When Andy was more than handy

Updated: Jul 02, 2020, 07:34 IST | Clayton Murzello | Mumbai

Roberts, who has expressed anguish at the possibility of WI not raking in big bucks for being part of next week's cricket resumption in the UK, never knew what it was to lose a Test to England.

West Indies pace ace Andy Roberts opens his palm to celebrate the fifer he claimed during the Manchester Test against England in 1976. Pic/Getty Images
West Indies pace ace Andy Roberts opens his palm to celebrate the fifer he claimed during the Manchester Test against England in 1976. Pic/Getty Images

Clayton MurzelloThere was a time when England couldn't win a Test, leave alone a series, against the West Indies. But updated record books show that the men from the Caribbean have lost each of their six Test series in England since 2000.

Andy Roberts is one great (his former fast bowling colleagues Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft are others) who was never part of a losing Test playing XI against England. He was in the news recently for expressing anguish over the possibility of his cricket board not gaining a great deal financially to be part of the game's resumption amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. "We're taking a chance no one else is willing to take, and why we're taking that chance is to save England nearly £380 million. So why should we, as guinea pigs, go and sacrifice ourselves for nothing," Roberts was quoted as saying in the Jamaica Gleaner.

At the same time, Roberts slammed Shimron Hetmyer for pulling out of the tour in the fear of contracting the virus. "I want him to play more in English conditions. A lot of batsmen relish their performances in England because of the conditions," Roberts told me from Antigua on Tuesday.

Roberts seemed to view his battles against England more seriously than other countries. He helped West Indies retain the Wisden Trophy in 1976, his first Test tour to England, where he claimed 28 wickets (joint top wicket-taker with Michael Holding). This was the very year in which they copped a 1-5 shellacking in Australia. His next and final Test tour to England in West Indies colours was in 1980, when Lloyd's team triumphed 1-0. Only 1-0 in an era of dominance? Put that down to the elements. Ken Lawrence, who wrote the book, A Century of Cornhill Tests, stated that a total of seven days in the five-Test series were lost to rain, the wettest summer in 26 years.

The West Indies, who eked out a two-wicket win in the opening Test of that 1980 series in Trent Bridge, have Roberts to thank. Post his eight-wicket effort in the Test, he stayed unbeaten on 22 to see his team through after Bob Willis looked threatening with a spell of 5 for 65. Desmond Haynes top-scored with 62 as the visitors chased a 208-run target. The Barbadian had a charmed life — dropped by Mike Hendrick when on 32 and then by Willis when he was one short of his half century. His five-hour innings ended in a run out, watched at the other end by Roberts, who scored the remaining runs needed for victory.

Cricket lovers drew comparisons to his unbeaten 24 in which he pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat against Pakistan in a 1975 World Cup game at Edgbaston. Astonishingly, the man-of-the-match award then was given to Sarfraz Nawaz and not to Roberts or his partner Deryck Murray (61 not out), because adjudicator Tom Graveney gave his verdict well before the West Indian duo pulled off the near-impossible one-wicket victory.

Roberts didn't miss out on his player-of-the-match award in Trent Bridge five years later though. Willis, who would have rightly claimed that honour had England won, was not only hailed as a hero by the crowd, but also earned the appreciation of the opposition players, many of whom, according to John Woodcock in The Cricketer magazine "tracked down" Willis during the post-match presentation to give him a "special handshake" in front of the pavilion.

Ian Botham was leading the England Test side for the first time and the pundits wondered whether the hosts would get such a lively track to challenge the World No. 1 team.

That didn't happen and in a rarity for that era, the West Indies had only one win to show in a series.

Roberts's first Test tour of England was a far more successful one. If 1980 was an acutely wet summer, 1976 was quite the opposite. It was a series known for Tony Greig's infamous 'grovel' remark, Viv Richards's stupendous batting feats, Michael Holding's frightening pace and Roberts' guile, which saw him claim 21 wickets by the end of the third Test.

The string of victories in the series started at Manchester where Brian Close, 45, managed to keep himself alive while facing Holding. And when he got hit, he didn't flinch. When Close returned to the dressing room, an attendant asked him if he needed anything. "Yes, a bottle of whisky," the Yorkshireman said.

While the pundits believed Holding's bowling was nothing short of intimidatory, not many considered the amount of cracks on the Old Trafford pitch. "There were a lot of cracks and we exploited them better than the English medium pacers," Roberts told me.

Roberts would have been part of Test cricket's hat-trick men but he missed the feat thrice during that Manchester Test. They said Gordon Greenidge couldn't do anything wrong in this match because he scored a hundred in both innings but he did drop Mike Selvey to dash Roberts's hat-trick hopes.

The current West Indies team are an exciting bunch. Although Roberts can't comprehend why Oshane Thomas is not being viewed as a serious pace weapon before the opening Test at Southampton on July 8, the hosts will know that pace can dismantle the tightest of outfits. It can also help give rise to the kind of dominance which men like Roberts were at the very heart of.

mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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