Frank Worrell

Mover and shaker

Worrell inspired, stirred, roused. And therein lay his greatness

Frank Worrell bought me plenty of coffee during the 2007 World Cup. That's odd because he died 40 years ago. But in Barbados the going rate for a double espresso is $4.50 in the local currency, and the face that beams with easy dignity on a $5 bill is that of Worrell. "Go on," his slight smile seemed to suggest as Australia ground towards their umpteenth victory, "it won't feel so bad if you have another." So I did, often, and in the midst of a caffeine buzz it didn't seem to matter quite so much that Ricky Ponting's custard column was marching unhalted through another World Cup, or that one-day cricket had marked time since Steve Waugh had lifted the trophy at Lord's in 1999. What might Worrell have said about all that? "Stop moping and find a way to beat them," probably.

It is for real and imagined reasons like this that Worrell is my favourite player, despite the fact that I was but a year old when he succumbed to leukaemia in 1967. Among the more real reasons is that Worrell donated blood to help save the life of Nari Contractor after Charlie Griffith had bounced Contractor into hospital in 1962.

I can easily forgive Worrell's well-meant but silly insistence that guilty batsmen should walk. That lapse into unreality is more than made up for by his decision, in a match against Yorkshire, to pack the leg-side field and to instruct his bowlers to gun for the batsmen. When Douglas Jardine had employed similar tactics, he had been vilified outside of England as a darkly calculating figure. But no one anywhere accused Worrell of being other than a creative captain who was merely trying to win the match in question, which his team duly did. Was this because Worrell was by all accounts an infinitely better human being than Jardine?

Another reason why Worrell is at the top of my list is that he was prone to nodding off in the dressing room, particularly in the middle of a batting collapse. Yes, sometimes cricket really is a boring old business. Interest in the world beyond the game by the more abject professionals who play it for a living would seem to extend only as far as the nearest golf course. Worrell, by contrast, crammed as much life as he dared to into his 42 years.

After retiring as a player, he became a warden at the University of the West Indies, and he graced the Jamaican Parliament as a senator. Who would want Kevin Pietersen for an MP? Who would entrust the tertiary education of their children to Shane Warne?

Worrell was born in Barbados, spent much of his adult life in Trinidad, and saw out his days in Jamaica. Those are three of the most disparate societies in the West Indies. "He saw the many diverse elements of the West Indies as a whole, a common culture and outlook separated only by the Caribbean Sea," Learie Constantine wrote in Worrell's Wisden obituary. Worrell propagated his views earnestly enough to berate Barbados for inviting the international community to celebrate the country's independence. A nation bristled, and for weeks afterwards the newspapers fairly rustled with harrumphing. Worrell was a cricketer who demanded to be so much more than only that.

I wonder what difference Worrell and his team might have made to the history of South Africa had they spent just one summer playing here

And, of course, he was no mean cricketer. Neville Cardus wrote that "he never made a crude or an ungrammatical stroke". For CLR James, Worrell's late cut was "one of the great strokes of our time".

Worrell's finest hour at the crease was West Indies' tour to England in 1950, where he scored 539 runs at 89.83. But his two stands of over 500 - 502 with John Goddard in 1944, and 574 with Clyde Walcott in 1946, both unfinished, and both for Barbados against Trinidad - provide a better epitaph for him as a player. He did, after all, believe in partnerships above all else.

Many will remember Worrell best as the first black man to be appointed West Indies captain. "... He was possessed of an almost unbridled passion for social equality," James wrote. "It was the men on his side who had no social status whatever for whose interest and welfare he was always primarily concerned. They repaid him with an equally fanatical devotion." Not for nothing, then, was Worrell snidely referred to as a "cricket Bolshevik" in the corridors of West Indian power.

Such treason evaporated in the heat of his first assignment at the helm, West Indies' epic 1960-61 venture to Australia. Famously, 500,000 Australians lined Melbourne's streets to bid the West Indians farewell at the end of the tour. And that in an Australia that was in the grip of a racist mindset.

As a South African who grew up when apartheid was at its most murderous, I have had cause to wonder what difference Worrell and his team might have made to the history of my country had they spent just one summer playing here. I never met Worrell or saw him play, but in the words of James, "No cricketer... ever shook me up in a similar manner." Espresso for the soul, you might say.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa