George Headley October 3, 2009

The great black hope

The Atlas of West Indian cricket was a colossus among modest talents

Great cricketers are usually best contemplated in the Test arenas in which their great deeds were done. But to appreciate George Headley it is probably better to visit a game at a club, in a park, on a village green or a maidan, looking for that incongruous presence, the really good cricketer in a field of modest triers.

Everyone has watched or played with someone of the kind. He seems in sync with the game, understands it, and is a natural, compared with whom team-mates look ungainly. He usually goes in at No. 3 and bats all day, husbanding the strike. When he succeeds, his pals are in good heart. When occasionally he fails, victim of an outlandish catch or a bad call, they mount little further resistance.

For a decade of Test cricket, this mantle was George Headley's. To evoke the batting burden he bore for West Indies, CB Fry famously dubbed him "Atlas". Actually the classical allusion isn't quite exact. Unlike the mythological Atlas, lumbered with a job he detested and hoodwinked by Hercules into taking it back, Headley never shirked his burden. But Fry might also have been recalling his Homer, who made Atlas father of Calypso.

The complications of a role such as Headley's must be understood as being among the most formidable in cricket. Great players usually play in good teams: this is a reason they become great. They have the opportunity to bat with competent partners and in favourable circumstances, or to bowl with reliable back-up and alert fieldsmen. The lot of the outstanding player in a mediocre team is disproportionately harder, not merely because of the absence of able support and the likelihood of losing causes, but because the scenarios encountered tend, over time, to distort one's natural game.

For a batsman, questions arise. Do you preserve your wicket at all costs in the hope of prolonging a game? Or do you risk all, knowing that time is short? In describing his own career, John Reid - whom John Arlott once described as "an Atlas-type figure of New Zealand cricket" - explains how you must, in a sense, ignore reality. "I told a lot of lies. We'd gather as a team and naturally I'd try to be as positive as possible... I'd try to encourage our fellows, to explain that everyone is human, that they all got nervous, had failures. But in the back of your mind there was this knowledge that, all things being equal, we were in for a rough time."

Headley dawned, furthermore, ahead of cricket's institutional structures in the West Indies. His first series was in 1929-30, only two years after the foundation of the West Indies Cricket Board of Control. The region had no domestic competition, and administration was still radically decentralised: each venue had a different selection panel and a different captain; and there were 28 players in the four-Test rubber against England. Headley, 20, was the only Jamaican summoned for the Tests until Kingston hosted the last: not surprising, in view of his 703 runs at 87.9 during the series.

For the next decade Headley was the first West Indian picked everywhere; the other 10 players were almost an irrelevance. In 19 pre-war Tests he made 26.9% of West Indian runs off the bat - a greater ratio than even Don Bradman, who made 26.5% of Australia's in his 37 pre-war Tests. Headley scored two-thirds (10 of 15) of all West Indian hundreds in his appearances; Bradman not quite half (21 of 46) of the Australian centuries in his.

CLR James advanced Headley as "my candidate for a clinical study of a great batsman as a unique type of human being, both mentally and physically". When team-mates fell to foolish shots, Headley would simply ask, as if puzzled: "Why him don't like to bat?" For his own slight build, round shoulders and plod to the crease with bat dragged behind him belied a batting personality that was instinctively dominant. Team-mate Jeff Stollmeyer recalled that Headley was fond of smacking the first ball from a spinner straight back, trying to hurt their hands. "It was George's way of ensuring that spin bowlers did not give him much trouble," he said.

Headley became, as former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley put it, "black excellence personified in a white world and a white sport". He was proud of his Afro-Caribbean heritage, describing himself as "African" on the immigration form when he entered Australia for the 1930-31 tour

Headley's placement was so precise, Learie Constantine remembered, that he would pick out fielders who were also bowlers, endeavouring to tire them. "Sometimes he places the ball with fiendish cunning, so close and tempting that the player strains a shade too much to make an impossible catch or stop a ball a foot beyond his outstretched finger tips; and then a muscle is pulled or an ankle dragged."

At a time when West Indian cricketers were stereotyped as ebullient and ill-disciplined, Headley was also a pragmatist. He once recommended that West Indies bowl outside leg stump in order to deny India a Test victory; it worked. His record bespeaks uncommon drive and endurance. Headley's average at the outbreak of war was 66.7; among team-mates who played as many as five Tests, the next highest average was Clifford Roach's 30.7. West Indian captains in that period had contributed only five half-centuries - but they, of course, were white.

Headley became, as former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley put it, "black excellence personified in a white world and a white sport". He was proud of his Afro-Caribbean heritage, describing himself as "African" on the immigration form when he entered Australia for the 1930-31 tour. On seeing a photograph of a line of cricketers waiting to meet George VI, historian Frank Birbalsingh felt uplifted. "That one of us - a black man - could shake the hand of a king introduced possibilities formerly undreamt of in our colonial backwater of racial inferiority, psychological subordination and political powerlessness," he said. But being fit for kings did not, in the eyes of the West Indian board plantocracy, fit Headley himself for leadership. As Constantine wrote, "Cricket in the West Indies is the most glaring example of the black man being kept in his place... The heart of our cricket is rotted by racist politics. I only hope that before I die, I see a West Indian cricket team chosen on merit alone, and captained by a black man, win a rubber against England."

Constantine almost had his wish in January 1948, when Noel Nethersole, deputy of Jamaica's People's National Party to Michael Manley's father Norman, agitated from within the West Indian board for Headley's recognition. But Headley's tenure was confined to the first Test against Gubby Allen's visiting Englishmen in 1947-48, a gesture reeking of political expediency. From the outside, Wally Hammond expressed bafflement: "Headley was by far the most outstanding player as well as the most experienced cricketer... and I do not see why he was not given unqualified control of the team for the whole series." From the inside, Clyde Walcott described widespread belief that the West Indian board, "while realising that he [Headley] was the right man for the job and not daring to usurp his rightful place on his home ground of Jamaica, felt much more confident of their powers in Trinidad and British Guiana". In the end, a back injury, which Headley sustained in the first Test, kept him from the last three Tests, and the captaincy settled on white John Goddard.

Another 12 years elapsed before Frank Worrell's appointment fully enfranchised black West Indian cricketers - and by then, Worrell could call on immeasurably stronger XIs. Historian Hilary Beckles calls Headley "a saturnalia - a sign of things to come". Like the epithet Atlas, this is both apt and not quite apt: great cricketers would indeed follow in Headley's footsteps, but none would again have to bear the responsibility of being their team's first, best and only hope.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer. Some articles in the Movers and Shapers series, including this one, were first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2002

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Abhik on October 6, 2009, 16:24 GMT

    Well written tribute to one of the greatest batsmen ever made better by mention of the societal conditions then, as anyone who's read CLR James would know. Only part I didn't like was the statistical comparison to Bradman. Not because I have any preference for Bradman, though. Statistics have never given the complete picture with regard to any great player and the ones here might have an effect of narrowing down the achievements of both the greats.

  • xeeshan on October 5, 2009, 4:43 GMT

    Sir Bradman is no. 1 among his peers. If there is his comparison with him. Bradman batting average is 99.94 and Headley only 60.83.

    Is he only 60% of him. Yes, from statistic point of view, it is true.

    If we compare both batsmen against England then Sir Bradman average is 89.78 and his 71.23. Sir Bradman had so many timeless matches against England but he faced none. Suppose if he also had timeless matches then he could improve his batting average against them to how much, we do not know the exact. Bradman played 26 timeless matches in his entire test career.

    Against Australia, his average drastically changed because of bowlers like Grimmett and Iron Monger, 37.33 only against them.

    He played only one test match beside Austraila and England. Bradman average was 140.57 excluding England, which were at very initial level. Bradman played 79% of his inning against England. I think he is no. 2 after Bradman or if Hammond is no. 2 then he is no. 3 of same era.

  • Fletcher on October 5, 2009, 4:21 GMT

    Another great article Mr Haigh. "Sir George" was indeed a beacon during a dark period of West Indian cricket. Many have given their choices as to who is the finest batsmen in the annalls of a game we all clearly love. To HLANGL, had you not mentioned M.Sathasivam (Satha to those from SL) I certainly would have. All I have is but one line from my grandfather as a measure of his greatness.."Satha was a surgeon with a bat, Roy(Dias) might come close on his very best day & Satha's worst day". Gramps just didn't see what was so special about Aravinda that everyone was talking about. It's great to see the name Barry Richards included and I've checked youtube for innings from the great, just do it you will not be disappointed.

  • Bis on October 4, 2009, 16:37 GMT

    @misterjoeyman completely agree that compiling lists of the greatest players from different eras is according to subjective criteria but I am glad that we both agree about the greatness of Laurence Rowe a true magician with the willow. I would always have Barry Richards in my list of the top 10 of all time, as would anybody who actually saw him play! ;-)

  • Cliff on October 4, 2009, 5:35 GMT

    Congratulations on another great article. Clearly George Headley would have been a master in any era. However, I would like to point out to some of your correspondents that Tendulkar, as good as he is, is not God! One gets sick and tired of having him thrown up every time batting is mentioned. I mean, if Tendulkar is SO good, why isn't his test average in the 90s, or the 80s, or the 70s, or even in the 60s? No, at present it sits at 54.58. Headley's on the other hand, is 60.83!! Enough said.

  • Roger on October 4, 2009, 0:36 GMT

    Your articles are always outstanding and make compulsive reading. This is another great piece. Greatness is defined by performances beyond runs/wickets and match wins. For example, Dan Vettori was a far superior player last year than Johnson or Gambhir who got the ICC best player awards. Another example is Tendulkar who is expected by some millions to score a century every time he bats. Its good to read this type of articles that allows us to reflect things in right perspective.

  • Joey on October 3, 2009, 23:15 GMT

    Here's my top ten: 1) Headley; 2) Bradman (sorry Aussies); 3) Hobbes; 4) Lawrence Rowe; 4) Tendulkar; 5) Lara; 6) Gavaskar; 7) Richards; 8) SWaugh; 9) Sobers; 10) Boycott... clearly showing my Westindian bias, i suppose. Also, these are batsmen i like the most, rather than any universal standard of greatness. It's so hard to say - even if i had seen them and knew them personally - whether Headley was "greater" than Bradman... i just think Headley did more with less. @ waspsting: good point about the double-edged sword of being a top batsman

  • Sai on October 3, 2009, 23:06 GMT

    Among the world's greatest batsmen, there's Don Bradman and next, there's Sachin Tendulkar. The Headleys and Hobbses are great no doubt, but not one played limited overs internationals and scored at such an extraordinary frequency as Tendulkar. Taking on the Akrams, McGraths and the like at 5'5" and a billion plus hearts to thrill every innings over 20 years are no mean feats! Vivian Richards is my 3rd best all-time player who, in terms of viewing excitement, is non-pareil.

  • Bis on October 3, 2009, 22:52 GMT

    A masterly evocation of a collossal performer - among cricket writers today, Gideon Haigh is if not an Atlas then certainly a Titan. @Patrick Clarke - thank you for mentioning Barry Richards my boyhood hero who I would rate higher than the great Viv. Having never before seen photos of Headley in action I must say the pull shot he is caught playing on the photo here reminds me of Viv Richards in all its dramatic glory. Headley is a true legend - I remember as a boy seeing his son Ron play in a league match in the Midlands and feeling privileged to have had the aura of the incomparabe George somehow touch me.

  • Sandeep on October 3, 2009, 21:50 GMT

    My great batsmen, 1. Bradman,2. Tendulkar, 3. Lara, 4. Sir Gary, 5. Sunil Gavaskar 6. Ricky Ponting, 7. Graeme Pollock, 8. George Headley, 9. Steve Waugh, 10. Allan Border

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