg-breaks and googlies of the canniest leg-spinner. From Dennis Lillee he picked up the art of leg-cutters and bowled them with destructive effect on slow, dusty pitches. When his whims willed, he could change his pace, varying between express, lightning and just fast, or even slowing down to medium. And when the situation demanded intimidation, he could boost his lethal strain by coming round the wicket and hurtling them at the batsman’s body, the most dangerous sight in cricket since the days of Bodyline.

From forcing the bat out of Sunil Gavaskar’s hands to picking cartilages out of the ball after rearranging the face of Mike Gatting, the tales of his deeds of destruction are plenty. Yet, once the pulverising battle was over for the day, he was perhaps the most likable of foes as he put his feet up and sipped his favoured brandies.
Malcolm Marshall was born on April 18, 1958

Text: Arunabha Sengupta
Illustration: Maha