Gideon Haigh on cricket's most influential players

George Headley

The great black hope

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

Gideon Haigh

October 3, 2009

Comments: 19 | Text size: A | A

George Headley pulls, Commonwealth XI v England XI, 29 August 1951
Headley's placement was so precise, he would pick out fielders who were also bowlers, endeavouring to tire them © PA Photos
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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

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Posted by abhibane 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.

Posted by ZA77 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.

Posted by cancricfan 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.

Posted by fsdb 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! ;-)

Posted by Mercutio 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.

Posted by RogerC 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.

Posted by misterjoeyman 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

Posted by fibonacci_72 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.

Posted by fsdb 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.

Posted by TheAlpacinoOfSydney 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

Posted by K.noel on (October 3, 2009, 21:13 GMT)

It is always fascinating to read a cricket aficionado's insights into the career of this outstanding man who is one of the greatest ever to grace a cricket pitch.Thank you for doing so. I am amazed at the caveat raised by 'waspsting' about your comments on the racial politics, as people who understand the era all realize that that was part of the burden this atlas so willingly bore -- the racial insults that underlay the cricket. it highlights his greatness as a man. And the reference to Worrell was quite apt as well. He also spoke of Sobers as being in a team where the others were 'easy meat! Rohan Khanhi, Basil Butcher, Conrad Hunte. Easy Meat? Lesse men? Dexter was making a point. Dont take him literally! Incidentally, I want to thank HLANGL for the information on Sathasivam. It is a name I've heard but am now beginning to understand its significance.

Posted by degiant on (October 3, 2009, 20:44 GMT)

Great article abuot one of the best. Even thoughGeorge Headley has gone and changes have come, things remain the same. Some of our batsmen still give away their wickets easily and as Headley said 'Why him dont't like bat' still applies. During Headley's time the cricket board was playing racial politics but now its POWER POLITICS. There still seems to be insularity in the WI team and structure and if things don't change we will remain at the bottom of the list of good teams.

Posted by nafzak on (October 3, 2009, 19:41 GMT)

I wonder why everyone seemingly accept it as fact that Bradman was teh greatest ever batsman. In his era, perhaps yes, but the man made 70% of his runs against England and furthermore, wth the exception of a few tests against India, he never faced or playes against any other player of colour or a blackman for that matter. We can say that he was a man of his times, but the fact remains, that in South Africa, there were several much faster "black bowlers" who could or did not play for Sa because of the colour of their skin. Too often we gloss over the role or problem of "race" in cricket and we are worse off for it. In baseball we have the same problem with the likes of Babe Ruth. He never played against the best pitchers of his era, who were mostly if not all black.

Posted by Patrick_Clarke on (October 3, 2009, 12:11 GMT)

Always interested in how others rate the greats. My top 11 batsmen are:1)Don Bradman;2)Viv Richards;3)Barry Richards;4)Jack Hobbs;5)Brian Lara;6)Garry Sobers;7)Victor Trumper;8)Wally Hammond;9)George Headley;10)Herbert Sutcliffe;11)Sachin Tendulkar. Just my opinion.

Posted by Bollo on (October 3, 2009, 11:06 GMT)

yeah, wonderful article - and congratulations for not mentioning "The Black Bradman".

Posted by AsifRathod on (October 3, 2009, 11:03 GMT)

A great player indeed. We have to rate him amongst the top 5 batsman of all time. My Top 5 batsmen of all time would be,

1. Sir Don Bradman 2. Sir Jack Hobbs 3. George Headley 4. Sir Garry Sobers 5. Brian Lara

3 West Indians. Strange but truth, In the lands of Big,Fast & Furious Fast Bowlers, there are these three great batsmen of all time.

Posted by waspsting on (October 3, 2009, 8:09 GMT)

one of the greatest batsmen ever. I wish the article had devoted more time to his batting style, and memories of his skills than on racial politics. Headley succeeded everywhere - WI, Aus, and Eng. - and against everyone he played against. Its a shame he didn't play more often. @HLANGL - agree with your list of great WI batsmen completely. Sobers I think was the best of the lot, Headley second. @misterjoeyman - agree with Lara being an atlas, but I suppose the relations he had with his own team take away from him being called "Atlas". One point - I'm not sure that being a great player amongst mediocre team mates is a disadvantage. Hadlee and Murali have used it as a springboard to make records. As for batsmen - wouldn't the opposition simply not try as hard to get the one great out, knowing the others were easy meat? Ted Dexter made this point regarding Sobers - how they'd just give him a single and focus their energies on the lesser batsmen.

Posted by HLANGL on (October 3, 2009, 5:47 GMT)

A great batsman in every sense. The world may not have quite seen the best of this man. Had the second world war didn't interrupt his carreer, he would have made at least 5000 test runs with at least a 60+ average, a record would have been second only to Bradman then. Even with that interruption period, he still could stand out as one of the game's all time great strokemakers. I always consider George Headley, Everton Weeks, Sobers, Viv Richards & Brian Lara are the best five batsmen the West Indies has produced in their illustrious history. Headley may be a touch older than our own Mahadevan Sathasivam (yes, I'm a Sri Lankan), whose legacy was unfortunately not to be seen much at the international level (then and there he represented few International combined XIs with disctinction), mainly due to the fact that he played the game during Sri Lanka's (then Ceylon's) pre-test era. But more often than not, when I see some article written on Headley it reminds me Sathasivam & vice versa.

Posted by misterjoeyman on (October 3, 2009, 3:10 GMT)

Thanks very much for this. Like any Westindian cricket lover who knows a little cricket history, i am a certified Headley-holic.

I wonder what the writer thinks about Lara in the context of "Atlas". Sure, B Lara wasn't our first great one, and came into a well-organised (or all-too organised) cricket structure. Sure, he wasn't completely alone; he had Richardson, Hooper, Greenidge & Haynes to bat with in the earlies, and Marshall Ambrose, Walsh et al to bowl on his side. He had Gayle, Sarwan, & Chanderpaul in the late stages. But no one has played on more losing teams, and few these days (especially in these parts) has played so long. Is it too early to muse on BC's greatness in the face of team incapacity and managerial incompetence?

Anyway, thanks for the article.

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Gideon Haigh Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.

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