Sylvester Clarke: Cricket's most intimidating fast bowler
Sylvester Clarke

"Beefie, mahn … Beefie, mahn. What have you done to me … Beefie, mahn?" Beefie was England all-rounder Ian Botham and the man posing the question was the burly, Barbadian speedster Sylvester Clarke, almost totally incapacitated by a raging hangover.

The tale began the day before. It was the early 1980s, Surrey was visiting Somerset and Vic Marks, the hometown spinner, aware of Botham's iron constitution and Clarke's fondness for a drink, asked the England great to render his teammates a service by inviting the pacer out for a cocktail, or maybe 10. Somerset spent the first day in the field and Marks and his comrades were not relishing the thought of facing the Barbadian speedster on a lively surface the next day.

In the midst of executing the plan, Botham relates, Marks sought to hurry things along by suggesting a Surrey v Somerset drinking contest — Botham v Clarke. The night ended early the next morning with Clarke passed out on a pool table after both players barely managed to stumble back to their hotel.

Stories abound of county players going to great lengths to avoid the man often mentioned as the nastiest of the West Indian fast bowlers. Batters spoke his name in whispers, and whenever Clarke was in the vicinity, hometown batters made themselves scarce, much like the local bullies did in the old West when the deadly gunslinger rode into town.

One acquaintance related that as a 17-year-old he was called to trials for the Barbados team. Excited, he turned up early and soon found himself squaring up to Clarke in the nets. Given the scare of his life, he left and never returned. "I just didn't have the stomach," he admitted. Clarke was then around 21 and yet to construct his reputation for speed and hostility.

Former Australian batter and captain, Steve Waugh, tells of a 1987 sojourn in county cricket to prepare for the 1989 Ashes series. Clarke, he offered, bowled "the most awkward and nastiest spell" he ever faced. Representing Somerset, Waugh related how tense his colleagues were before a game against Surrey: "All week, in the lead-up to that match, the Somerset boys had been talking about the ferocity and 'strike rate' of Clarke. By strike rate, they were referring not to the wickets he took but to the number of helmets he cracked per game. As the contest drew nearer I could see the determination of the players disintegrating, and by the time we pulled on the whites, half the boys were already out. Pace and bounce of the kind Clarke could muster is something you can't prepare for; it's an assault both physically and mentally, and the moment you weaken and think about what might happen, you're either out or injured.

By that time, Clarke was in his 30s and past his quickest.

Unfortunately for the big Barbadian, his career coincided with a period of plenty in the Caribbean as far as electric pace bowling was concerned. During that time there were probably eight or nine pace bowlers who could have walked into any other team in the world and maybe four that would have made any team in any era. It was somewhat understandable, therefore, that his international career was limited to just 11 tests and 10 One-Day Internationals.

It required the departure of the Packer players in 1978 for Clarke to make his Test debut against Australia in the Caribbean. But even when Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, and Joel Garner returned from World Series Cricket, Clarke was still in or around the test team, and but for an incident on a tour of Pakistan, might have had a long and outstanding Test career. He was playing in the last Test of the 1980-81 series in Multan when spectators pelted him with fruits and other objects. Angered, he took up a brick used as a boundary marker and flung it in the crowd, inflicting a serious head wound to a young student, who required surgery to save his life. The riot that everyone feared was only prevented when West Indies batter Alvin Kallicharran knelt before the crowd as if in prayer and apologised.

But the incident resulted in Clarke receiving a three-match ban, which allowed Michael Holding, injured for most of the Pakistan tour, to replace the Barbadian for the following England series. He played only one more Test for the West Indies and effectively ended his Test prospects when he chose to participate in the 1982 rebel tour to South Africa.

Standing at 6'2", Clarke did not have the smooth approach and pure action that Holding had, and he did not display the focused power that was apparent in Malcolm Marshall's sprint to the crease and open-chested delivery. His relatively short approach was ambling, but when his huge shoulder came over, the ball was propelled at high pace, often short and honing in on the batter's throat.

Vivian Richards, the great, who had beaten back the likes of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee at their fastest, admitted that Clarke's high pace and elevated bounce caused him concern. Graham Gooch had his helmet split by the big pacer, and Simon Hughes, the Middlesex seamer, insists his helmet saved his life when Clarke clanged the portion protecting his temple. Colin Croft, who was in Pakistan alongside Clarke in 1980, recalls that he manhandled Zaheer Abbass, Majid Khan, and Wasim Raja to such an extent that he believes Clarke hastened the retirement of two of the three. One bouncer disturbed Zaheer's helmet so badly that it left an indentation that was three inches deep.

Warned once while playing for Surrey about intimidatory bowling, Clarke suggested to the umpire, and everyone close enough to hear, that this was not a "ladies' game".

Clarke played his last first-class game in 1990, representing Northern Transvaal. His 11 tests had yielded 42 wickets at 27.85, while he grabbed 942 first-class wickets at a staggering average of 19.52. Returning to his homeland he continued terrorising batsmen in club cricket and even touring teams in the nets. He also continued to satisfy his keenness for rum, a shortcoming that, it is believed, had a hand in his premature exit from Surrey in 1989.

On December 4, 1999, Clarke suddenly and tragically collapsed and died of a heart attack, mere weeks after his former teammate Malcolm Marshall succumbed to cancer. And if there is cricket in the afterlife, then batters would have trembled at the sight of Clarke being paired so soon with his former comrade-in-arms.

One English journalist reported that he shared a drink with Clarke in Barbados after his retirement and hinted to the fast bowler that former West Indies Captain Clive Lloyd might have stymied his career by not selecting him more often. "No," Clarke responded as he pointed to the bottle of rum nearby, "that is what destroyed my career."

Garfield Robinson is a Jamaican living in the US who writes on cricket for a few Indian and English publications. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

Garfield Robinson

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