Considering Courtney Walsh

Younger, fitter men baulk at the pressure. The walls of West Indies cricket tumble around him. But Courtney Walsh, at 36 going on 37, remains as unstoppable as one of his own devastating deliveries. Vaneisa Baksh contemplates the brilliant career of the West Indies’s former captain and top wicket-taker

  • Photograph by Adrian Murrell/ Allsport
  • Photograph by Adrian Murrell/ Allsport
  • Photograph by Brooks La Touche Photography Ltd
  • Courtney Walsh with Curtly Ambrose. Photograph by Shaun Rotterill/ Allsport
  • Walsh takes his 300th test wicket. Photograph by Adrian Murrell
  • Walsh takes his 300th test wicket. Photograph by Graham Chadwick/Allsport
  • Victory in Antigua. Photograph by Graham Chadwick/Allsport
  • Honours for Walsh in his 100th Test. Photograph by Laurence Griffiths/ Allsport
  • Photograph by Adrian Murrell/ Allsport
  • Photograph by Clive Mason/Allsport
  • Courtney Walsh. Photograph by Laurence Griffiths/ Allsport

First ball. 80th over. At the crease, Australian wicketkeeper Ian Healy is on twelve. The bowler runs in. Healy tries to force the ball through square leg but instead takes it on the pad. An appeal. Out, says the umpire. Curtly Ambrose leads the team’s charge to congratulate the bowler, who is none other than Courtney Walsh. This is the Jamaican paceman’s third wicket of the day — but it’s no ordinary wicket: this is Test wicket number 400 for the veteran fast bowler. In the stands the spectators rise to their feet for a rousing ovation.

That Friday morning in March 1999 had dawned under an almost cloudless sky. At the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the West Indies and Australia had assembled before an anxious West Indian public. The West Indies had just returned from their catastrophic tour of South Africa, where they’d been beaten 5-0 in the Tests and managed to win only one of seven One-Day games. This match would be of vital importance to the West Indian people and their battered psyches. It was make or break time for West Indies cricket.

Once again, they turned to their stalwart fast bowlers, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, and the two delivered. Although that match ended disastrously, with the West Indies recording its lowest ever Test score of 51 all out, the milestone reached by Walsh was a potent symbol of the power of endurance, an invocation to the people to remember the great tradition of West Indies cricket from which he had emerged.

For Walsh personally, reaching 400 wickets was another station on his long pilgrimage through the record books of world cricket. He’d broken the West Indian record set by Malcolm Marshall (376) in South Africa, taking the critical wicket of Jacques Kallis on the second day of the First Test. By the end of the Australia Test Series, Walsh had snapped up another 23 wickets, bringing himself so tantalisingly close to the world record (434, held by India’s Kapil Dev) that, despite concerns about his fitness, he has chosen to keep playing.

 

At the end of October 1999, Courtney Andrew Walsh will turn 37, making him perhaps the oldest Test bowler still active in the game. To his credit — though there might be more creaks and aches in his 6ft 5in frame as he takes his customary 15 paces up to the wicket — he is still the top wicket-taker on the West Indies team. By commentators and fans he’s been showered with sobriquets: the Energizer Bunny, Workhorse, War Horse, Old Soldier, Veteran, Iron Man — names which seek to acknowledge the reliability, stamina, perseverance and sheer will that have kept him playing long past the average life of a fast bowler.

Walsh began his cricketing career playing for his country, Jamaica, in the 1982 Shell Shield competition against the Leeward Islands. He took only one wicket in that game, but the 19-year-old’s bowling was tight, and he finished the series with 15 wickets, at an average of 25.20.

He entered the West Indies team in 1984, playing against Australia in his first Test at Perth, where he took two wickets in the second innings for 43 runs. By mid-1999, he had played in 110 Test matches, bowling 4,039.1 overs, 854 of them maidens; he had taken 423 wickets with a strike rate of 57.2 and an average of 25.11. In 1987 he was named Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year. His best Test figures so far are seven for 37 in the 1995 tour of New Zealand, when he was captain of the West Indies Team. In One Day International cricket he made his debut in the World Series Cup of 1984/85, playing against Sri Lanka.

1985 was a big year for the 22-year-old Walsh. Apart from being on the West Indies team, he signed on to play with Gloucestershire Cricket Club in England, a relationship that would last for 14 years before it ended acrimoniously late in 1998.

Walsh had taken 860 wickets for Gloucestershire, but when the time came to renew his contract, he and the Club fell out, with Walsh saying bitterly that he had been “stabbed in the back,” and CEO Colin Sexstone insisting that “Courtney has only himself to blame for not securing his contract.”

Sexstone said that when they had begun contract negotiations the previous season, Walsh had indicated that he would be retiring from international one-day cricket, so the World Cup in England would not have been in conflict with the County Championship, which was held at the same time. The Club made Walsh what Sexstone described as a “huge offer, 20 per cent of the playing staff budget,” but he demanded an unconditional contract. The situation was exacerbated when it was discovered that Walsh had also been talking to Glamorgan about a possible contract. So ended a long and glorious relationship.

As he headed off in May this year to the World Cup in England, Walsh didn’t expect to be playing county cricket for another year. “I’ve had my time there and I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “It came to a sad ending, and at this time, I don’t really feel that there is anything there for me. But you never know: when the new season starts things might change. I was never one to make long-term plans.”

Walsh’s rupture with Gloucestershire, and the bitterness it engendered, are perhaps a symptom of the new order emerging in world cricket. Players now see themselves first and foremost as professionals. They demand compensatory packages they feel are commensurate with their skill and the revenue they bring to the game. Walsh, the longest-serving member of the current West Indies team, has come to be regarded as the last survivor of a dying tradition. He has played under the captaincies of Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards, men who embodied the ideal of the cricketer as nationalist champion; and he has played under Richie Richardson and Brian Lara, who is said to incarnate the spirit of the new order: the professional as superstar. Walsh, in a sense, finds himself straddling the widening gap between the two worlds: the one for which he was groomed and moulded, and the flashy GeneratioNext of the Pepsi commercials.

 

Courtney Walsh has been around cricket for as long as he can remember. Born in Molynes Road in the Half Way Tree area of Kingston, Jamaica, he was the only child born to his mother Joan by his father, Eric. They separated soon after he was born, his father migrating to the USA, searching, like many West Indians, for a better life. His mother worked as a cook and caretaker at the Melbourne Cricket Club, her son’s future home ground. He doesn’t speak much of her, except to say “She’s been supportive of everything I have ever done.” But it’s clear they are very close. She flew in to Trinidad especially to see him reach the 400-wicket milestone, and scolded him for not waiting until she’d landed before getting there. When he is in Jamaica, he often stays at her house, which serves as a sort of central station for several young relatives.

Walsh played cricket all through his school years, going straight from classes to the cricket ground every afternoon before returning home. Yet he seems to have been oblivious to the game’s wider context. He says he was never conscious of trying to emulate any particular bowler, coming up with a blank when asked if he had any special hero among the fast bowlers of his youth. When he was born in 1962, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith were already terrorising batsmen with their pace. Andy Roberts was in action when he entered his teens, and Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall were world powers by the time he was 18. How could he not have drawn from them?

“When I was growing up I didn’t see cricket as a job,” Walsh says. “I saw it as a weekend game that you play when you are home.”

To understand this curious statement, it is helpful to place Walsh in the context of his country. A working-class youth, he chose the game because it was directly in front of him. Yet in spite of his talent, in a country renowned for its rigid class structure, it took some time to see the real options which were open to him.

About his personal life, Walsh is reticent. Clearly ill at ease under an interviewer’s scrutiny, he asserts his right to privacy. In this age of information, where last night’s gambols are this morning’s headlines, it isn’t a surprising position. He excuses himself by saying that, at this stage of his career, he thought he’d gone past such things. His discomfiture is almost tangible when he’s asked about childhood experiences, or whether he has children (he has two: a boy, Junior, 12, and a girl, Chris, nine.) He is unmarried, but will not describe himself as an eligible bachelor — “You can say so if you want,” he says dismissively — even though, in an April 1999 poll taken at Kensington Oval by the Barbados Nation, women chose him as the sexiest of the West Indian cricketers.

Walsh’s reticence stems, perhaps, from an early recognition that, in order to move upward in Jamaican society, he had to project himself as the gentleman cricketer. He also had to be damned good at what he did. He realised early in his career that if he was going to travel on a cricket passport, he would have to play the game as though his life depended upon it. His fitness and his skill would be critical. As he talks now about the stamina which has been so often remarked upon — one journalist even suggesting that a scientific study be conducted to ascertain whether Walsh’s body is blessed with some special capacity for self-healing — he says that even in his youth he had been health-conscious, always trying to eat right and to take care of his body.

Still, nature runs her course, and time and the heart-wrenching stress of running and bowling all these years has taken its toll. Walsh has been plagued by two injuries. Of the damage to his shoulder, he says that, at this stage in his career, he isn’t prepared to have surgery, as it might shorten his bowling years, which are already numbered. The other problem is a bad back for which he has undergone many inconclusive tests.

Yet despite the constant pain, now compounded by a hamstring injury sustained in South Africa, Walsh is keen to continue playing. Spectators have marvelled at the way he practically hobbles away after a delivery, grimacing as he takes his mark, yet delivers another ball exemplary in line and length. It’s why he can jeer at those who think it’s time for him to call it a day.

Just prior to the Australia tour he was ordered by the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) to have a complete physical, and although he was in Trinidad participating in the Carnival frenzy for the first time, he was mindful of the schedule of therapy he had to maintain for his damaged hamstring. He says he’s more warmly received now in Trinidad than he’s ever been, and this affection seems to surprise him.

He is unwilling to discuss the perception that he was treated shabbily by the WICB. West Indians have been divided on the subject: some feel that Trinidadian Brian Lara, who took over the captaincy from Walsh, had undermined his predecessor, and that WICB politics played a strong role; others argue that Lara was the better man for the job. There was speculation that Walsh would refuse to play under Lara, but he rose to the occasion, declaring himself a team player with the interest of West Indies cricket at heart.

Regardless of where the stumps fell, Walsh led the team tirelessly and valiantly from in front. His industriousness and natural diplomacy has won him many friends in cricket circles, even if journalists complain about his taciturnity. He will discuss West Indies cricket only in general terms, excusing himself on the grounds that contractual obligations prevent him from saying any more.

About the altercation between the West Indies Players’ Association and the WICB before the tour of South Africa, he didn’t think it was a negative thing, and thinks that the experience brought the team closer together. On the topic of the team’s dismal performance on tour, he says that, man for man, the South Africans were no better than the West Indies. “But they came out there to work, to do a job, and they wanted it more than we did.” He also mentions their superior training facilities.

Coaxed into offering more insight and advice on the direction of West Indian cricket, he says he has talked about it to everyone, particularly youngsters. He thinks the first step would be to get domestic cricket back to a high level. He supports the idea of a cricket academy. Seminars with former players would help, as well as the team’s spending more time together, working with each other for a month or so at a time. “Viv Richards would be good for the West Indies team,” he adds, “obviously he knows the winning ways. I think the younger players would benefit from his style.”

As for West Indies bowling, Walsh says “I don’t feel the cupboard is bare regarding bowlers. People have been saying that, but I think there is a lot, once they get training.” Walsh was disappointed at the West Indies not having regained the Frank Worrell Trophy this year, having tied the Test series against Australia. “When we came home everybody was sure we were not going to win. I thought going to Antigua leading 2-1 we were at least hoping for a draw. Everybody was disappointed. I think we had a good chance, but I think we did well generally in the Series . . . especially coming after South Africa.”

 

He’s put that all behind him, however, and as he left for England his focus was on winning the World Cup. He didn’t see his inclusion in the squad as surprising, insisting, as always, that he still has a lot of cricket left in him. This belief drives him hard, though some still feel that at 36, he’s fooling himself. His former captain at Gloucestershire, Mark Alleyne, talked in early 1998 about having to contain Walsh’s enthusiasm. “I think that I ought to be more careful with him these days,” he said. “So I’m looking to bowl him in spells of five or six overs at most. But he keeps walking up from long leg with his finger in the air, saying ‘one more, one more’.”

There’s speculation that Walsh is unwilling to retire because of fear of what the cricketing afterlife might hold. Cricketers’ compensation packages have traditionally been paltry. That would seem to be unfair, since Walsh has been careful to secure his future. He has established a business in Jamaica, Walsh’s Sports Shop, which sells mostly cricket gear but which will be expanding into a wider range of sports equipment. He intends to spend more of his time there when he retires.

Walsh’s autobiography, Heart of a Lion, was released around the time of the World Cup, but he won’t reveal any more of his future game plan, insisting that he doesn’t plan in the long term. Maybe he will try his hand at batting for a change? Walsh bristles at the suggestion that he cannot bat, though he holds the record for the highest number of Test ducks. “Not everybody can bat,” he says indignantly, “but everybody likes batting. I think my batting is very good, but a lot of other people don’t think so. I know I have not been doing very well in the last couple seasons but I have always tried to go out there and do my best.”

Somehow, coming from Courtney Walsh, that isn’t difficult to believe.