Column | Andy Roberts, yesteryear speed merchant, turns another year older

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Andy Roberts gives tips to children during a camp in Mumbai. File photo: PTI
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What is the most potent weapon in the armoury of a fast bowler? A debate on this topic would, in all probability, end with the consensus that it is downright aggression on the field. Any speedster would like to use this trait to soften up opposing batsmen. The gold standard in this regard will remain Dennis Lillee, who embodied unbridled aggression to the extent that every gesture of his on the cricket field was intended to convey the message of intense hostility towards the poor willow-wielder facing the red cherry. However, there could be odd exceptions to this general rule, as there have existed speedsters, who could instil fear in batsmen through ways that did not involve demonstrative expressions. Prominent among them was Andy Roberts, the West Indies cricket great, a person not known for exhibiting emotions or even for opening his mouth to say a few words, but could nevertheless communicate sheer menace with a mere stare that would send a thunderbolt of fear down the spine of the batsman at the popping crease.

Sir Anderson Montgomery Everton (Andy) Roberts was the first of the fast-bowling greats who made to the West Indies side during the 1970s. Born in Antigua, which did not have a history for producing cricketers till then, Roberts moved to Hampshire to play club cricket in 1972. When West Indies toured England in 1973, Roberts was elected to play for his county against his national side, and he grabbed the opportunity to impress Rohan Kanhai with the raw pace at which he could deliver the ball. This led to a call to the national side when England toured West Indies next year and Roberts took the field in the third Test at Bridgetown, Barbados.

Roberts did not set the cricket world on fire during his debut. In fact his first Test has gone down in cricketing history as the game where Lawrence Rowe scored a triple century, a rare occurrence during those days. But this experience bolstered his confidence to such an extent that he evolved into a genuine quick bowler by the time the county championship started in England that summer. It soon became evident to everyone who saw him in action that he was without doubt the fastest bowler in the world.

Roberts landed in India as part of the Clive Lloyd-led West Indies side in November 1974 with this reputation. He soon set out to show the Indian batsmen the amount of pace that he could generate even in pitches that were not designed to favour quick bowling. Indian crowds, who had not seen such exhibition of masterly fast bowling, were mesmerised by his deeds and became his ardent fans. He picked up a total of 10 wickets in the first two Tests that the visitors won with ease and bagged his first even “fiver” during the first innings of the third Test when he finished with 5 wickets for 50 runs. But it was on the hard bouncy track at Chepauk, Chennai, in the fourth Test that Roberts came out with one of the most fearsome spells of fast bowling that India has seen. Bowling with fire and brimstone, he reduced India to 117 for eight wickets, and it was only a valiant, unbeaten knock of 97 by Gundappa Viswanath that saved the home side the blushes. Roberts finished the Test with match figures of 12 wickets for 121 runs. He went to add two more scalps in the last game at Mumbai and thus finished the series with 32 wickets to his credit, a record for a visiting fast bowler in India, that is yet to be broken.

West Indies followed this series victory by winning the 1975 World Cup where also Roberts played no small role. His last wicket partnership of 64 with Deryck Murray helped to save his side after they found themselves staring at defeat in the match against Pakistan. Thus, when the side reached Australia in November 1975 for a six-Test series, the clash was billed as the playoff for the title of world champions since it involved the top two teams in Test cricket. Roberts was expected to lead the West Indies bowling attack, the bowler his skipper was relying upon to give back in kind the thunderbolts unleashed by the Aussie pair of Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Roberts began the series on a positive note picking up 18 wickets in the first three Tests but lost his form thereafter. He did not play in the last Test of the series and looked so jaded that Lloyd allowed him to drop out midway through the next series (against India) so that he could rejuvenate himself in time for the clash against England that followed.

Grudge series

The tour to England undertaken by West Indies was made immortal on account of a statement made by England captain Tony Greig in an interview wherein he said that his side would make the visitors “grovel”. Greig was to regret making this remark, which triggered off strong sense of indignation amongst the members of the touring side. After the first two Tests ended without any result being reached, West Indies came back strongly and outplayed the hosts in the last three matches to win the series 3-0. Roberts led the bowling attack from the front, picking up a total of 28 wickets, which included three instances when he took five wickets in an innings and one occasion when he bagged 10 scalps in a match.

Andy Roberts
Andy Roberts in action during the 1983 World Cup final. Photo: Manorama Archives

It was during this series that Roberts teamed up for the first time with Michael Holding, a new tearaway fast bowler from Jamaica, who had a bowling action so smooth that it was described as a Rolls-Royce in motion. Lloyd made no attempt to hide the fact that he was relying upon his fast bowlers, taking the field without any spin bowlers in the playing eleven by the time the series ended. This was to become the hallmark of West Indies side during the next decade when they strode the cricketing world like a colossus, decimating effortlessly all the sides that they took on in the conventional world of test cricket.

The cream of West Indies side, including Roberts, joined the World Series Cricket (WSC) series promoted by Kerry Packer in 1977. This meant that he lost his best years in cricket to WSC, which however, helped to ensure much-needed financial security for cricketers from the Carribean islands. Roberts invariably touched peak form during the WSC matches between West Indies and Australia. This was also the time when he developed the technique of bowling two bouncers, without any perceptible change in bowling action. The first was fast and regular one which could be handled by any competent batsman, but the second one that followed was quicker and skidded off the turf straight to the face of the striker, who risked grievous injury if he did not take prompt evasive action. David Hookes, a promising young Australian batsman, got carried away with hooking the first bouncer to the fence and was a trifle slow in responding to the one that followed, and this resulted in having his dental and facial architecture getting completely rearranged.

Roberts had reached the status of a senior statesman by the time WSC folded up and normal routine of cricket resumed. By this time West Indies fast bowling machinery had in its ranks a luxury of riches, with Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall and Sylvester Clarke arriving on the scene to support the Roberts-Holding duo. Roberts dropped his pace by a yard or two in the years that followed, focussing more on variations of pace and swing and bringing more brain into his bowling than relying solely on brawn. However, he was still capable of the occasional hostile spell which could blow sides away, as India experienced during the first Test of the 1982-83 series at Kingston, when he took five wickets in quick succession to bring a fast end to the second innings of the visitors and thus set up an easy win for his side.

The defeat at the hands of India in the finals of 1983 World Cup was a huge shock for the entire West Indies squad, who swore vengeance during the series that followed in the winter of same year. The decision of Roberts that this visit to India would be his last with the West Indies side surprised many as it was felt that he had couple of years more of cricket still left in him. It was rumoured that this early retirement was on account of an urge to spend more time with family following his marriage to an air hostess. He did not play in the first four Tests as he was indisposed by injury but returned to play a crucial role in the fifth match at Kolkata, where besides picking up four wickets, he came up with a knock of 68 that helped West Indies to emerge out of a difficult situation and post a match-winning total.

Fast and furious

Roberts could be called a complete fast bowler in every sense of the word. At his peak, he was the fastest bowler in the world, a position that he held till Holding moved into this slot. He was an intelligent bowler, who could analyse any weakness, not only in the technique but also in the psyche of the batsman and plot his dismissal accordingly. His spells were always hostile and incisive and never would a batsman get the liberty of gaining any advantage when he had the ball in hand. Above all, he was completely undemonstrative, rarely betraying any emotion, including sympathy for the victims struck down by his thunderbolts.

After his retirement, Roberts busied himself with coaching and cricket administration. Besides helping to train fast bowlers in Bangladesh, he served as one of the selectors of West Indies side and also worked on preparing pitches that would help to develop quick bowlers in the Carribean islands. He was knighted in 2014 for his services to cricket and continues to be involved with development of the game in his home country.

Followers of the game who were fortunate to witness this legend in action would never forget the skill sets that he brought to the art of fast bowling. Cricket lovers have a special place in their hearts for this gentleman cricketer, who gave them plenty of joy and reasons to cheer. Andy Roberts celebrated his 69th birthday in the week that went by; here is wishing him a healthy and peace-filled eighth decade in life! 

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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