Andy Roberts was the godfather to the modern generation of West Indies fast bowlers. He came from what was at the time the cricketing backwater of Antigua. A Caribbean island that had not previously produced a Test cricketer and established himself at the very top of the tree. Andy Roberts created genuine fear around the shires in his early seasons with Hampshire. As a youngster, he was a seasoned county player talking of his pace in awed tones.
Although he lost his place in the West Indies side a couple of times towards the end of his career, he fought off the high-class competition and got it back again. When he did play, he always took the new ball and almost always bowled the first over of the inning such was the reverence with which he was regarded by his colleagues. To them, he was the ‘Professor’. Michael Holding, who opened the bowling with him many times, gives Roberts immense credit for leading the attack both on and off the field.
Andy Roberts understood the intricacies of bowling fast better than the others. Many people were inclined to ascribe limited intelligence to fast bowlers and assert that their muscles moved faster than their brains. But Roberts confounded such prejudices. He employed tricks that were not then widely known, such as deploying two trademark bouncers of a subtly different pace, a slow one then a deceptively quicker one designed to take the batsman by surprise and holding the ball cross-seam.
Dennis Lillee described him as the most complete fast bowler he saw at the time. But the basis of his game, at least in the early years, was some serious pace. It is hard now to convey the impact Roberts made when he burst onto the scene in the early 1970s. He had played his first match for Hampshire – ironically against a touring West Indies side. However, in 1973 he made his Test debut against Mike Denness England in the Caribbean the following winter, but he was largely unknown when he began his first championship season in 1974.
Not for long. Word soon got around about the havoc he was causing. This was of course before the arrival of helmets and the consequent stiffer resolve such protection induced in some players. That year Roberts took 119 wickets in the county championship at the exceptionally low average of 13.62 and unsurprisingly Hampshire carried off the title. From England, Roberts went on to a Test tour of India where he created similar panic among the opposition. He took 32 wickets in the series, which was then a record for any visiting bowler in India.
He has only been beaten once since by Malcolm Marshall, who in 1983–84 took 33 wickets in six games, one more than Roberts played). In England in 1976, and now with the rapidly improving Holding in harness as his new-ball partner, he took 28 wickets in five Tests, including ten in the match at Lord’s and nine at Old Trafford. During that series, he reached 100 Test wickets in just his 19th match. Before that only five bowlers have ever got there faster and none of them was a bowler of genuine pace.
Many England batsmen encountered his bowling on that 1976 tour in one of the earliest matches for Leicestershire. David Gower scored 89 unbeaten in the second innings but it was a very flat Grace Road pitch and he was naturally saving himself for the Test matches. Later faced him in a Test match at Trent Bridge in 1980 which went better for him than it did for others. He took eight wickets in the game. Many saw his side home with the bat in a tight finish, although not before Gower had dropped him, much to the chagrin of my captain, Ian Botham, we crossed paths subsequently in the Caribbean the next year.
That time, he was the one who lost the support of the selectors after going wicketless in Antigua, prompting speculation – misplaced as it proved. However, it seems that his international career might be over. Andy Roberts was always a quietly spoken guy and there were no histrionics on the field. Forget sledding. What you got from Andy was a withering look.
Then he went back to his mark, perhaps making a small change to his field before trying to get you out again. Soon after that tour, you got to observe him from much closer quarters when he joined Leicestershire. He had stopped playing for Hampshire in 1978 to lighten his workload but now that he was playing a little less often for West Indies. He was ready for a fresh challenge. He was hardly garrulous in the dressing room either, but he was measured in what he did say and was worth listening to.
On the field, he would have a quick word with his captain, as though to say, ‘This is what we need to do.’ He worked things out very quickly and in a composed fashion. He didn’t drink and we would not see much of him during away games. He would eat his food early and go to bed. If the decision to join us was designed to rejuvenate his game, it certainly worked. He bowled superbly in 1982, almost getting back to the pace he routinely generated in the mid-1970s and taking 54 wickets at 19.01.
Indeed, he nearly took us to the championship. With two games to go, we were only two points behind Middlesex, the eventual champions, and it was not his fault we lost our way in the last two games against Notts and Kent. He continued this vein of form in the Caribbean the following winter when he was the pick of the West Indies bowlers once again, taking 24 wickets in five Tests against India. Tall and strong, Andy Roberts proved highly durable. England legendry fast bowler John Snow believes that he has reduced his efficiency after being overburdened during 1974 by his country Hampshire and West Indies.
Also, Andy Roberts was the first West Indies out-and-out fast bowler to take 200 Test wickets, played more first-class matches, and took more first-class wickets (889 at 21.01 each), than Michael Holding, Colin Croft, or Joel Garner. Overall, he managed to take 202 Test wickets, 87 ODI wickets, 889 first-class wickets, and 274 List-A wickets. Andy Roberts was also part of the West Indies team which ended up as runners-up in the 1983 ICC Cricket World Cup beaten by India.
Sir Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts was born on 29 January 1951 at Urlings Village Antigua. He was the first Antiguan to play Test cricket for the West Indies and led the way for many famous cricketers like Vivian Richards, Richie Richardson, and Curtly Ambrose. In 2005, he became the second Antiguan to be inducted into the United States Cricket Hall of Fame. In 2009, Andy Roberts was inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame.