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Did England waste the talents of Devon Malcolm?

How many more champagne performances might we have seen had England fully trusted Devon Malcolm? Getty Images

In Come to Think of It, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This week, we marvel at how England failed to make proper use of Devon Malcolm, an extraordinarily rare asset.

The quest for a genuine fast bowler has been one of England's obsessions for decades, but it wasn't until the final months before the coronavirus lockdown - when the contrasting styles of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood provided daily lessons about workload and risk-reward - that they finally seemed to get to grips with managing such match-wrecking assets.

By the end of the South Africa tour, they seemed to have worked out that this involved short spells, sympathetic captaincy, and a team balance that acknowledges the genuine quick's edge will be blunted if he is turned to again and again. And perhaps most crucially, an acceptance that his true value comes when cordons are packed and wickets are in the offing, not when the team's collective failings have already undermined all victory hopes.

Sadly, none of the above was ever applied to Devon Malcolm during his wild and woolly years as England's most potent spearhead in a generation.

For the best part of a decade, England had at their disposal a barely acknowledged gem. If the selectors could have seen beyond the comic veneer of Malcolm's thick-set glasses, hopeless fielding and cult-status batting, they would surely have recognised the true potential of one of the most natural athletes ever to have played the game, a man who was bowling rockets even in his 40th year. He should have been England's designated match-winner throughout the 1990s, instead of their first-choice fall guy in the event of yet another defeat.

The freezing of world cricket in 2020 and the proliferation of YouTube clips to provide one's sporting kicks has helped drill home the full fury of his methods. Three-minute compilations might fail to acknowledge the days when his radar really was wonky, but no attempt to list the fastest bowlers of the past 30 years is complete without Devon Eugene Malcolm in the podium positions.

Just imagine being in the man's sights. That initial gallop from somewhere near the sightscreen, before that glance down at his wrist, like a driver shifting gears. The head and shoulders pinned back as he cruised to the crease - a shire-horse version of his thoroughbred mentor at Derbyshire, Michael Holding. Less grace and glide, more shock and awe. And then, the coup de grace; the awe-inspiring rumble of those granite-hewn shoulders, his braced right arm becoming a siege engine as it snapped through the vertical plain, to a destination that no opponent dared second-guess.

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The end result could be haphazard - The Oval 1994 one day, Cape Town 1996 the next - and Malcolm's final haul of 128 wickets in 40 Tests was decidedly underwhelming. Perhaps fittingly, his average of 37.09 was a close match for several of England's leading batsmen of the decade (Mike Atherton 37.69, Nasser Hussain 37.18, Alec Stewart 39.54), as if the shortcomings of each discipline - exacerbated by the void at No.6 where Ian Botham once resided - contrived to drag the other down.

But that doesn't explain why countless England regimes allowed their assessment of Malcolm to be coloured by context-free numbers on a scorecard, especially when you consider the endorsement of their doughtiest opponent of the era.

"We were always amazed every time we played England and Devon Malcolm's name wasn't on the team sheet," Steve Waugh told cricket.com.au during England's last Ashes tour. "They always picked medium-pacers who were consistent, but they never really went for the match-winners.

"He could bowl the quickest over you ever faced and then the worst over the next over, but as a batsman, that's not what you want - you want consistency when someone's bowling at you, so you could prepare for what's happening. But Dev could bowl a ball down the leg side that could go for four wides, and the next ball he bowls the perfect outswinger at 100mph. And then the next one will be at your throat, then the next one will be five yards slower, so he was so hard to face."

In Ashes battles alone, Malcolm's record bears out Waugh's assertion, even though his raw stats, 42 wickets at 45.14, scream a different story. England won only five of their 27 Ashes Tests in the 1990s, and Malcolm was a factor in four of those wins - more than any other bowler. All four came in the space of his last nine Ashes appearances, of which England also lost three and drew two. The only other player who could claim a positive win-loss ratio in that same time frame was the man who should always have been Malcolm's straight man - the Statham to his Trueman, the Pollock to his Donald.

Instead, Angus Fraser and Malcolm played together in nine of a possible 15 Tests between August 1989 and January 1991 (it would have been more but for Fraser's injury issues), and only eight times thereafter.

"When Angus Fraser was fit and played with Devon, then that pair were as good as any," Alec Stewart once told the Cricket Monthly. "Gus going at 1.5 runs per over and Devon at five, you were still in the game. If Devon played in this era, when selection is more stable, sensible and well thought-through, instead of panic and knee-jerk, then he'd be a regular first choice."

As it was, Malcolm and Fraser were finally reunited in 1993 at The Oval, the inevitable venue for Malcolm's annual late-summer recall. By that stage of the series, the selectors had already burned through seven other seamers - four debutants in Andrew Caddick, Mark Ilott, Martin McCague and Martin Bicknell, two yo-yo picks in Phil DeFreitas and Chris Lewis, and an ill-starred recall for an over-the-hill Neil Foster. Steve Watkin would also be recalled in the same match, meaning that Malcolm was effectively England's tenth-choice quick of the season.

On the fourth evening, Malcolm produced arguably the most sizzling spell of his life, to Mark Taylor and Michael Slater. Australia's openers survived to the close by the skin of their teeth, but their middle order was not so lucky - Malcolm's three final-day wickets, Allan Border and the Waugh twins, set up England's first Ashes win in seven years.

It's a measure of Malcolm's methods, and England's woes, that Slater himself swears that his most vicious spell came in the midst of an abject defeat in Perth 18 months later - and he should know, having had his thumb broken in the second innings by a lifter that flew over the slips for four. England by that stage were already chasing the game, thanks in no small part to one of their worst fielding displays in history, and all that Malcolm had to show for his efforts were match figures of 2 for 198, and a 329-run trouncing.

In Adelaide a fortnight earlier, however, it had been a different story. Malcolm claimed seven in the match, including four in the second innings as England rolled Australia aside for 156 in a gripping final-hour win. He bowled with similar venom (and rare economy too) on that extraordinary first morning at Edgbaston in 1997, when Australia were bundled out for 118 to go 1-0 behind in the series. And in the final Test, at The Oval, he claimed the key early wicket of Matthew Elliott as England defended a target of 124.

And that was that. He was not considered for England's subsequent tour of the Caribbean, the scene of his true Test baptism in 1990. And given that a knee injury had curtailed his 1993-94 campaign after just one game, we're left with those snapshots from Kingston and Port-of-Spain - hints as to what this son of Jamaica might have achieved had he been able to fight West Indies' fire with fire on a more consistent basis.

The fleeting Fraser-Malcolm partnership got truly underway at Sabina Park in February 1990, the scene of England's most extraordinary Test victory of all time. Fraser's five first-innings wickets set up the contest, but Malcolm's twin dismissals of the mighty Viv Richards were the iconic interventions; then, in Trinidad, came a sliding-doors moment. Malcolm claimed ten wickets to bowl England to the brink of a 2-0 series lead, only for rain and delaying tactics to buy West Indies a priceless chance to turn the tide.

Had West Indies lost that Test and slumped to their first series loss in a decade, it would surely have been England's duty to build their team around their new-found spearhead. He did play 17 Tests in a row in that 18-month period - nearly half of his career - until his seemingly random banishment during West Indies' return visit in 1991, at a moment of the series when England were once again 1-0 up after two Tests against the world's best.

In some respects, Malcolm was treated no worse - and arguably marginally better - than the vast majority of his '90s team-mates. Within the span of his career, he was England's most consistently selected bowler ahead of Lewis (32 matches), DeFreitas (31), Fraser (30) and Phil Tufnell (28).

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And in that eight-year career span, England won ten of the 40 Tests Malcolm played, as against 21 of 85 overall, which implies that his contribution to the team's potency was no better than neutral.

But how would you explain the yo-yo nature of his recalls, and the cast of randomers drafted in his place, other than to acknowledge that he possessed something that could not be conjured up elsewhere from the English circuit? By picking Malcolm for exactly one in three Tests (22 of 66) in his prime years, England strangled the confidence that so clearly coursed through him on the good days.

Never was that more apparent than in his treatment on the South Africa tour of 1995-96 - England's first visit since apartheid, where he was greeted by Nelson Mandela, no less, as "The Destroyer" in acknowledgement of that epoch-defining spell at The Oval 14 months earlier.

A sympathetic, socially minded management would surely have given Malcolm the chance to be a figurehead of the tour. Instead, he was dropped despite taking six wickets in the Johannesburg great escape, and patronised in the nets by Ray Illingworth and bowling coach Peter Lever, who attempted to teach a 32-year-old veteran to bowl line and length. With his mind and methods scrambled, he was scapegoated for the series-losing defeat in the final Test in Cape Town, and banished again for 11 Tests.

That episode was the most shattering indictment of England's failure to accommodate a point-of-difference performer. This was the player who had got his big break by bowling Geoff Boycott in a Yorkshire League match, then earned his first professional contract by breaking Jack Hampshire's ribs first ball of his subsequent trial at Derbyshire. "You want me to bowl quickly and take wickets, you need me to be confident," Malcolm later said of Lever's tinkerings. "I can't strip out what I've done all my life. It was a public humiliation."

Chaos was always Malcolm's go-to method. Sadly, the same was also true of the England era in which he was fated to play.

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