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Sunil Gavaskar, G Viswanath rated Andy Roberts best fast bowler they ever faced

By Harsh Thakor 

The West Indies pace quartet or battery of the 1970’s and 1980’s truck terror to deliver a knockout punch, like never in cricket history. One was reminded of bomber raiding an airbase or a combing operation.
Andy Roberts was the pioneer in orchestrating or propelling the most fiery and lethal pace bowling attack ever in the history of the game. Simply the godfather of Modern West Indies fast bowlers. He spearheaded the pack from the mid 1970’s .Without Andy the talent of Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft would never have blossomed.Michael Holding credits Andy for shaping his great bowling career, by infusing vital elements.
Roberts in 1974 in Bridgetown, playing against England became the first man from Antigua to represent West Indies in a test match. Andy was one of the key factors in West Indies turning from bunch of talented individuals into an almost invincible unit, creating equivalent of renaissance.
Roberts was simply the equivalent of a surgeon as fast bowler .He blended lethal speed with movement, bounce and control. His repertoire comprised a late out swinger, an off cutter, a fast and slow bouncer that could not be read, a well disguised slower ball and the ball which nips back sharply of the seam. His action was slightly open chested and his left arm was lower than prescribed in the textbook. His run up was amongst the most economical amongst pace bowlers. Andy was simply uncompromising and unsmiling, doing ample justice to his label as the ‘silent assassin.’
Above all a very affable person and good humoured person who never resorted to sledging on a cricket field. He spends a lot of his time fishing in his native home in Antigua.

Career

Andy made a not so promising debut against England in 1973-74 taking 3 wickets in his only test at Bridgetown, at 41 runs apiece.
On the 1974-75 tour of India, Roberts singlehandedly spearheaded the Calypso pace attack, capturing then record 32 scalps for an overseas bowler in a series in India. Roberts averaged most economical 18.28.On docile surfaces, with the skill of an engineer Andy made the ball talk, to create pandemonium in the Indian batting camp. In Kolkata when taking 5-50 and Madras when capturing 7-64 and 5-57 his bowling was reminiscent of fiery tiger .Both Gavaskar and Vishwanath rate it the best fast bowling they ever faced in their career. It ranked amongst the best ever bowling performances in a series, on the subcontinent, with hostility and arguably pace bowling skill reaching heights unscaled. Andy’s haul of 12 wickets in Madras, was a then record haul for a Caribbean bowler in a single test match.
He continued where he left off in India, capturing 12 wickets in 2 tests on dead pitches in Pakistan at an average of 26.83.
In Australia in 1975-76 Roberts had 22 scalps at 26 runs apiece, single handedly carrying the mantle of the bowling attack. At Perth, he captured 7-54, rattling the Australian batsmen in scale perhaps no overseas bowler ever did after the war. Although West Indies received a 5-1 drubbing Andy’s bowling was redemption, being manifestation of the all-round skill of fast bowling.
At home in 1975-76 he was hardly successful, being overshadowed by partner Michael Holding. He missed the last 2 games of the series.
In 1976 in England Andy was an epitome of pace bowling skill, perfectly blending pace and movement in seaming conditions. With Michael Holding he simply sent shivers down the spine of the English batsmen. He and Holding captured 28 wickets apiece. He virtually made the Englishman play at everything and his wide repertoire perplexed the English batsmen. He captured 10-123 at Lords with 6 wickets apiece in each innings 6-37 and 3-22 at Leeds .Rarely was the English batting subjected to such bombardment..Although overshadowed by Holding at the Oval when his partner had 14 scalps, for major part of the series he was the most lethal bowler.
At home versus Pakistan he was hardly at his best averaging over 40 with 19 scalps in 5 games , but gave effective guidance to debutants Joel Garner and Colin Croft.
In 1977-79 in Kerry Packer World Series Cricket supertests , Andy captured 50 wickets at an average of 24.14, behind only Dennis Lillee in aggregate, and having a better bowling average. In 1977, in the first season, he was the leading wicket taker, overshadowing Dennis Lillee, taking 26 wickets an average of 21.19. Roberts was revelation on the fast Australian pitches, brilliantly camouflaging his slow and quick bouncer .Andy played a major role in West Indies capturing the Gary Sobers supertest trophy, defeating Australia 2-1.Often he would have his opponents reeling ,with his late movement or surprising bounce. His 6-69 at Sydney ripped the flesh of the Australian top order, being one of the most penetrative spells by an overseas fast bowler in Australia. Barry Richards and the Chappell brothers rated him as the hardest pace bowler they ever negotiated. No paceman tormented Ian and Greg Chappell in the manner of Roberts. Since the War no overseas paceman transcended diversity to such scale, with the possible exception of Fred Trueman and John Snow. It is always embedded in my memories how Andy dismissed Barry Richards who gloved his quicker bouncer, leaving his Hampshire team mate astonished, after putting the previous bouncer away.
From the end of the 1970’s Roberts declined in pace and had to now resort to swing or movement. Most intelligently he devised methods of being effective at fast-medium. This was displayed in his match-winning spell at Adelaide in the 3rd test in 1979-80, when of successive deliveries, he dislodged Ian and Greg Chappell, with short-pitched ,rising deliveries. Rarely in fast bowling have I ever witnessed a bowler so craftily set up trap for batting giants. That over was simply an example of fast bowling skill personified. Above all it set the ball rolling for West Indies to win it’s first ever formal series on Australian soil.
In 1980 at Trent Bridge, in both innings Andy tore through the English batting, with figures of 5-72 and 3- 57 and also played a cameo of an unbeaten 22, to secure a 2wicket team for his side. Ironically Roberts struck the sixer which clinched the issue.
In 1983 at home against India he captured 24 scalps at 22.7, including match-winning spells at Kingston and Barbados. When the game seemed to be petering towards draw on the brink of tea in the 1st test at Kingston on the last day, Andy arrived on the scene. Reminiscent of a 360 degree turn of plot of an epic, he skittled the remaining Indian batsmen to win the game .Roberts finished with remarkable figures of 5-39, with a match haul of 11 wickets for exactly 100 runs. At Barbados in both innings he took 4 wickets apiece with match figures of 8-79, blending pace with movement, control and accuracy, to set up famous win for his side. In that series he was the highest wicket taker, bowling against one of the strongest Indian batting sides ever.
Although not at his best in 1981-82 in Australia or in 1983-84 in India he gave shades of his great bowling prowess at Adelaide and Kolkata. Roberts performed match-winning cameos with the bat in both those games.
In first class cricket Andy captured 889 wickets at an average of 21.01,with abetter haul than Garner, Croft or Holding. Representing Hampshire in 1974 he aggregated 119 wickets at an average of 13.62, which enabled the county to win the title. In 1982 Roberts captured 54 scalps at a remarkable average of 19.01,al but enabling his county to capture the championship.
In ODI’s Andy gave some blitzkriegs like when capturing 5-22 against England at Adelaide in 1979-80.Statistically he was the best West Indies pace bowler in ODI’s.In the 1983 Prudential world cup final he overshadowed the other members of the quartet ,removing the great Sunil Gavaskar with peach of delivery, that moved away late.
Andy also had the knack of playing crucial or match-winning cameos with the bat, like when scoring 68 in a record 149 run partnership for the ninth wicket with Clive Lloyd in Calcutta in 1983-84 , a breezy unbeaten 22 to clinch a thriller at Trent Bridge, an unbeaten 50 at Trinidad in 1981 including 4 sixes off an Ian Botham over , 54 at Melbourne in 1979-80 ,42 at Adelaide in 1981-82 and a crafty 24 in last wicket partnership with Derek Murray against Pakistan in the 1975 world cup at Edgbaston. Praiseworthy that they were all match-winning efforts. It is unforgettable the manner he hoisted sixes of Ian Botham.

Evaluation

Andy finished his test carer with 202 wickets in 47 tests at an average of 25.61, and a strike rate of 55.1, with 11 five wicket hauls. However statistics hardly reflect his true prowess. Andy captured his 1st 100 wickets in a mere 19 tests and then record time of two and half years .At one stage he averaged around 22 with a strike rate around 50.No genuine fast bowler captured 100 wickets in as few test matches, till then.
Adding WSC Supertest scalps Andy’s haul is 252.Significant that in matches won Andy had 110 scalps and averaged an outstanding 19.26 with a strike rate of 42.2.That places him as one of the outstanding match-winners.
In ODI’s he averaged 20.35 with 87 scalps in 56 games. In games won he averaged a remarkable 18.50 and took 71 wickets. Statistically close to the best ODI bowler of his day, and best Caribbean bowler. In test matches with the bat he averaged 14.94, scoring 3 fifties.
Andy transcended all-round pace bowling skill or craft at a height very few fast bowlers ever did. In the truly classical sense Roberts was even more complete and skilled than Malcolm Marshall, and almost the equal of Dennis Lillee. No Caribbean quickie had such classical range of variations or such a wide repertoire. In my view in terms of pure all-round skill amongst genuinely fast bowlers only Malcolm Marshall, Dennis Lillee,Wasim Akram and Ray Lindwall were ahead of Roberts. In conditions not conducive to fast bowling or flat tracks, Roberts could have been as penetrative as Dale Steyn, and harder proposition to face over the likes of Glen Mcgrath, Richard Hadlee and Curtly Ambrose. Considering the development in art of reverse swing, protective headgear for batsmen, technology ,conditions not so conducive for fast bowling and restriction on bouncers it is hard to accurately gauge how pace bowlers of later decades compared with Andy Roberts.
Before the sprouting of Malcolm Marshall, Roberts was the most lethal member of the Calypso bowling attack.
I virtually could not separate Roberts from Michael Holding, who was marginally quicker with a better bowling action, but lacked his partner’s diversity. In bowling style Holding and Roberts were the arch opposite of each, who when bowling together constituted close to the most lethal fast bowling pair ever. In 30 tests playing together, they captured 237 wickets, taking around 8 wickets per test, which is a remarkable achievement.
Andy was capable of making even a 120 over old ball nip back at the end of the day, and such was his phenomenal skill. No pace bowler ever bemused opposing batsmen as much through his disguised bouncers. With the same arm action he would deliver a slow bouncer which batsmen would put away and a fast bouncer which would startle the batsman. His outswinger was one of the most effective ever, moving very late.
Andy could turn the complexion of game as much as the greatest of fast bowlers, being as explosive as a thunderstorm intervening a hot summer day. He was the ultimate master, in catching a fish. To break partnership by dislodging a great batsman, Andy would almost be my first pick.
In Kerry Packer World series cricket Roberts had a better bowling average than even Dennis Lillee and the 2nd best aggregate of the entire series. Amidst the most competitive opposition, Andy blossomed.
Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath rate Andy Roberts as the best fast bowler they ever faced and Dennis Lillee rated the most complete pace bowler he ever saw. Barry Richards, Tony Greig, Alvin Kalicharan and the Chappell brothers rate Roberts only next to Dennis Lillee. David Gower ranks him only behind Marshall and Lillee.Thus the greatest batsmen ever and arguably best fast bowler ever stated that Any Roberts was the most daunting fast bowling proposition of his day.
I must still admit that when Caribbean cricket scaled it’s peak from 1979-1984, Andy was overshadowed by the likes of Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall.Statistically Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh were better than Roberts. Roberts was not as fast as Michael Holding, as accurate as Joel Garner and Curtly Ambrose, as durable as Courtney Walsh or as innovative as Malcolm Marshall. However none singlehandedly bore the brunt of the attack as Andy did in India in 1974-75 and Australia in 1975-76.
Possibly Andy fell out in later years after 1978, with such great fast bowling talent budding. Had he played for a weaker pace attack he may have well had more prolific test haul or even a higher strike rate. Andy lacked the fierce determination, predatory urge, yorker and classical action of Lillee, which was reflected in the comparative test records. I feel often Andy was unlucky as he would often do the hard work in unsettling or niggling the batsmen, to lay the platform for other bowlers to capture wickets.
In my subjective view, somewhat unfairly English writers John Woodcock and Christopher Martin Jenkins excluded Roberts from their top 100 list. Geoff Armstrong ranked Andy at 71th place in a dead heat with Michael Holding while David Gower placed him at 23 rd position.ESPN at end of last century placed Roberts at 40th place, amongst all-time greats. 5 former cricketers chose Roberts in their all-time test team, including Deryk Murray, Barry Richards,, B.S.Chandrashekar.Alvin Kalicharan and Sunil Gavaskar.
I would place Andy among the dozen best genuinely fast bowlers ever, 50 best cricketers and 5 best West Indies pacemen ever. Without hesitation I would pick Roberts in the world Test XI of the 1970’s, to partner Dennis Lillee. Amongst Caribbean pace giants, considering all factors I would only rank Marshall, Ambrose and possibly Garner ahead of Andy, who may just nose out partner Holding and Wes Hall by a whisker. I am giving respect to the bowling averages of Marshall,Ambose and Garner in rating Roberts 4th,even if Andy was more skilled. In ODI cricket amongst West Indies giants. I would rate only Joel Garner and Curtly Ambrose ahead amongst bowlers.
With the bat he could strike ball as hard as anybody, being part of some famous match-winning partnerships and executing match-winning cameos.
A possible negative point was his ruthless deployment of intimidatory short-pitched bowling, where he literally sent batsmen to the floor. Andy adopted no restraint in persuading his fellow mates to bowl a barrage of bouncers, which often created sensation of carnage. Many batsmen became a victim of injury, with the Caribbean bowlers showing no respite. I can never forget the way Roberts splintered the jaw of David Hookes in Sydney and Peter Toohey in Trinidad. In view of some critiques Roberts and his compatriots bowled too much at the body, and not enough at the stumps. In late Len Hutton’s view the Carribean pacemen gave one sided emphasis on all-out speed and did not make full use of their intelligence. This set the tone of killing the spirit of the game in later times, literally calling for bombarding the opposition to submission.

After retirement

Sadly he could not give back to the game what he received, with West Indies cricket in tatters, for great part of his retirement time .As coach he was unable to resurrect West Indian domination in the game. Besides offering assistance to fast bowlers in Bangladesh, he served as one of the selectors of West Indies. He worked on preparing pitches to create a breeding ground for new fast bowlers ,but could never revive the pace bowling skill of yesteryear.
In 2014 Roberts was knighted for his services to cricket.
Andy rated Viv Richards the best batsmen he ever saw and on favourable batting tracks, Sunil Gavaskar.On bouncy tacks he rated Vishwanath ahead of Gavaskar.He also held Barry Richards,Ian and Greg Chappell and David Gower in high esteem. Andy ranked Dennis Lillee and Malcolm Marshall, as the best paceman he ever saw. Strangely he does not do justice to Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara, claiming that they could not dominate express pace.
I recommend every cricketing enthusiast to watch ‘Fire of Babylon’ and hear Andy’s reflections of what turned West Indies into a team of invincibles. No cricketer in that film did as much justice to the spirit of Caribbean cricket.
--- 
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has extensively studied cricket

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