The fourth instalment in our new series where we have cricket conversations with keen students of the game, from all around the world. The topic this time revolves around the West Indian fast bowler Courtney Walsh and whether he is underrated given his stellar conventional records.

himank-compressed

Himank Bhanot, a finance professional based in Bangalore, and an avid lover of the game is a fan of Courtney Walsh and discusses his career with Soham Sarkhel of Impact Index.

Soham

himank-compressed: Part of a great lineage of West Indian fast bowlers, Courtney Walsh retired in 2001 as the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket. For a bowler/cricketer with achievements as staggering as his, I am often irked at his omission from debates deciding great fast bowlers, or a lack of analysis of his phenomenal career in general. Why is that so?

Soham: There is absolutely no doubt about Walsh’s achievements but does he really belong in that elite list of fast bowlers you are mentioning? Alongside the likes of Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Dennis Lillee, Curtly Ambrose and Dale Steyn to mention a few?

Most of his records, for example: the most number of Test wickets, most number of Test overs bowled by a pacer are a direct result of his longevity much like most of Sachin Tendulkar’s records. Of course, longevity is a great trait for any sportsperson for it shows that the player has managed to keep himself relevant over different playing eras but it can’t be the determining factor for a player’s legacy. Even though conventional statistics really don’t figure in match context, a strike rate of a bowler and his bowling average in winning causes are still better indicators of his bowling prowess. Walsh doesn’t feature in the top 20 on any of these lists (min: 40 Tests). What I do agree with you though is the fact that there is a distinct lack of analysis regarding Walsh’s career.

himank-compressed: It is not only Walsh’s longevity in terms of matches played or balls bowled which is worthy of appreciation, that is too simplistic (even though astounding) an argument to go by. What’s amazing about Walsh is his adaptability. For the first half of his career (1984-1993) he played 58 Tests as a second/third support to the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Patrick Patterson, Ambrose and Ian Bishop. After being given the new ball in 1993, Walsh took up the new responsibility with a relish that belied his age (32), one at which most fast bowlers are past their prime.

From then on, till his retirement in 2001, he took 318 wickets in 74 matches at 23.98 (Only Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath took more wickets). That’s a fantastic achievement.
One can also draw parallels with Steve Waugh’s career here, whose numbers showed a drastic improvement in the second half.

Soham: Yes, adaptability is a by-product of longevity and vice-versa. It is interesting though how Walsh’s career changed so drastically once he was handed the new ball. He was the second/third change fast bowler between 1984 to April 1993 for a good reason, he was not as effective as Marshall or Ambrose in running through the opposition with the new ball but he was mighty effective in bowling long spells and maintaining pressure as is evident through his high Economy Impact —the third-highest for any pace bowler after Ambrose and Ewen Chatfield in this period.

Walsh was not a lead bowler as you stated and clearly a support bowler in this phase to Marshall and Ambrose. Even though he was extremely consistent (seventh-most consistent bowler in the world, third West Indian after Ambrose and Marshall), Ambrose had a 61% higher impact and Marshall had a 108% higher impact than Walsh in this phase of his career. Both Marshall and Ambrose (later Bishop) were bigger match winners than Walsh which can be substantiated with the fact that on an average, Marshall and Ambrose produced a very high impact performance once every 4 Tests, Bishop did it once every 5 Tests whereas Walsh did it in once every 8 Tests only. It is actually this phase (58 Tests) which hinders Walsh’s overall numbers as is clear from his much improved records in the second part of his career.

himank-compressed: Whoa, Ewen Chatfield! Where is he nowadays…one hardly expects his name to come up at the top of any bowling charts. Good that it did here.

Along with Ambrose, Walsh formed one of the most formidable new ball partnerships. Ambrose, courtesy his devastating temperament, is considered to be the wrecker-in-chief to many. But in the 50 Tests they bowled together since May 1993, Walsh captured almost 50 wickets more than Ambrose. Walsh, it seems, was not just a counterfoil but an equally, if not more, lethal bowler.
Just as Desmond Haynes was in the case of his partnership with Gordon Greenidge.

Soham

: Well, Ewen Chatfield is the highest Economy Impact pacer in Kiwi Test history.

Yes, Walsh’s rise in the second-half of his career is quite stunning but Ambrose still has a higher impact than Walsh and is the highest impact West Indian bowler in that period. In individual parameters though, Walsh is better than Ambrose. In fact, Walsh’s proportion of top/middle order wickets was the third-best in the world for any pacer after Allan Donald and McGrath whereas his consistency in this period was the best for any West Indian bowler and the fourth-best in the world after Donald, Heath Streak and Muttiah Muralitharan.

You drew a parallel with Steve Waugh’s career in one of your earlier points, where you mentioned that his records improved drastically in the second-half of his career. Waugh though produced as many as six series-defining performances in his second coming, which made him the highest impact batsman in the world from 1994 to 2001. It helped that he was a part of a world-beating side but even for a team like West Indies (during Walsh’s second half of his career), it was actually Ambrose who produced more series-defining performances .

West Indies though played a total of 17 series (not counting a series against Zimbabwe), winning seven, drawing three and losing seven. In the seven series that they won, Ambrose played a series-defining role in two (against England in 1993/94 and against Sri Lanka in 1997) whereas Walsh (against India in 1994/95) had only one such performance to his name. This is the main differentiator between the two and the reason why Ambrose emerges as a higher impact bowler than Walsh in this period.

himank-compressed: Dry, slow and flat; Asian surfaces are heart-breaking to bowl on for pacers. A testament to Walsh’s versatility as a bowler lies in his numbers in the sub-continent; 77 wickets – the most for any overseas fast bowler. Even if the wickets tally is attributable to the number of matches he played there (17), his average (20.53) and strike rate (45.2) are amongst the best of the lot. He must surely be placed high on the impact bowling charts in the subcontinent (only for overseas fast bowlers, with 25 plus wickets in the sub-continent).

Soham: That is actually one big feather in Walsh’s cap. If we take performances of overseas fast bowlers in Tests in only India & Pakistan (discounting Sri Lanka as Walsh played only 1 Test there), Walsh emerges as the highest impact bowler. In fact, Walsh along with Marshall are the only two non-sub-continent pace bowlers in Test history who have produced series-defining performances in both India and Pakistan. Walsh’s contribution to West Indian cricket therefore when it comes to Tests played in India & Pakistan is massive.

That said, Walsh’s bogey country surprisingly was Australia. He was mediocre against Australia in Australia (the top team in the world during the latter part of his career). Walsh played 25 Tests in Australia, picking up 72 wickets at an average of 34. Ambrose, in comparison, picked up 78 wickets in 14 Tests in Australia at an average of only 20. Ambrose also produced a series-defining performance in Australia in 1992/93. It can be argued that if Walsh had produced significant performances against one of the strongest teams (Australia) during his playing career, his reputation and his numbers would have been valued more highly.

Courtney Walsh
Courtney Walsh- The second-most consistent West Indian Test bowler after Joel Garner.

himank-compressed: Oh yes, Walsh’s numbers in Australia are definitely not up to his potential. He did have one good series there in 1996/97, but Ambrose was clearly more consistent on Australian pitches.
Walsh, nonetheless, took on the burden of spearheading the West Indies bowling even more from Oct. 1997 onwards. From then on, till his retirement, Walsh took 30% of the total wickets taken by West Indies bowlers. That is a phenomenal achievement, and challenges comparison only with Muralitharan amongst his contemporaries. Pity that West Indies won only 10 Tests during this period, and even in those matches Walsh was the top wicket-taker (58 wickets at 17.24).

A third-change bowler in a top class Test team for the first half, strike bowler for a weak Test side for the second half of his career, Walsh’s fortunes seem to have been dictated by his team’s fortunes to a greater extent than most modern fast bowlers. While his numbers are indisputably great, Walsh’s stature amongst the elite fast bowlers is, nevertheless, contested. Can he be considered a tad unlucky?

Soham: In a way Walsh can be counted a little unlucky—during the first half of his career, there was just too much talent when it came to the West Indian pace department and as a result he had to share his impact (with Marshall, Garner, Holding, Ambrose & Bishop) and missed out on the chance of bowling with a new ball whereas even though he was effective in the second-half of his career (amongst the elite pacers in the world), West Indies hardly won Test matches/series for Walsh’s legacy to be that of a world beater.

Overall, during his career (Nov. 1984 to Apr. 2001), Walsh was only the 18th-highest impact bowler in the world and the fourth-highest impact West Indian bowler after Marshall, Bishop and Ambrose (min: 40 Tests). All the three West Indian bowlers mentioned above had a much higher proportion of top/middle order wickets than Walsh.

Walsh’s lasting legacy and his greatest achievement would be his longevity, consistency and his work rate rather than being an out and out match or a series winner for West Indies. His consistency being the 15th-best in Test history and the second-best for any West Indian bowler after Joel Garner.

himank-compressed: Commendable as his numbers are, one can also not ignore the sportsmanship Walsh displayed on the field. Take his gesture of not running out Saleem Jaffar in the 1987 World Cup as an instance. Having cost the West Indies their previous match versus England after being bashed by Allan Lamb, Walsh (or anybody for that matter) could’ve done anything to not let that fate repeat itself.

The gesture and the eventual loss to Pakistan cost West Indies a semi-final berth for the first time in 4 World Cups.
One can’t imagine any player doing that in today’s times. Walsh stood for the game’s spirit at a time when such virtues were beginning to disappear.

Soham: Walsh’s career by and large remained controversy free which indicates to the fact that he played the game in the right spirit. However, personally, I hold differing views on the Mankading incident. Saleem Jaffar backed up too much and was trying to gain an unfair advantage for which Walsh should have punished him. The taboo over Mankading might have aided in Walsh’s final decision making. Regardless, this is a topic which is worthy enough to have a separate conversation of its own.

himank-compressed
: Lovely, whippy action he had, by the way.

 

Soham
: Amongst all the things, we can safely concur on that.




Illustrations: Vasim Maner