Andy Roberts: Godfather, minus the cigar
If you draw a family chart of the greatest West Indies fast bowlers, Andy Roberts will be right at the top of it. The patriarch. The unsmiling Godfather, Vito Corleone without a cigar. There are several crumpled black and white photographs of Roberts standing expressionless, with stiff eyes offset by a menacing beard in his follow-through, the batsmen grimacing and wincing in pain on the ground. It built the myth of Roberts being a callous bowler, the bouncer he dispenses a facial-feature-disfiguring, jaw-splintering weapon, not a wicket-taking tool. “It’s rubbish,” he says, dismissively.
“Photographs do lie,” he says. “They miss the frame before. It would show you I was looking at the batsman, seeing if he was okay. If he was fine, I would walk back. Why should you keep looking at him? I was out there to take wickets, not make friends. That I would after the match is over.”
But he rarely smiled, and if so reluctantly, hardly spoke, and if so out of necessity. He was seemingly gruff, unlike the archetypal Caribbean cricketer of the era, gamely as ever for a good joke or a drink. “Why should I? Am I watching a circus or a comedy show? Fast bowling is a serious business and I am very serious when I am bowling,” he quips. He, though, is more generous with smiles these days. That’s often when he sees young fast bowlers in action. “It fills me with joy, seeing genuine fast bowlers go about their business these days. They’re rare, but there are some exciting ones. Like Jasprit Bumrah. He thrills me like few other bowlers these days,” he says.
It’s not just Bumrah’s unnerving pace or his deceptive variations that excites Roberts. But his bouncer, hurled with pinpoint vertical accuracy—varying somewhere between throat and lower rib—demonstrating it is still possible to intimidate without transgressing this addition to the law.
“The bouncer,” he utters as if he is uttering a magic word. “Lovely bouncer, not too short, not too high, not too far from the body, not too much into his body either. That’s how a bouncer should be,” he notices, his hawkish eyes glowing with a fraternal pride.
The bouncer, of course, is part of the Roberts’ myth. He’s a bouncer connoisseur of sorts —a bowler with a good bouncer gets his stamp of approval.
“I love watching good bouncers. The other day I saw Jofra (Archer) bowl one at Steve Smith (in the second Ashes Test). He knocked him over. That was a brute. The perfect bouncer, I would say. I am looking forward to watching him for real,” he says, winking.
He, though, bounces out another perception of his bowling, that his bouncers’ intention was to harm batsmen. “Never in my life. I am a fast bowler and my only intention was to get a wicket somehow. If the batsmen got hit, it was his fault. The fault of his technique. Not mine. I have bowled bouncers to Sunny and Vishy, but they’d never got hit. They never wore helmets either. Why? They had good technique. Franky, I got no thrill from seeing blood and bruises. Besides I didn’t want to expend all those energies just trying to hit a batsman,” he points out.
The bouncer, though, was an insignia of West Indies fast bowling supremacy at their intimidating peak.
The bouncer myth and its deconstruction recurs. It’s widely-storied that he had two types of bouncers. The first could be pulled or hooked if the batsman was skilful but the second, which usually trails it, was faster and straighter, delivered cross-seam, and thus skidding on that much quicker. One of the latter variety felled Colin Cowdrey and knocked out Ian Botham’s tooth.
“I remember those right in front of my eyes, but it wasn’t a double bluff, as some would say. It was a case of me experimenting with different speeds, trajectories, release points, wrist and seam positions. Only experiments I believe will bring evolution,” he says.
There’s another existential reason, he admits. “I never liked batsmen hooking me. It made me angry,” he says, staring into the vast, empty expanse of the stadium.
Roberts, thus, was the closest to a bowling alchemist, a pure fast-bowling intelligentsia. No wonder then that his close friend and bowling partner Michael Holding once called him the deepest thinker of the game. “Andy was always a good thinker. We used to room together almost always and he helped me a lot when I first came into the team. He was always a very serious cricketer. Always looking and probing for weaknesses,” Holding had said.
It was a bond that took off when ferrying drinks for their respective teams in a Shell Shield match in Sabina Park. “We always talked about bowling and nothing else back then. It doesn’t mean that we didn’t talk anything else, but fast bowling was our favourite topic of discussion. Some cricketers say they don’t talk cricket out of the stadium. But we were always talking and thinking about the game. It was the bond that made us friends for life.”
They shared a room on tours, and it was in those rooms that they planned and plotted wickets, “because we didn’t have the luxury of video replays and had to rely on just memory.”
Endearingly, Holding still credits Roberts for his first Test wicket. Max Walker c Richards b Holding. “He was a bit down because he had bowled really fast in Brisbane and didn’t get a wicket.” Roberts says. “A few catches were dropped and he was feeling restless. So I told him to put every bit of energy into one ball, preferably a short ball on Max Walker’s off stump. He would look to defend away from the body and would get caught at gully.”
It panned out exactly as Roberts had planned, and Holding had executed. Beyond the obvious camaraderie, it showed the visualisation that went into his bowling. “I would always be studying the batsman and made notes of them. I don’t know if I would have done the same in this era of technology. But back then it was all in the mind,” he says.
But unlike Holding, Roberts didn’t have a huge friend circle. Holding was articulate, Roberts was reticent, and reticence was often misinterpreted and portrayed as an aloof man. A story goes that he and Gordon Greenidge shared a flat in London but hardly spoke.
“We were good friends, but I was not someone who always went out or build a social circle. I always preserved my private space,” he says.
Roberts was a teetotaler too — but it was not because he always drank fruit juice but because before playing first-class cricket, he worked as a sales manager for a local fruit beverage company. “You need money man, and those days you hardly got anything playing club cricket. And I was not too keen on academics. So I did a part-time job with a company in Antigua,” he says.
He returns to the bouncer topic. “The slower bouncer wasn’t bowled as what people call these days a slower ball. It was still around 85 mph. But the quicker one used to be around 90 miles or more. I would rather call the second ball as quicker than (devalue) the first as the slower ball. Yes, I used to bowl at different speeds. But never a slower ball,” he firmly clarifies. The myth about Roberts just keeps getting larger.
A village fast bowler like his grandfather. It’s all Roberts wanted to be while growing up in the idyllic countryside of Urlings, a fishing harbour with a population of a few thousands. His aspiration was coloured by stories of his grandfather, a terrorising fast bowler who broke a few stumps every day. His uncle, he says, was a good bowler himself, before he shifted to the UK, as was common those days. His mother didn’t want him to play the game — she wanted him to study — but the harder she tried to pull him away from the game, the more attached to the game he became.
There was no escaping the lurking shadow of his grandfather. “I saw people respecting him, narrating stories of his bowling. So hearing all that, I thought I wanted to be like him. Also, in the village, it was a proud thing to be a good fast bowler. People respect you if you are a good man. But they respected you even more if you were a fast bowler. So right from my childhood, my ambition was to be the best fast bowler in the village,” Roberts recollects.
His ambition was limited not only because he was still a child then but also because there didn’t exist the concept of a nation. Antigua was still under British rule and the Leeward and Windward Islands hadn’t formed a team. Competitive cricket was only played between parishes and was predominantly a white man’s game. But the allure of the game throbbed, filling up lazy countryside evenings. Sometimes wind-ball cricket. Sometimes with shaven tennis balls. With whatever we got to bowl with. But it was big, a daily carnival and competitive. The quality was high and several of them had the ability to play international cricket,” he says.
It’s where Roberts learned the essence of fast bowling — for there were no coaches, other than some of the old-timers who still hung around, who gave a tip or two. Most of his art, thus, was self-learnt, even after he became an international bowler.
“I had just six months of coaching when I and Viv went to the Alf Gover School (in Wandsworth, south London). I didn’t learn much about technique there. But I learned that you never really stop learning about fast bowling. I realised I need to work on a few basics. He also taught me more about control and the theory of bowling more side-on. I was very open-chested in those days.”
Later, during his stint with Hampshire, when the idea of a fearsome pace quartet had not even germinated, he read in a newspaper about Fred Trueman’s observation that if he could keep the arm higher during release, he could develop an out-swinger, the one weapon that was not in his armoury.
“I had never thought about it until I read it. I thought I had enough in my bag. But the out-swinger not only made me a better bowler but kept me in the game even after I had to reduce my pace towards the end of my career. There are several such instances in my career when I kept my eyes and ears open to pick little things about my bowling. It has been my way since I first touched the leather ball,” Roberts says.
The first time he touched a leather ball was when he was around 15. “It was heavy. But I liked the feel of it. Nothing looks as beautiful as a shining new ball under the sun. You touch it and you feel you are someone special. You get a kind of swagger. It must be the same feeling when a policeman gets a gun,” he says.
It took Roberts several years to master the little devil, as he calls it. But having played with different balls turned out to be beneficial in hindsight. “If you become adaptive at a young age, you remain adaptive throughout your life, to different situations and circumstances. Several things I did with the cricket ball went back to the wind-ball and tennis-ball games. Like my pace — with the tennis ball, you have to put every ounce of energy into the ball. With the wind-ball, which never bounced much, you had to really hit the ground hard to make it bounce. And in tennis-ball cricket, you don’t look to bowl every ball quick. A lot of deliveries of average speed and then a quick one. It surprised batsmen. I have used a lot of that in Test cricket,” he says.
When he was not playing cricket, Roberts was with his father and uncles harbour-fishing. He still does on Sundays. After retiring, he bought two fishing boats catching snapper in the cobalt blue waters between Antigua and Barbuda. “Who told you this story? Yeah fishing, like cricket, was a passion. I still do,” he says. “For the good part of my cricketing career, I couldn’t go fishing. So this was it, my time to go to the roots.” The batsmen once fled from him, now it’s the turn of the fish.