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A workshorse named Walsh

WHEN Courtney Walsh got that 435th Test wicket last month, he ensured that the honour of being the bowler who has taken most Test wickets went to a very decent human being. And there's not many of them around these days, least of all on the cricket field. One is indeed glad that such a record went to a player who is essentially humble, who has great pride in turning out for his country and one who never gives less that 100 per cent when he is out in the middle.

When Walsh made his Test debut in 1984 against Australia in Perth, he did not bowl a ball in the first innings. He was not needed. After the West Indies had put up 416, Mikey Holding ran through the Aussies taking six for 21; Joel Garner and the late Malcolm Marshall shared the other four. Walsh sent down 20 overs in the second innings and took two for 43. A long journey had begun. Asked about his debut, he had one comment: that he was proud to be bowling alongside Holding, his hero. That is an indication of his humility.

As the years went by, Walsh kept plugging away. After the crop of '80s players left the scene, he and Curtley Ambrose became the two opening bowlers. They had a huge burden to keep the tradition going. The glory days of the West Indies were so full of quality fast men that the loss of a bowler like Colin Croft was not felt. Walsh was always willing to bowl long spells and indeed liked to do so. He was fast, a fierce competitor on the field, but a mild man off it. And he developed a streak of cunning as he aged.

As a captain, Walsh tended to over-bowl himself. But then that could be justified because the cupboard was pretty bare by then. He deputised as captain for Richie Richardson in 1994 in India and kept the West Indies record of not losing a series since 1980 intact. The next year in the Caribbean, Richardson presided over the series which saw the record finally broken.

Walsh's first series as captain was a success but after that he had mixed results. He lost the captaincy to Brian Lara in 1998 but never gave any less on the field. He continued to plug away but there were other factors that led to the disasters over which Lara presided. Ambrose was increasingly prone to injury and Walsh's burden had increased but he never complained. He still turned out for his county, Gloucestershire, as well until they unceremoniously dumped him.

There are instances which come to mind which tell that bit more about Walsh. Like the crucial World Cup match in 1987 when he was bowling against Pakistan and could have run out Salim Jaffer because the batsman was backing up too far. The West Indies would have clinched a semi-final berth had he done so. Walsh was not tempted; he warned Jaffer and then went back to his mark. Then there was the Adelaide Test in 1992-93 when Walsh was bowling with Australia needing two runs for victory. He put everything into the next ball, to Craig McDermott, and the Australian paceman was caught behind off the glove. The West Indies won by one run. And finally, there was the first Test which the West Indies played against South Africa, when Walsh and Ambrose turned what looked like certain defeat into incredible victory.

When Walsh finally calls it quits, cricket will lose a gentleman, one who has left his mark in a gentle, indelible way. He has bowled his way into the Test record books in a befitting manner. Quite unlike the last person to hold the record, Kapil Dev of India, who hung around for a very long time just to get those last few wickets and overtake Sir Richard Hadlee. Many people wanted him to quit but he was greedy for the record and in the process harmed the careers of a couple of others. Not so with Walsh. He is still winning matches for the West Indies and fully deserves the record. What he gets at the end of it all remains to be seen; if it is 500, then it is going to be a tough one to beat.