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Should Walsh stay on?

SELFISH is not a word one normally associates with Courtney Walsh. For 15 years, this ageless warrior has been seen as a man who has given his heart and soul for the West Indies, quite often in a lost cause. He and Curtly Ambrose carried the West Indies attack for a long, long time. The questions to be asked are: Is Walsh's decision to tour Australia driven by altruism or the desire to become the first bowler to get 500 Test wickets? And has Walsh's presence (and that of Ambrose too until the series against England) been the reason why others have not broken through?

With the (in my opinion) misplaced sentiment that the West Indies will be overwhelmed in Australia without Walsh, it is difficult for the average person to see anything beyond loyalty in Walsh's decision to stay on. But take into account the fact that the 500 mark is just 17 Test scalps away. Add to that the bowlers with whom Walsh will be playing. And add to that the fact that Jimmy Adams is now probably more interested in saving his own position as captain than shepherding in a new set of fast bowlers. The conlusion is inescapable.

No matter what their achievements, I think Walsh and Ambrose have stood in the way of others coming through. Not by any forcible means, not by shouting others down, but by merely being there. Had both retired after the Australian tour of 1997 (and I think that was a good time to quit), there would definitely have been somebody showing through by now. As the old saying goes, cometh the hour, cometh the man. The very act of trying to match their act is intimidating and bowlers like Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon would definitely be under tremendous strain when playing alongside them.

Rose made an impressive debut against India in 1997. He got six or seven wickets on his debut but, by all reports, is a bit of a prickly character and difficult to handle. Give him a captain like the prince of petulancy, Brian Lara, and you have all the ingredients for a local insurrection. But even when Walsh was captain, he much preferred to bowl himself in long spells than give the ball to any of the newer bowlers. How encouraging is it when a captain adopts either of these methods?

My mind goes back to the late 1950s and the case of Roy Gilchrist. Here, by all accounts, was a man of tearaway pace, one who could well have been moulded into someone capable of giving Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith a run for their money. But Gilchrist was a country boy, a rough and tough bloke, one who often let his emotions decide what he bowled next. A wise and sensitive captain like the late Sir Frank Worrell was the leader needed at that time. Unfortunately, the man at the helm was Gerry Alexander and whatever his talents leadership was not one of them. He was made captain because until then the West Indies had always been led by a white man. And he took the extreme step of sending Gilchrist back from India as a disciplinary measure after the young fast bowler had let fly with a few beamers. Result: one destroyed career.

Trying to match Walsh and Ambrose is no easy job. Apart from sheer class, there is experience, there is age. Pick up a bottle of wine which has stood in the cellar for 20 years and pick up a bottle which was put there yesterday. The point probably comes home with a vengeance. And the new wine does not get that mellow flavour in a hurry.

Ideally, what the West Indies should have done was to have four bowlers, two new blokes alongside Walsh and Ambrose. And the trainees should have been given the new ball. That would have eased the transition no end. It would also have demonstrated confidence in their abilities. Take it from me, no opening bowler is going to get into the groove in his first season. Brett Lee was an exception but then he was bowling alongside Glenn McGrath and Damien Fleming who had already ensured that the batsmen were on edge. It is good to recall that when Walsh bowled his first ball in Test cricket, he had Mike Holding, the late Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner for company. And anybody who had to come on after those three have had a go at any batsman, is in an envious position.

If the West Indies continue to incline to the theory that heroes are going to save them and team efforts are secondary, you can be sure that they will keep suffering humiliation both abroad and at home. No amount of emergency aid - and I refer to the talk of recalling Carl Hooper - will suffice. New players have to come through and hone their performances. They have to be thrown in at the deep end. If they sink, bad luck. My feeling is that most of them will swim.