Malcolm Marshall was an outstanding professional, a great teacher and the ultimate warrior.
Pakistani Wasim Akram, one of the world’s greatest fast bowlers once told me that he rated fast bowlers by how well they perform on different surfaces, particularly on surfaces in the subcontinent.
He added: “Unlike many other outstanding fast bowlers, Malcolm Marshall achieved success on wickets in India and Pakistan. That is why I rate him as the best ever. He had everything.”
During the 1999 World Cup in England, Malcolm, who was the head coach of the West Indies team, asked me to accompany him to a hospital in Birmingham, where he was due to have medical tests for long-standing abdominal discomfort. A few days later, we got quite a shock when the surgeon who supervised the examination revealed the results of his tests.
When the surgeon looked into Malcolm’s eyes and told him that he had an aggressive cancer in his colon, Malcolm went silent for a couple of minutes and then said in a calm voice: “Doc, you just bowled me a vicious beamer. Tell me what has to be done and let’s get on with it because I want to coach Hampshire next year. I have some unfinished business there.”
The calmness with which Malcolm handled the extremely stressful situation, the enormous mental strength and control that he displayed, and the positive manner in which he spoke about the future surprised me. That was just the beginning of the toughest game he ever played; a battle that was more challenging than any of the ones he had fought on the field.
On the way back to the hotel from the hospital, Malcolm broke my silence by saying: “Rudi, why are you so quiet? Don’t worry about me. I will be alright.” I was truly moved. With all the things that must have been going through his mind, he was still aware of the painful emotions I was experiencing, and he tried to comfort me.
I knew that his self-awareness and situational awareness, along with his self-discipline, his great powers of concentration, and his enormous drive for success were key factors in his triumphs on the cricket field. I also knew that he would have to use all of them efficiently to win his battle for survival.
After his stay in hospital, we became close friends and I spent a lot of time by his side in Birmingham, Southampton and Barbados as part of a small but very important support group. During that time I came face to face with the wonderful human being within him and I began to understand why he was such a great champion.
A few days before his operation to remove the cancer, he and I played a game of golf at the Edgbaston Golf Club with a twosome that included the doctor who was going to be involved in his operation. The game was very tight and I witnessed, not for the first time, the intensity of Malcolm’s competitiveness and will to win.
Long breaking putt
The game was all-square after the 17th hole, and on the 18th green, Malcolm had a long breaking putt to win the game, a putt that would have challenged Tiger Woods. I said to Malcolm: “That man will be operating on you in a few days. Don’t sink the putt and upset him. Let’s finish the game all square.”
“What are you talking about Rudi? I am going to sink the putt and win the game. I can already see the ball going into the hole.” He putted, the ball fell into the hole and he turned to me and said: “There you are. End of the game.”
A few weeks after surgery and chemotherapy, Desmond Haynes organised, at Malcolm’s request, a game of golf at a local club. We didn’t think he was strong enough to play but he insisted. As expected, he played very poorly and was in intense pain each time he swung the club, but he did not quit. After about 12 holes, Desmond started to tease by telling him that he was never any good at golf.
On the 14th tee, Malcolm, who at that time could hardly swing the club, informed us that he was going to win the last five holes. We laughed at him. Suddenly, everything changed and Malcolm started to swing the club like a seasoned golfer. He won the next four holes and was unlucky not to win the last hole.
When I asked him what was responsible for the miraculous turn-around, he pointed to his head and said: “I was thinking negatively, doubting my ability and feeling sorry for myself until Desmond woke me up with his comments.
As soon as I discarded my negative thoughts, my confidence improved and I knew that I would beat the two of you, even in my weak state. There was no doubt in my mind about that.
“I visualised the ball going where I wanted it to go and as soon as those pictures became clear in my mind, I knew the two of you were beaten. When I get clear images in my mind success usually follows. All I had to do was relax and let it happen.”
When Malcolm returned to Barbados on the advice of his doctors, we had several discussions about the state and the future of West Indies cricket. I wish I had taped those sessions, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate. Malcolm was very sceptical about the future of West Indies cricket. He complained bitterly about the players’ attitude, self-discipline, work ethic, commitment and willingness to listen and learn. He was equally harsh with his criticism of the administrators. He predicted that West Indies cricket would soon go into a serious decline that would last for many years. How prophetic was that! Two decades later, West Indies cricket still languishes near the bottom of the ICC rankings, in all three formats of the game. I don’t believe that our young cricketers know too much about the great man or about the reasons for his enormous success. The same might be said about some of our coaches and administrators. That is not really a surprise.
As the greatest-ever fast bowler might have said: “Here in the Caribbean, we tend to praise and glorify the achievements of other people, while devaluing and belittling those of our own people.” It’s time to erase that mindset.
—Dr Rudi Webster is a former West Indies team manager and performance enhancer