Andy Roberts interview: A comment from Fred Trueman changed my bowling action

Forum » Cricket » Andy Roberts interview: A comment from Fred Trueman changed my bowling action

Jul 08, 2024, 11:40

It all started with Andy Roberts. For 19 years from 1976, West Indies ruled the Test game, a supremacy founded upon exhilarating pace bowling. Roberts was the Godfather: the first great Caribbean quick in this era, and the man who created the template for those who followed. “If he had something to say, you listened,” his former opening partner Michael Holding told Telegraph Sport. “Andy knows the game.”

Aged 73, Roberts still does. Last December, we met at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua, during England’s limited-overs tour. Sitting down in the stand bearing his name, wearing a white shirt and still in impeccable shape, Roberts explained how he became a pioneer in West Indies fast bowling.

From Learie Constantine to Charlie Griffith and Wes Hall, there had been no shortage of great West Indies quick bowlers. But Roberts Test debut in 1974 was the start of an extraordinary lineage of pace bowling.

“I was older than the others,” Roberts says, with a modest laugh. “West Indians have a habit of following what they see other people do. And one of the things is identifying strengths and weaknesses in batsmen and that is why I get the credit because I used to analyse the batsman in team meetings, point out the weak points of a batsman.”

Initially, Roberts upheld the traditions of Caribbean pace bowling almost alone; he rushed to 100 wickets in just 19 Tests. By the time West Indies arrived in England in 1976, scarred by India winning by six wickets in Trinidad & Tobago when chasing 406, the side had lost faith in spin. Now, pace reigned: West Indies won 3-0 in that epochal summer, setting the template for the many glories to come.

Alongside Holding, Roberts would be joined by Colin Croft and Joel Garner: the original West Indies pace quartet.

“We were all different in stature. We’re all different in our approach,” says Roberts. “Colin Croft is probably the most physically aggressive one. Joel Garner – you could say he’s a gentle giant. Michael Holding, just sheer pace and can put you off with his run-up because you might be watching his run-up instead of watching the ball. I was different. Because I did other things – the variations.”

‘Everything I know was self-taught’

Roberts was a fast bowling chameleon, able to both swing and seam – normally, his preference – the ball at great pace. “Almost everything that I know about fast bowling was self-taught. I learnt from watching anybody who bowled. I used to watch a lot of cricket, I used to imitate a lot. If I see somebody do something, I’d go into the nets and try it.” England’s John Snow and Australia’s Dennis Lillee were two quicks whom Roberts particularly admired.

He viewed criticism, as long as it was in the right spirit, as an opportunity to learn. In 1974, early on during his fruitful spell at Hampshire – “a lot of good times” – Roberts noticed an article that Fred Trueman had written. Trueman said that Roberts would become more dangerous if he bowled with a higher right arm. “I went in the nets by myself and learnt. I started to bring my arm up – I started to bowl outswing.”

Out of this spirit of experimentation and self-improvement came the Roberts trademark. Starting out by bowling conventional slower balls, Roberts became an innovator in developing two types of bouncers. He used a slightly slower bouncer, which batters could often play untroubled, to lull opponents into attempting a repeat from a quick bouncer.

Roberts held the ball more tightly when he bowled slower, and then looser when he bowled quicker, so that he would turn his arm over at the same speed. “That’s why people had problems with the bouncers. Everybody’s looking at the effort that you make, but everything would look the same.

“I said if I can bowl at 100 miles an hour and then I bowl at 90 miles an hour, the batsman now will have to start thinking. But if everything is coming at 100 miles, he doesn’t have to think because he knows what’s coming. So that is something that I teach myself.”

Roberts also developed further subtle variations to bewitch batsmen. He varied his release point from ball-to-ball, and even changed his run-up: sometimes, he deliberately chipped at the grass with his feet. “One of the best ways to get the batsman out is to get him out of his comfort zone,” he reflects. “You have to be ahead of the batsman.”

‘The first Test match I saw live was my debut’

Yet, for all his contribution to West Indies fast bowling, perhaps Roberts’s greatest significance to Caribbean cricket was highlighting the talent that existed beyond the region’s traditional strongholds. Until 1973, all West Indies Test cricketers had come from the ‘big four’ – Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago. Nevis’ Elquemedo Willett became the first man from the Leeward Islands to represent West Indies that year; in 1974, Roberts became the first Antiguan Test cricketer.

“They didn’t look to the smaller islands,” he recalls. “The first Test match that I saw live was my debut.

“It was a lot harder in those days because we had no benchmark. We didn’t have anybody where we could look back and see, ‘He’s from these parts and he has performed well’. I know that we had better players than myself who never played.

“I made up my mind that it’s going to hurt to get rid of me because I am going to make sure that I keep my place at all costs. So there was something to inspire me.”

Through his 202 wickets, spread out over his 47 Tests, Roberts showed how West Indies benefited by becoming a team of all the region’s talents. Alongside Roberts, three other outstanding Antiguans – Richards, Curtly Ambrose and the batter Richie Richardson – underpinned West Indies’ run of 15 years undefeated in Test series, from 1980-95. From 1981, West Indies started hosting Test cricket in Antigua.

Roberts in full flow for Hampshire at Taunton in 1974 - Getty Images/Patrick Eagar

Roberts in full flow for Hampshire at Taunton in 1974 - Getty Images/Patrick Eagar© Provided by The Telegraph

And yet, for all his pride in playing in front of home crowds, Roberts came to think of West Indies’ greatest importance being when they toured England.

“The significance of West Indies cricket and winning is in England,” Roberts says. “I had brothers and sisters who lived in England. They told me that the only thing that they have to shout about is when West Indies win a Test match.”

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