Growing up, nothing thrilled Kemar Roach than pure, unadulterated speed. He loved making the cricket ball fly off dead pitches. Bruising heads. Battering toes. Scything psyches. When he was content ripping the cricket balls at an extreme pace, he would saddle into one of his fancy speed cars and zip it even faster—upwards of 100 miles.
But one of his adrenaline-fuelled drives nearly cost his life. On a rainy evening, just north of the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, he lost control of his BMW and spun and skidded into the adjoining 3Ws Park. The car was shattered beyond repair, but Roach escaped with a minor head injury. “It’s a miracle that I’m still alive. Everybody who witnessed the accident believed that I had died. It took me months to recover from the mental shock,” he confessed to Barbados Today in an interview.
The scars of the accident, though, remained. Gradually, it began affecting his game. From being raved as the successor to the Barbadian legends like Malcolm Marshall, the tearaway transgressed into a scattergun bowler. The same bowler who had consigned Ricky Ponting to his only “retired hurt” entry of the career and made him spend a night in the local dispensary in Perth, resembled a cheap imposter of himself.
After forgettable tours to England, South Africa, where he suffered an ankle injury, and Australia, where he bled 15 runs in his first over on Boxing Day, he was duly dropped at the stroke of 2016. It was not until late next year he reclaimed his Test stripes, after 17 months of wilderness.
The first six of the months, he played little cricket, went almost incognito, before a couple of local coaches met him. One of them was Peter Vaughn, who sensed the “boy who he saw grew up right in front his eyes”, was knackered, both physically and mentally. “He was depressed, which was understandable. After the highs of his early career, he was struggling to cope with the lows. But we didn’t want to let a precious talent like him go wasted. We wanted to bring him back and I assured him we (he and his coaches) will make him a better bowler than he was,” Vaughn recollects to The Indian Express.
Next week, he got a call from Roach, who sounded cheerier. He told him what he was waiting to hear: “We will start working from tomorrow.” Next morning, he was knocking on the academy doors. By that Vaughn and another coach Richard Straker had pored over countless videos, dissecting his technique and flaws. “We found a few things, like his lack of balance when he was landing at the crease, he was falling over. He was leaping a little too high during the load up, and his wrists were not coming through. There were a lot of minor things to change,” he says.
But his biggest enemy, he realised, was the demons of the mind. “He was still thinking of the accident and the miraculous escape. He had completely stopped driving and his mind was not focussed on his game. He was easily distracted, and that’s was the main reason his game drifted,” he remembers.
His redemption road began in a jogger’s park close to the Maple Cricket Club. “The first thing we did was to improve his fitness. We chalked a plan that began with light running. For the first week, we just made him run. You know running lifts your morale, brings a lot of positive energy. Then we gradually started full training. Only exercises and no bowling. We knew once his mind was clear, he would regain his rhythm. Once he regains it, half of the mistakes he was committing would disappear.”
A month later, he began bowling at the nets. By this time he was much fitter and happier. “He seemed to have rediscovered the drive. He was in that frame of mind and body that we could now go about working on his technique, weed out the mistakes and improve his bowling,” says Straker.
They began with his run-up, shortened it, made the strides too shorter and the cut out the extra leap during the delivery, before they moved on to his wrists. At his worst days, the wrists had become too tight when releasing and hence the ball wobbled out of his hand, which meant he could neither bowl fast nor extract movement. With a loosened up wrists, he could produce more seam movement. They moved on to his release, made it more high arm. But more anything else, they fed him with a diet of old Malcolm Marshall stories. “Marshall in his last days was not the quickest but a more evolved bowler, who relied on his craft. He still bowled at good pace, but there was more than pace to him. There was craft and our advice to him was exactly that,” says Vaughn.
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Thus, Roach’s redemption began with his pace de-addiction. He began bowling slower and driving cars even slower. But in those 18 months, he developed a lot of wisdom and craft, game awareness and new skills, which he further developed under former fast bowlers and coaches Ottis Gibson and Corey Collymore. From knocking batsmen down, he began relishing the cerebral duels. “Keep your areas, make the batsmen play as many balls as possible. It’s a lovely duel” he outlines his method.
The revised methods have ushered in a remarkable transformation, making him one of the most feared bowlers around the world. He no longer possess physical danger, rarely so, but he threatens their wickets like few others. He has at his disposal a variety of gifts—swing, seam, cut, smarts—to rattle batsmen. He still pushes the speedometer to lower 80mphs. But has stopped worrying and obsessing about touching 95kmphs. Raw speed no longer thrills him as it once used to. The photograph of his tattered BMW stored in his mobile phone had made him almost averse to speed.