Kemar Roach may not possess the lithe fluidity of the late Malcolm Marshall’s bowling action or the astounding Test record, but there are similarities between the two fast bowlers that extend beyond them both hailing from that hotbed of cricketing talent, Barbados.
For one, both are that rare thing among successful Test match bowlers, they’re short, the pair coming in well under six feet tall in height. Rewind to that famous, menacing photograph of the West Indies pace quartet unleashed on England in 1980 and all four bowlers present, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft were at least 6ft 2in and counting all the way up to 6ft 8in in Garner’s case. Marshall and Roach, though, break that mould.
Height is usually an important quality for pace bowlers to have. Once, when Allan Border was playing for Essex as their overseas player in the mid Eighties, a supporter asked him why Neal Radford, then one of Worcestershire’s opening bowlers and a regular 80-100 wickets a season man in county cricket, was not an England regular.
“Because he’s a low-arm skidder,” growled Border, going on to explain that on blander Test pitches you tended to get the better batsmen out by drawing them forward. To aid this, though, bowlers ideally needed to get good bounce from a full length so that defensive shots carry to slip. “For that, it helps to be tall,” he concluded.
To succeed in that tall man’s domain shorter bowlers need an X-factor. At the start, Marshall possessed electrifying pace as did Roach who, in an early
Test against Australia, forced Ricky Ponting to retire hurt after striking him on the elbow.
Both also had a brutish bouncer which skidded and homed in on that area where a batsman’s mettle is most tested, between the eyebrow and the sternum. Those on the receiving end didn’t know whether to sway, duck or parry the ball, the slightest hesitation on their part tending to bring pain, dismissal, or both.
Andy Lloyd, an opening batsman for Warwickshire, had his Test career abruptly curtailed after a Marshall bouncer struck him during the 1984 Edgbaston Test, detaching a retina and fracturing his cheek. Lloyd tried to sway out of line, but the ball followed him.
Jonny Bairstow looked equally in trouble when Roach worked him over with the short ball during a Test at Trent Bridge in 2012, the batsman eventually succumbing to one in panicky fashion.
That was right at the start of Bairstow’s Test career which might have ended there and then so vulnerable did Roach make him seem to the sharp, well-aimed bouncer. Yet, credit to Bairstow who, through intensive work with Graham Gooch, became much better at coping with it to the extent that today’s Test in St Lucia will be his 63rd.
For the remainder of their repertoires, Marshall possessed the greater control and the greater cricket mind, though with age Roach has improved in both those departments. Certainly in the two most recent Tests against England, both comfortably won by West Indies, Roach has been outstanding, though with older ball rather than new.
As both bowlers’ pace reduced, Marshall’s through workload (he played full time for Hampshire as well as Barbados and West Indies) and Roach’s because of an ankle injury picked up against South Africa five years ago,
each found ways of keeping their cutting edge with the ball, mainly through swing.
In Antigua, Roach’s manipulation of the ball through the air out-mastered even Jimmy Anderson, though on a pitch offering pace bowlers plenty of help, it wasn’t the only reason he took eight wickets in the match. England’s batsmen, with their reluctance to let even a single ball go by unattended, played right into Roach’s persistent probing.
Although Marshall invited compulsory respect when at his fastest I got the impression, when playing against him, that he enjoyed the bowler he became later on more than the speed merchant of his early career.
He certainly got a buzz working batsmen out (as opposed to blasting them out), testing his theories by moving the ball this way then that. For instance, he felt Gooch was vulnerable to the inswinger, as he often planted his front foot down the line of middle and off-stump. So he’d try to set him up for a fall by taking the ball away, away, away, possibly over several overs. Then, when he felt the time was right to spring the trap, the inswinger was unleashed – a satisfied smile if it worked or even when there was a near miss.
Roach’s spell in England’s second innings reminded me of that impish side to Malcolm, especially when Roach had England’s left-handers fishing at fresh air after swinging the ball away from them. Play and miss, big grin. Swish and miss, even bigger grin…. and so on until a wicket came and it was time to punch the air.
At the moment, Roach has 179 wickets from 52 Tests at an average of 27.4 and a strike-rate of 51.2, with power to add given he is only 30 years old. When compared to Marshall’s Test record of 376 wickets from 81 Tests at an average of 20.94 and a strike-rate of 46.7, it looks a bit modest but then Marshall, who sadly died from cancer aged just 41, is arguably the greatest fast bowler there has ever been.
Most would be happy coming second best to that.
Shortly after Joe Root assumed the captaincy of England’s Test team in 2017, he joined Eoin Morgan, England’s white-ball captain, for an interview about captaincy on Sky TV with Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain.
I cannot recall much of what was said but I did notice that Root seemed in thrall to Morgan, a leader who had turned England’s white-ball team from laughing stock to near world beaters – that last clause ready for removal should they win this year’s World Cup.
At the time, I put it down to Root demonstrating the natural deference most would show towards an established leader while feeling one’s own way into the captaincy.
But what if it was more than that, and Root was so smitten as to adopt Morgan’s philosophies without due care or query?
Certainly that is the way it looks as England’s top-order continue to fail and fall well short of the skills and patience expected of a Test side as well-funded and remunerated as them.
After all, they have not passed 400 in their first innings for 15 Tests, their worst run for 25 years.
Morgan’s battle cry is to “play without fear”, a plausible thing in a format where risk is never far from the equation.
But Test cricket is about minimising risk not embracing it and Root, if he is as smitten by the Morgan way as has been suggested, needs to sever the reverence sharpish.
Be your own man, Joe, with bat and baton.