Forget the big muscular batsmen.
Forget the sky-touching strike rates or the 100-meter-long sixes.
It’s fast bowling- first and foremost- that makes you West Indian and warrants you the raised eyebrow and the sigh of fear of batsmen.
Today, there’s Oshane Thomas and Alzarri Joseph who slide in at over 140 kms.
Moreover, Gabriel and Roach are still going strong.
Two divergent eras contributing for Windies along with Cottrell and his salutes.
What does it mean?
Fast bowling is alive.
Two decades back, however, much of it rested in the flair and skill of Ambrose and Walsh.
When the likes of Malcolm Marshall and Patrick Patterson retired, Ambrose and Walsh stepped in.
A sign of natural progression.
They intimidated, were hard to score off.
We remember Ambrose’ Perth magic, and marvel at Walsh’s amazing tally of wickets.
The rerun of their exploits on YouTube is an intrepid habit of the 90s kid.
But if you were to examine what lies between these two divergent eras- today’s pacers and the era with Ambrose and Walsh, you’d find a pause.
A question that haunted the fan in the Caribbean was “who after” Ambrose and Walsh?
While there’ve been many who appeared as a catchy headline, think Pedro Collins, Franklin Rose, Fidel Edwards, there’s but one man who created a lasting impression.
The man is Mervyn Dillon.
The 46-year-old Mervyn Dillon you see today was once a tireless workhorse of the fast bowling department who you remember for his lanky height and that high-arm action.
He was, back in the day, circa 1997 until 2004, the go-to fast-bowler for a team that was no stranger to superstars.
He was to have inexhaustible power.
Someone with searing pace.
Someone who’d bulldoze anyone wielding the bat in hand.
But how was the fan to be blamed; the greats before had lavished him with a feast of fast bowling delight.
And while the right-arm fast bowler didn’t accumulate the hair-raising success as some of his famous and more illustrious predecessors, he presided over a career that lasted no fewer than eight years.
That’s precisely where the Mervyn Dillon-conundrum lies; a situation that points to a puzzling scenario.
Where a fast bowler possesses all physical attributes or elements that make him threatening; the opportunities and fitness, but not mind-boggling numbers.
Truly speaking, how you judge Mervyn Dillon’s career- that peaked in the nineties and sweated it out in the mid-2000s- is upto you.
If you are greedy about big numbers- then surely Mervyn Dillon’s 131 Test wickets and a nearly identical number in ODIs disappoint.
In fact, they leave a sour taste.
But must we not forget that, on a whole, Mervyn Dillon- who didn’t have the lightning pace of an Allan Donald or the mindfulness of tricking batsmen into a trap akin to McGrath- didn’t really fail.
Would you call a career a failure if it yields 131 Test wickets despite not playing 50 games on a whole?
In fact, Mervyn Dillon played just 38 Tests, a minuscule number for someone who was thought of as a natural successor to Walsh.
The key to decoding the underwhelming returns for a giant fast bowler perhaps reside in how many opportunities he actually got.
Leveling criticism is easy but examining details takes effort.
Not once until 2000- when Ambrose and Walsh were on their way out- did Dillon play 5 Tests in a year.
But by that time, he’d already proven himself, capturing 37 wickets (11 Tests).
It was only in 2001 that Mervyn Dillon played as many as 8 games.
But he had shown what he was capable of, way before- starring in a drawn Port of Spain Test where he captured 3 for 92 against a Siddhu, Dravid, Sachin, and Ganguly-powered India.
Only Ambrose, with a fifer, emerged with more wickets.
But in reality, Dillon’s induction into the team was more of a marriage made in hell than heaven.
Perhaps while we pass easy judgment of a career that’s largely unfulfilled, it doesn’t occur to us that big ‘Merv’ was facing several challenges.
By the time the Trinidadian found himself wearing West Indian colors, Ambrose and Walsh- the father-figures- had already played a decade of cricket.
The role of the first-change bowler, who’d soon open the bowling was in some ways more onerous than we’ve imagined.
Holding could have an easy day with Garner and Roberts going strong. Shake up the order, it works for either of the three.
But how much confidence would it have inspired to see Nixon McLean and Pedro Collins rattle the batsmen if he wasn’t having a great day with the ball?
Being Mervyn Dillon was in some ways an unimaginable challenge.
Lest it is forgotten that for the majority of his career, he was tasked to defend vastly underpowered scores, totals barely over 200 in the wake of Lara and Chanderpaul faltering.
Yet, when he could’ve complained, he chose to persist like a quiet servant of the game.
The only thing he knew was how to be quick with the ball in his hand, using that long, rhythmic action.
He wasn’t the scariest bowler.
But he made most of the ball that angled in and the one that bounced awkwardly around the off.
Like how he used a long nearly tireless spell in his favor taking four in each Indian inning during the sublime Barbados victory of 2002.
A comprehensive 10-wicket win saw a tall seamer get the better of Ratra, Sachin, and Das.
Yet, many of Dillon’s famous efforts were shadowed by another colleague.
Even his best Test feat- 8 for 123 in that Barbados win- were shadowed by Chanderpaul and Hooper’s dogged hundreds.
His best spell in ODI cricket– that 5 for 29, which came as a 30-year-old saw him bowl 4 maiden overs in a full spell yet, all we remember are Gayle’s 99 and Hinds’ 82.
Cricket, it often seems, isn’t won by pure skill and magic alone.
It often takes a stroke of luck. But did Dillon have plenty of that when he contested in an age where West Indies cricket was all but written off?
No wonder the game’s called a team sport.
For every spark of individual brilliance, you need a collective fighting spirit to make it count.
Surely, he may not have been the bowler batsmen dreaded facing or someone who set imperceptible fields in a spell.
But shouldn’t Mervyn Dillon be credited for at least doing his best for West Indies’ way in an age where the defeats column sore skyward, where there were hardly any overseas wins?
For had he just had the makings of a robust pacer, not the work-ethic, how would he have finished with 3 fifers in ODIs and an economy of 4.6?
Not everything was right about the West Indies in the post-Ambrose, Walsh, Adams, and Hooper-era.
Yet some didn’t mind trying; like Merv who bowled over 14,000 deliveries in just that 8-year stay. Maybe that’s why his collective tally of 261 wickets seem anything but a failure.