Andy Roberts – The First of the LineMartin Chandler |
Andy Roberts comes from a family of fourteen, and neither of his parents had any interest in or enthusiasm for cricket. In fact the man himself was 16 before he played the game in any sort of organised manner. He didn’t waste too much time once he got underway though. After playing for his village at 16, and the parish at 17, by 18 he was playing in the same Antiguan side as Viv Richards. After that he was still a couple of weeks short of his nineteenth birthday when, in January 1970, he made his First Class debut for the Leeward Islands against the Windward Islands. Roberts hadn’t even played with a hard ball until he played for the village, all his cricket up until then being played with a shaved tennis ball. In later life he came to the view that was in part responsible for his pace, remembering the extra effort needed to get speed out of such a lightweight projectile.
The Windwards won that debut encounter by 207 runs, but not until after the youngster made a sensational start. He opened the bowling with Viv’s half-brother Donald, and took three wickets as the eventual victors slumped to 35-4 before recovering well and eventually recording that comfortable victory. Roberts ended up with 4-50 from 29 controlled overs. A year later he played in the same fixture again and took all three wickets as the Windwards quickly found themselves on 17-3. This time others did step up to the plate and Roberts ended up on the right side of an innings victory.
Just over a week after that winning performance against the Windwards Roberts made his first Shell Shield appearance for the Combined Islands against Barbados in Castries, St Lucia. The game was won comfortably enough by the visitors although with four of the eleven Bajan wickets that fell, including that of Garry Sobers, Roberts was disappointed to be left out of the next game. He then got back in the side, but was not hugely successful and the fickle selectors did not pick him at the beginning of the next season either. He had however done enough at home for the Volunteers Cricket Committee in Antigua to give him his biggest break, a trip with Richards to London to spend time at the famous Alf Gover Indoor School.
The six weeks that Roberts spent with Gover was the only time in his life he received any formal coaching, and he has acknowledged since that the work done on his follow through was fundamental to his later success. That apart the best advice he ever received was from Fred Trueman via his column in the Sunday People. Fiery Fred acknowledged that Roberts was a fine bowler, but suggested he would be even better if his arm was higher. Roberts took on board the Yorkshireman’s comment and as a result developed the outswinger that accounted for so many of his victims, particularly in the latter part of his career.
Whilst Roberts was with Gover Hampshire skipper Richard Gilliat was persuaded to take a look at him and, liking what he saw, he suggested the county give Roberts a trial at the start of the 1973 English summer. In the meantime Roberts had returned to the Caribbean where, after just one game of the Shell Shield campaign he suffered a knee injury which initially appeared so serious as to prompt some to say he would not play again. Determined to prove the pessimists wrong Roberts set out to overcome the problem and two months later he was able to resume his career and, importantly, get to England for his trial.
Hampshire liked what they saw and Roberts stayed with them for the 1973 summer taking 40 second eleven wickets at just over 18. There was however disappointment in his one First Class outing, against his countrymen, when his figures were a disappointing 1-144. There followed a tricky decision for the county. They had the choice for 1974 between signing Roberts or keeping faith with New Zealand orthodox left arm spinner David O’Sullivan. It might sound like an easy decision now, O’Sullivan having been all but forgotten, but it was a dilemma back in 1973. Qualification rules for overseas players meant that Hampshire could not keep both, and the New Zealander had taken 47 wickets at 21.10 in 1973 to make a very real contribution to Hampshire’s Championship triumph that summer. The nod went to Roberts however, and it proved a very wise move.
Back in the Caribbean I 1973/74 Roberts had a steady season rather than a spectacular one, but there was an unexpected Test debut against England at Bridgetown. The selectors were not convinced that Keith Boyce was fully fit so Roberts became the first Antiguan to play Test cricket in the third Test. He shared the new ball with Vanburn Holder and was unlucky to see a couple of catches go to ground. He had to wait to the second day to snare his first Test wicket, Chris Old. In the England second innings, which they began 201 behind, there were two quick wickets for Roberts before, eventually, the visitors were able to bat out time. In his account of the tour Christopher Martin-Jenkins was full of praise for Roberts but for the next Test Boyce was back, and a place was needed for an extra spinner, so neither Roberts or Holder were retained, thus it was only a brief taste of life at the top.
Roberts’ first summer of county cricket was an enormous success. Wisden’s Hampshire correspondent wrote that he carved his name indelibly on cricket 1974. No one of his pace had been seen in England since Lillee in 1972 and his impact was both immediate and lasting. Roberts was a genuinely fast bowler, could stand up to the work, remain free from injury and give the attack a cutting edge which always seemed freshly honed. He took 119 wickets at 13.62. Only Bishen Bedi could join him in reaching three figures and he paid more than ten runs per wicket more for his 112. Had they not been so unfortunate as to lose five days to the weather in their last three matches Hampshire would undoubtedly have retained their title.
That 1974 summer saw one incident between two men who would become fierce rivals, and both emerged with credit from the episode. The scene was a Benson and Hedges Cup semi-final between Hampshire and Somerset. Ian Botham was just 18 and already the brash and confident man who was soon to become England’s finest all-rounder. Unfazed by the lofty reputation that Roberts was carving out for himself Botham hooked the Antiguan for six, and fell into his trap. The Roberts bouncer didn’t seem so fearsome after all, and when Roberts pitched short again Botham decided to mete out the same treatment. Too late did Botham realise this one was a couple of yards quicker. He put his hand up to protect his face. The delivery thudded into his glove and caused Botham to, effectively, punch himself in the mouth. He lost one tooth completely, and two more were broken. There was a great deal of blood. Uncomfortable though it may have been Botham did however have the last laugh. He may have been out thought by Roberts, but he stayed to finish the job and take Somerset to victory.
If the ‘guts and glory’ nature of the Botham incident fired the imagination of the cricket world one that was taken note of in a rather different way involved the old warhorse Colin Cowdrey. Kent visited Basingstoke for a Championship fixture early in the season and Cowdrey, in attempting to hook Roberts, missed the ball and was struck on the head. Botham should have taken note as this again was an example of the Roberts ‘one two’, a relatively leisurely bouncer followed by the much quicker one without any discernible change of action or the input of extra effort. The 41 year old fell onto his wickets and spent a few minutes on the pitch being attended to before he was finally able to walk off the field. The Hampshire side gathered round the stricken former England skipper, with one exception. The bowler stood well away from the main group, his facial expression and body language clearly indicating that all he was interested in was his next victim.
A word often used to describe Roberts in the field was ‘expressionless’ but I was never convinced it was apt. It is true that Andy Roberts never snarled, never grimaced and never gave the appearance of saying very much. There were no theatrical gestures or histrionics. All he ever did was wander back to his mark between deliveries, before the smooth run up and final leap into a delivery stride which, in his earliest days, propelled the ball almost as quickly as the Jeff Thomson slingshot action did. There was occasionally a smile to his teammates when, as it often did, his bowling reaped rewards, but the trademark deadpan look never seemed to me to be one feigning disinterest. Rather it always appeared as if behind it there was a withering sigh, and a man who was so intent on dismissing his man that he simply couldn’t be bothered to waste time pulling faces. There was none of the staring down beloved of some other quick bowlers either, although woe betide any batsman who did try making eye contact as there was then a piercing gaze, and even the unsophisticated television cameras of the day couldn’t obscure the subliminal message in that.
West Indies toured the sub-continent in 1974/75 playing five Tests in India and two in Pakistan. They had a change of skipper too, Clive Lloyd taking over from Rohan Kanhai. Lloyd had played county cricket in the 1974 English summer as well and knew all about Roberts, the fastest bowler the West Indies had produced since Wes Hall, and Roberts was picked for all seven Tests. Lloyd wrote later Roberts was young, strong and deceptively quick. The series against India was a titanic struggle with the visitors taking a 2-0 lead before being pegged back, only to win the decider. The two draws in Pakistan were something of an anti-climax. For Roberts there were 44 wickets altogether, 32 at 18.28 in India. Wisden commented that what was admirable about Roberts’s performances was that his enthusiasm remained undampened by slow pitches and his pace was as fast as any contemporary bowler.
On the sub-continent Roberts was pretty much a lone wolf. His back up was a case of perming two from Holder, Boyce and Bernard Julien, none of whom shared his express pace and who between them, mainly through the ever-reliable Holder, only just managed to match his 32 victims. On wickets designed for the wiles of the great Indian spinners it was an impressive performance by the quicks and Roberts in particular given that at least one of them had to bowl most of the time, the three spinners available to support the forty year old Lance Gibbs singularly failing to provide any real threat.
West Indies next Test action was the famous 1975/76 series against Australia. Billed as cricket’s equivalent of Joe Frazier meeting Muhammad Ali the series was anything but, the Australians running out comprehensive 5-1 winners. Roberts led the bowling averages, taking more wickets than any other West Indian and, with Roy Fredericks, he was jointly responsible for the sole victory at Perth. But as history records the series defeat hurt the West Indies and made Lloyd think again. Michael Holding emerged in that series, and a few short months later Wayne Daniel did as well. Gibbs was now retired and with the twin giants Joel Garner and Colin Croft waiting in the wings for the rest of his career the man who was the lone wolf of India became the leader of the pack.
In the decade over which his Test career lasted Roberts was capped 47 times. Despite generally sharing the bowling duties with three other top class quicks he still managed to take 202 wickets at 25.61. He was only 32 when he played his last Test and by then was not the one trick pony of his youth, when devastating speed was his only real weapon. The older Roberts could still mix it with the genuine speedsters, but overall he had slowed down considerably, whilst more than making up for the loss of pace by adding the arts of swing and cut to his repertoire.
In England 1974 remained a magnificent high point but he remained a feared opponent. In 1975 he missed part of the season because of the inaugural World Cup. When he returned he did enough for Hampshire to head the national averages once again and lead the county to third spot in the Championship. The real measure of the county’s reliance on him came 12 months later when Roberts spent the long hot summer with Clive Lloyd’s team forcing Tony Greig’s famous ‘grovel’ comment back down his throat. Without Roberts to lead their attack Hampshire dropped to 12th in the table. Back full time in 1977 he was seldom fully fit and his pace dropped, but he still headed the county averages and only eleven men headed him in the national table. There was a sad end to his career with the southern county in 1978 however when he walked away from the side halfway through the season. It was a disappointing summer for the supporters who saw batting hero Barry Richards do the same.
There were inevitably recriminations on the south coast, Roberts main complaint having been that he was over-bowled. In his great season of 1974 he had bowled an average of 35 overs a game, which is a lot for an express bowler, but as he was striking at a rate of a wicket every 36 deliveries it is hardly surprising his skipper wanted him bowling whenever possible. The cynic will say that he didn’t complain then, at a time when he was still not a Test regular, and that his appetite for hard work diminished only once he had got what he wanted from Hampshire. It is difficult not to have sympathy with Roberts though as, once the injuries started, he would inevitably have realised the need to conserve his fitness over what, in the nature of his calling, was never going to be a long career.
In his penultimate season of Test cricket Roberts had done well. He headed the bowling averages and had the biggest haul of wickets over five Tests against India in the Caribbean The following year he was back to India, scene of his initial triumphs in the international arena and his final two Tests. He missed the first four matches and took only five wickets in the last two, although his highest Test score of 68 in a ninth wicket stand of 161 with Lloyd in the fifth Test turned a tricky situation into the springboard for an innings victory.
Roberts was still only 32 when he played his final Test, and was understandably less than happy to be left out of the party that toured England in 1984. He wouldn’t have made any difference of course, West Indies were able to win 5-0 without him, but it is difficult to see why all of Eldine Baptiste, Milton Small and a 21 year old Courtney Walsh were preferred to Roberts. And if the selectors were to suggest that Roberts wasn’t the bowler he had been New Zealander Martin Crowe would certainly have put them right.
In 1981 Roberts had come back to the county game, playing part-time for Leicestershire. To all intents and purposes he had retired after being left out of the 1984 touring party, but answered a call for help from Leicestershire in the early part of the season after being hit by injuries, so Roberts came back for eight more First Class matches. He encountered Crowe, then at Somerset, at Taunton in late June.
Maybe it was the news filtering through from Lord’s that in the second Test the West Indies, having won the toss and invited England to bat first, were unable to separate Graeme Fowler and Chris Broad, but in the Somerset first innings Roberts rolled back the years and took 7-74. Crowe had a torrid time and commented later I took a few on the shoulder, a couple in the guts and a couple flew just past my nose. In between all that he was bowling beautiful outswingers. It was classic stuff. Towards the end of our innings he started bowling short at me again, and when he came into bowl …… he was trying to pin me, and I got very pumped up. He soon wrapped up the innings, and I walked off, shaking and white. Roberts had really got to me and I lost control. Crowe’s torso, after he got back to the dressing room at the fall of the tenth wicket, by all accounts appeared much like that of Brian Close after his infamous working over by Roberts and Holding at Old Trafford in 1976. Shaking and white he may have been, but Crowe was unbeaten on 70 at the end, and then in the second innings, when Roberts went wicketless, he scored a superb 190 as Somerset successfully chased down an improbable target.
For some reason Roberts is not afforded quite the same respect as some of his successors, and the names of Marshall, Holding, Garner and Ambrose always crop up before his when all time West Indian elevens are selected, but in truth he loses little in comparison. Perhaps part of the reason is that his peak years coincided with World Series Cricket and the fall out from that. Certainly it is a matter for regret that almost forty years on no one has bothered to look back at the WSC ‘Supertests’ and grant them First Class status. All of the combatants agree that the fixtures, particularly those in the first year, represented the hardest cricket they ever played and Roberts was as successful as anyone.
Sunil Gavaskar, who at various times talked up all of his opponents, was ultimately content to acknowledge that Andy Roberts was the number one. You could never relax, even if you’d scored 150 ……… with most of the others you got past 30 and you were 99% in charge. Not with Roberts. He put so much into his delivery he had to put the brakes on to avoid bumping into you. Fellow member of the speed gallery, Dennis Lillee, described Roberts as the most complete fast bowler I have seen.
At Trent Bridge in 1980 David Gower encountered Roberts bowling at full tilt for the first time. Prior to that meeting England’s golden boy had always been a compulsive hooker. The first time he met the Roberts double bouncer trick he decided that in future it would be wise to be rather more circumspect. As it did for Gower a single Roberts delivery gave Pakistan legend Imran Kham much to think about. The occasion was the fifth Test of a series that the Pakistanis had, with a huge victory in the fourth Test, brought back to all square. Roberts led from the front, one delivery being described by Imran as one of the fastest deliveries I ever faced. Before I could do anything it had kissed my cap, just touched Derek Murray’s gloves and gone for byes. An inch closer and it would probably have ended my career.
Another reason why Roberts’ name doesn’t leap into the memory as quickly as it might is because he was and is such a quiet and private man. Coming from a family as large as his it is hardly surprising that he saw raising his voice as a waste of time, and that privacy was something to be treasured. Roberts was neither a smoker or a drinker. He had the nickname ‘Fruity’ amongst his teammates, the origin of which was his employment, as a teenager, for a soft drinks firm of that name. Off the field he was an aficionado of the sort of ‘superhero’ cartoon books that were in vogue at the time and, by no means alone amongst his compatriots, of soul and reggae music.
Was he as moody and taciturn as he appeared? It seems as if generally he probably was. Gordon Greenidge played with him for both Hampshire and West Indies, and Roberts shared a flat with him in his early days at Hampshire and after Greenidge married lived with him and his wife until he left the county in 1978. Despite that the conversation between the two teammates seems not to have flowed all that often, Greenidge commenting in his 1980 autobiography that we hardly ever spoke together, he might as well have been living somewhere else.
There is also a perception that Roberts was a member of the awkward squad, and a supporter of black power, an impression forever reinforced by his walking out on Hampshire in 1978. As to the politics Greenidge felt that Roberts reputation was tainted by some of the people he associated with rather than any great militancy on his part. That Roberts, like himself, was deeply conscious of West Indian history Greenidge accepted, but he did not believe him to be ‘anti-white’ as such. On the other hand he did have sympathy with him over his leaving Hampshire, and the way that he was treated by the county.
But maybe there was a degree of mistrust of Greenidge because he was a batsman, as Roberts seems to have had an entirely different relationship with Michael Holding. The two quick men first met back in 1970 when they spent all day ignoring their respective duties as twelfth men to talk about bowling. Holding describes Roberts as a great friend to me and a huge influence on my career. Both former teammates are agreed that Roberts was a most intelligent cricketer, although they couch that in rather different terms. Greenidge describes him as being as shrewd and as cunning as any fast bowler in the world. To his fellow quick Andy Roberts was a deep thinker about the game, and when he spoke you listened because you knew it was going to be worth hearing.