Wes Hall February 10, 2009

From fire to friendship

On facing one of the all-time great West Indian fast men and living to tell the tale

"That galloping approach, that explosive delivery, that menacing follow-through": Hall in 1963 © Getty Images

When I first laid eyes on Wes Hall he was in the next parish. As I scratched my guard the bowler in the far distance at the end of a run that would become as identifiable as any in the game was the latest West Indies tearaway.

I was the 17-year-old opening batsman for the Lodge School at a time when the three top secondary schools in Barbados were part of the highest division of domestic cricket, along with clubs that routinely included Test and first-class players (presumably it was supposed to be character building). He was 20, immense and with the chiselled physique of the light-heavyweight boxer his father was.

Only a few months earlier he had been hurling them down, at appreciable pace but without much control, for West Indies on their 1957 tour of England. He had converted from keeping wickets to knocking them over only a couple of years earlier on leaving Combermere (along with Harrison College, cricket's other favoured school in Barbados).

He was said to be erratic and prone to no-balls. Neither claim lifted our confidence, for whatever else, he was decidedly quick. If he was not sure where the next ball would go, we certainly were not, and since the back-foot law was still in operation, he was pretty much stepping on the batsman's toes every time he dragged.

Somehow, through youthful eyesight, reflexes, bravado, luck, whatever, I clipped a boundary through square leg in the opening over on the way to a scintillating 24. The image has justifiably remained with me, as sharp as if on a high-definition TV screen. When, by now old friends, I felt comfortable enough to mention it to Wes a few months back, he quickly pricked my pride: "You lucky you still living!"

Thankfully I never had to face him again. The next time I saw him in the flesh was in the Caribbean against India in 1961-62. He had developed into one of the most feared bowlers in international cricket and I was safely settled in the press box, relishing the thrill of that galloping approach, that explosive delivery, that menacing follow-through, that flying crucifix around the neck that I had first experienced from 22 yards, or considerably less, five years earlier.

In the interim I had shivered through Canadian winters, blithely distracted from university studies by reports on crackling shortwave reception that told of the coming of age of a raft of new stars under the guidance of Frank Worrell: Sobers, Kanhai, Hunte, Nurse, Gibbs and, of course, Hall.

As one of the few West Indian journalists following the team in the subsequent years of dominance and in an era when players did not take a critical reference to a poor shot or a wayward spell as a personal insult, I developed friendships with most of those legends. It was most natural with Wes.

It was not long before I came to appreciate what CLR James had immediately observed. "Hall simply exudes good nature at every pore," he wrote in Beyond A Boundary. It might seem a contradiction, for as James also noted, "Hall merely puts his head down and let's you have it, and it's pretty hot!" Yet it is a virtue that has never changed.

When he turned up at my 50th birthday bash at 1am, numbers were beginning to thin. Wes kept it going for another four hours

This is not to say it was his only characteristic. There was a wholehearted energy and enjoyment in everything he did, an obvious sense of fun, vividly captured on the black-and-white footage of the 1960-61 tied Test in Brisbane, featuring his famous frenetic last over and, not least, his equally frenetic half-century.

After that series the Australian commentator Johnnie Moyes described Wes as "a rare box-office attraction, a man who caught and held the affections of the paying public". So it has been throughout a life of several intriguing incarnations.

After a couple of car crashes and the exhaustion of giving his all for several teams around the world took their toll and the "pace like fire" (the appropriate title of his autobiography) was extinguished, he took the usual path of retired players, into administration as selector, team manager and, eventually, board president.

But there is more to Wes Hall than cricket. He entered politics in his 40s, spending 10 years as a Barbados cabinet minister, and more recently turned to the church to become a minister of a different kind, a legacy of a deeply religious upbringing.

They were all connections from which I benefited. Wes was regularly my "reliable source" on complicated cricket issues and I was chuffed when he agreed to officiate at the weddings of my children, although I was careful to emphasise the need to keep the service short and to remind him of the time as Wes is renowned for his entertaining, if often prolonged, oratory as well as for his tardiness.

His myriad cricket tales, embellished with highfalutin words as long as his run-up, are guaranteed to leave audiences convulsed in laughter, however many times they have heard them before. His description of that last tied Test over is one of the after-dinner classics.

If he happens to be a little late, he is always worth waiting for. When he turned up at my 50th birthday bash at 1am, numbers were beginning to thin. Wes kept it going for another four hours.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for nearly 50 years. This article was first published in the January 2009 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here