March 6, 2011

The troubled, passionate cricketer from Nevis

The player with the long rap sheet and the man in the dressing-room make Morton seem almost like a character of the Jekyll and Hyde sort

In Runako Morton's last two innings in cricket, he did not score a single run, but still, he ended a winner.

Hours before his life ended at 33 on a Central Trinidad highway, Morton's Queen's Park Cricket Club, the defending champions of the National League Premier Division competition, had just rallied to pull off victory against T&TEC, the team of new IPL recruit Kevon Cooper at the Queen's Park Oval. Morton might have notched a pair in the match, but he still made a positive contribution.

"Coming down to the end, when we were fighting for the game, his voice was the one you could hear from the pavilion and he was the first to run onto the field to congratulate the players," Queen's Park coach David Furlonge told the Trinidad Express. "It will be difficult to replace the personality that he brought to the club."

The player with the long rap sheet and the man in the dressing-room make Morton seem almost like a character of the Jekyll and Hyde sort. And maybe for that reason he became the man the West Indies forgot.

The "Mr Hyde" side of Morton was the one that got all the headlines.

In 2001, Morton, was expelled from the Shell Cricket Academy. The next year, he faced a West Indies Cricket Board Disciplinary Committee along with Tino Best and Sulieman Benn, following an A team tour of Britain and Canada. Then, called up that same year as a replacement for Marlon Samuels, Morton - one of just five players from the island of Nevis to play for West Indies - pulled out of the ICC Champions Trophy, citing the death of his grandmother, who as it turned out was alive and well. Frustration at not getting playing time was apparently the inspiration for the concocted story. He was suspended and fined by the West Indies Cricket Board for that.

Morton's return to the game took a while. The Leeward Islands tried to get him back for the 2004 season but he was eventually omitted from their training squad after he failed a clinical psychologist's examination.

However, his career and life seemed to settle down when he returned to cricket, and he managed to play the first of his 15 Tests in 2005 in Sri Lanka. It perhaps not a coincidence that around that time he married and settled down in Trinidad while continuing to play for the Leewards.

The period of peace and stability eventually resulted in Morton being appointed captain of the Leewards. But after the 2010 first-class campaign, he decided to stay closer to home and applied to the Trinidad and Tobago board to play for them in 2011. Then came more upheaval.

Morton did not make it through the season. During a four-day fixture, ironically against the Leewards, he broke the team curfew one night and along with fellow Nevisian and Leewards player Tonito Willett and two women, was arrested by the police for possession of marijuana. That case is due to come up in the local courts next week.

The Trinidad and Tobago selectors have steered clear of Morton since then and he, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist in West Indies cricket. It was as if he had become goods so damaged so as to be disposed of.

It was an emotionally difficult, trying, even depressing time for a man with a wife and children to support. The West Indies Players Association stood his bail and then provided legal backing and moral support. The people at Queen's Park also did not back away from their player.

Morton had been a Queen's Park man since 2006. The muscular hitting that had first drawn the West Indies selectors to him became a thing of priceless value to them, especially while Dwayne Bravo, Darren Bravo and Kieron Pollard were away playing for West Indies or at the IPL.

The fighter in Morton allowed him to get four half-centuries in Tests and 10 in ODIs, to which he was better suited. He did not quite have the game to keep his place in a struggling team. However, that he managed to play as many as 15 Tests and 56 ODIs was testimony to the battler in him.

While Morton's aggression often got him into difficulty with officialdom, in the dressing-room, the force of his personality won many friends. The tweets from players the world over since his passing, tell a story. But on the island he last called home, perhaps the truer Runako Morton story becomes clearer.

Coach Furlonge does not know how his club will fill the void that now exists. And to Trinidad and Tobago and West Indies A opener Justin Guillen, his club captain, Morton will be remembered as a passionate person who always gave everything he had for his team, and who was a friend and mentor to the young players.

Morton in fact had the habit of dropping some of them home after games. He did again Sunday night, one final time.

Those boys will be among the biggest mourners of this loss.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express