Devon Malcolm wrote his name into the history books with a ferocious spell of fast bowling at The Oval in 1994. He was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year the following spring.
Devon Malcolm is an unlikely hero. He can be erratic, he is hopelessly shortsighted, and at times he is wildly inaccurate. But he possesses an athleticism and physical strength which he combines with an ungainly, almost uncoordinated delivery to produce bowing which at best is lightning fast and straight, and at worst searches in vain for the cut strip.
Ask any South African cricketer and they will have just one memory of the man. Fearsomely fast, searingly straight and awesomely aggressive, devastating Devon was the hero of The Oval in 1994. His nine for 57 in the second innings demolished and demoralised South Africa in a way that only outstanding fast bowling can. The analysis was the sixth-best in the history of Test cricket and it elevated Malcolm into English cricketing folklore.
Since twin tours were introduced in England in 1965, no team had ever come back to win or draw a three-match series after falling one behind. England in their selection threw caution to the wind, abandoning hope of fielding a balanced attack in favour of all-out speed. Malcolm was delivered from Chesterfield and Eastbourne and thrust into his favourite arena.
The Oval’s pitch with its generous pace and bounce provided him with an ideal surface on which to perform and rejuvenate his flagging career. Malcolm felt he had been publicly humiliated when sent away from the Lord’s Test match against New Zealand 24 hours before the game. Sensibly, he retained faith in his own ability and also a respect for the England captain, Mike Atherton, who as an accomplished opening batsman realises more than most the unsettling effect of raw pace.
Devon Eugene Malcolm was born on February 22, 1963, in Kingston, Jamaica. His father, Albert, supported the family by working in England, and his mother, Brendalee, died when Devon was five, leaving him to be brought up by his grandmother in the Jamaican town of St Elizabeth. At school, he enjoyed all sports, particularly sprinting, cricket and football. But it was not until he went to join his father in Sheffield in 1979, and began studying at Richmond College, that his cricketing talent was recognised. The college had a cricket team, but it was made up of old boys and staff and Devon became the first student member.
He kept taking five wickets and on his own admission kept scaring people, so much so that his prowess was highlighted in the Sheffield Star. In 1981, he played in the same Yorkshire school side as Ashley Metcalfe and progressed via Sheffield Caribbean and Sheffield United to selection for the Yorkshire League XI which played the county side in April 1984. His two prized scalps that afternoon were Geoffrey Boycott and Martyn Moxon, both clean bowled.
That performance must have left Yorkshire wondering if the Kingston on Malcolm’s birth certificate might be the Hull variety rather than the Jamaican. But at that stage, the strict Yorkshire-born policy applied. He signed for Derbyshire later that season. He told Phil Russell, the Derbyshire coach, that he didn’t want any money for playing, he would play for the love of it.
His love of the game has been sorely tested since that day, his career being a constant roller-coaster of selections and non-selections for both Derbyshire and England. Derbyshire, with a large stock of seam bowlers, have had a policy of rest and rotation, believing this is in the best interests of the player, though Malcolm himself thrives on hard work.
Nevertheless, Malcolm was and always will be a raw quick bowler, who will remain indebted to Russell for encouraging him to bowl as fast as possible, and to his fellow Jamaican and team-mate at Derby, Michael Holding, who emphasised the levels of concentration that were needed to bowl fast and highlighted the one single factor that transforms Malcolm, more than any other bowler, from also-ran to danger-man: “Follow through straight.”
Since qualifying to play for England, by residence, in 1987, and his triumph at The Oval he played 28 Test matches and took 98 wickets at an average of 35. These are hardly startling figures and reflect the erratic nature of his career. But by the winter of 1989-90, his strike bowling capabilities were well recognised, and his waywardness countered and complemented by a partnership with the admirably straight Angus Fraser. The duo bowled England to an improbable victory in Jamaica, where Malcolm blew away the West Indians’ key batsmen in the second innings, and to the verge of victory in Port-of-Spain where a match analysis of ten for 137 gave him his best and most aggressive performance to date.
His dislike of the generally slower and flatter pitches in England and his apparent inability to adapt to these conditions limited his appearances to the extent that by 1993 he was chosen only for the Oval Test, where he took six wickets against the hitherto rampant Australians. With a West Indies tour coming up after that, he was a natural choice to lead the attack in the winter, but the first serious injury of his career, picked up in the Jamaica Test, scuppered his chances of glory. And when he was dropped again after one Test against New Zealand in 1994, many thought that, at 31, he was finished as a Test cricketer. No one, not even Malcolm at his most resolute, could have dreamed what was to follow when he came back to face South Africa at The Oval.
After a first-day argument, that he describes as healthy, with his captain over the bowling of bouncers at de Villiers and Donald (Atherton wanted them delivered, Malcolm didn’t), events conspired to produce his definitive fast-bowing performance. Inspired by the batting efforts of DeFreitas and Gough on Friday evening, goaded into retaliation by a blow between the eyes from a de Villiers bouncer, and kept calm by the reggae on his Walkman in the dressing-room, Devon bowled England to victory and himself into the history books.
P.S. Tradition dictates that we have to mention his batting. He was once officially described, by Conrad Hunte in his capacity as Test match referee, as “one of the worst No. 11s in the game”. It is entertaining, though.
Devon Malcolm played just 12 more Tests after his demolition of South Africa in 1994. His Test career ended in 1997 after he had taken 128 wickets at 37.09 in 40 matches.