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Occasionally brilliant, often frustrating, sometimes maddening, the tale of Runako Morton is a poignant reflection of contemporary West Indies cricket
May 28, 2012
On Sunday, March 4, 2012, Runako Morton drove out of Queen's Park Oval with plenty of hope for the days and years ahead. Though he had made a pair for his club, they had gone on to post a victory against T&TEC that would ultimately contribute to the retention of the national premiership trophy. Morton's voice was a constant source of encouragement from the pavilion balcony, and he was the first man to gallop onto the field in celebration of the result. Irrespective of his two most recent innings, Morton still felt in good batting touch, and told friends he harboured thoughts of earning his way back into the Trinidad regional team, and the West Indies side beyond it.
Personal brushes with trouble, which had occurred frequently across Morton's career and blotted his name among those who knew him least, also seemed to be fading. A court case, in which he and the Leeward Islands batsman Tonito Willett had been charged with marijuana possession, was headed for an acquittal, and at Queen's Park his reputation had grown into that of a highly respected and valued senior man. At home, Morton's wife and three children waited expectantly for his return.
To the unrestrained grief of many across the Caribbean and elsewhere, Morton never did make it home that night. His car ploughed into a utility pole on the highway about 10.50pm, ending a life that at 33 had appeared finally to be entering a period of stability and maturity. In dying so young, Morton left behind a cricket career that felt incomplete, and a place in the collective memory of the game's followers along the lines of: "that West Indies batsman who was always in trouble".
On closer inspection, Morton's story transcends such a label. As a cricketer his most commonly noted "achievement" was to make the slowest duck in ODIs, against Australia in Kuala Lumpur in 2006. Yet Morton was good enough to smite Glenn McGrath for a straight six on his way to an innings of 90 in Mumbai that brought West Indies victory in their very next encounter with Ricky Ponting's team, during that year's ICC Champions Trophy. Playing with Morton for the Leeward Islands in the latter days of his matchless career, Curtly Ambrose marked him as a young player destined for international recognition.
In representing the West Indies, Morton had a long list of missteps, starting with his withdrawal from the 2002 Champions Trophy squad due to a lie about the death of his grandmother. Yet he was invariably a popular and even beloved member of the West Indies teams he took part in. At that 2006 Champions Trophy, Brian Lara described Morton as "one of the most popular members of the squad", while Chris Gayle is known to have insisted repeatedly on Morton's selection even when his run-scoring did not always seem to merit it.
Such strength of feeling for Morton was no surprise to Ambrose. "He was very resilient. That played a big part," he said. "He lost form, he was dropped, but he'd go back to Leeward Islands or Trinidad, score some runs, get back into the team. I don't know of anyone who wouldn't want to have someone like Runako Morton in their team. He's the kind of guy you could go to war with, because he was going to have your back, going to give you everything - not going to short-change you. Always good to have someone like him in a team, and it was just sad he didn't score the kinds of runs to become a permanent fixture."
The forces that shaped this man of such contrasting traits and shades of character were typical of those that have troubled West Indian cricket in recent times. Morton found structure and purpose within the game, but as a young man lacked such support whenever he stepped out of it. When he made mistakes in cricket, they were invariably public ones. Ambrose spent plenty of time around the young Morton with the Leeward Islands, and said he always felt that the developing batsman he mentored was not getting any kind of strong advice elsewhere.
"I believe that the people he had around him, most of them non-cricketers maybe, never really took the time out to lead him down the right path," Ambrose said. "He's Runako Morton, played for Leewards Islands, a Test cricketer, so his fame allowed him to do just about anything without anyone really telling him he's wrong. I think that was one of his downfalls, in my opinion. There was no one in his circle who really was bold enough to tell him, 'You're wrong.' So he got himself in hot water from time to time.
"When he was playing for Leewards and I was in the team, as soon as he stepped out of bounds I pulled him back. So he had us as senior players to do that for him. But the guys he had around him [elsewhere] probably never did that. Runako needed someone to constantly talk to him. Because he's that kind of person - very hyper and he had a temper as well. He could snap just like that.
"When you look at the West Indies set-up over the past ten years or so, most of the guys are starting their careers together. There weren't too many senior players around to really mould them and teach them what it is like to play for West Indies and stuff like that. So that was a problem."
For all that, Ambrose also drew a sharp sketch of Morton's positive nature, respect for senior players, and fierce desire to excel for his team. They had batted together against Jamaica when Morton was on the cusp of his maiden first-class century, the canny tailender offering advice to the youthful batsman. "We were both at the crease, and he was on 99," Ambrose recalled. "Very nervous, of course, and he chipped down the wicket and missed.
|"Cricket is not just about skill, it is a lot about the mental game and off-the-field pressures... when the money comes, the fame, the adulation and the pressure, if you're ill-equipped to handle it, then you see issues like Runako's cropping up" Colin Borde, Morton's mentor in Trinidad|
"He was so nervous he didn't go back into his crease, but the keeper fumbled for a while and then he got back. So I went to him and asked, 'Are you okay?' and he said, 'Yeah, I'm good'. He was a positive person. I knew he was nervous, but he said, 'Yes, I'm good, I'm good', even when he wasn't. He went on to get his hundred, but he was always that kind of player - very positive, and a strong person."
Ten years into his first-class career for the Leeward Islands, Morton chose to move from Nevis to the bustling industrial hub of Trinidad. He had met a Trinidadian, Leiselle, who he went on to marry and have three children with - Kalika, Macario and Demica-Dior. The 2006 move coincided with the aforementioned pair of innings against Australia, their contrasting extremes in keeping with the character that the Queen's Park faithful would grow to love. Colin Borde grew close to Morton as the team manager for Trinidad's regional side, and said the humiliation of Kuala Lumpur, closely followed by a far prouder day in Mumbai, rather summed up the man.
"It's the nature of Runako's personality that he was an extremist," Borde said. "Either extremely good or not so good. It was the way he lived - he was always 100%. What you saw was what you got, and how you handled it was up to you. He was honest in his approach, very open. If he was angry, you'd find out in ten seconds; if he wanted to cry, he'd cry in front of 100 people, it didn't matter. [After he got out] he would go into the rooms, and believe me, when he was heading for the dressing room everybody knew to get out of the dressing room and give him half an hour. He'd go in there and chastise himself to the fullest. But then after that he'd come out cool, but focused and he'd support each player going out.
"He got married, had kids. That was a turning point for Runako - having kids here, and becoming the person they relied upon. It pushed him in a direction. Fatherhood makes you think of your life differently. Runako, having an up-and-down career, came here to Queen's Park with the thought that maybe he would be accepted. He struggled at times at the West Indies level because of his various issues. But we embraced him, we embraced his issues, he felt comfortable in Trinidad and felt accepted at Queen's Park. He then started to assume a senior role in the team, and I think fatherhood and marriage was really a catalyst."
Borde, now the West Indies A team manager, saw in Morton many of the issues that have confronted West Indies cricket, whether it be players lacking discipline, administrators lacking the skills and fortitude to educate and counsel their players, and matters of money and planning impeding the region's chances of returning to the more successful days of the past. But he also saw how Morton, with the benefit of greater structure at Queen's Park, grew into what he called "a father figure" around younger players - hardly the stuff of the hopelessly wayward.
"Cricket is not just about skill, it is a lot about the mental game and off-the-field pressures," Borde said. "There are demands on players from impoverished backgrounds - when the money comes, the fame, the adulation and the pressure, if you're ill-equipped to handle it then you see issues like Runako's cropping up. It is important that the administration understands that when you start grooming players you've got to factor not only the skill level but all the facets that encompass a well-rounded individual. It is a herculean task but it is something that I'm starting to see.
"If you're looking at cricket here, there is a synergy there [with Morton's story] of up and down, not a steady-as-she-goes approach. We get good players, flash in pans, then nothing, flash in pans, then nothing again. That has been a pattern, but I'm very optimistic that in four years, maybe five, the systems will be in place. Whether we are able to catch up to the bigger teams remains to be seen, but certainly we're moving in the right direction."
Queen's Park provides as much structure and support for its players as any club in the region, and it was for this reason that Ambrose, among former team-mates in the Leeward Islands, was happy to see Morton relocate. "Even though I wanted him to play for Leewards," he said, "I was quite happy for him to be in a structured set-up."
Trinidad did not mark the end of Morton's off-field problems, but it did offer him a greater chance to address them in an environment where his mistakes were dealt with candidly but supportively. "Environments can affect people and it is important to have a consistency in your structure," Borde said. "Even when there were issues with Runako being charged for marijuana possession [in 2011]. When all else failed the WI players association and Queen's Park were there to support him.
"As a matter of fact the club did send him to see a psychologist over that period of time. I think he was quite shocked that we didn't abandon him. We held on to him because we knew his worth and understood human frailty. At the end he was going to be acquitted, the case was moving in that direction, and eventually he was, after his death.
"When he died the kids wept for him. They really hurt, because for all of the external talk about Runako being the rebel and so on, internally he was a father figure to young players. Runako didn't give Queen's Park any trouble when he came here. He arrived with probably the worst reputation among West Indian players, but he never gave a day's trouble. He worked to exactly what we aspired to do, to be very disciplined. We would get stories of Runako outside the club and I've seen him outside, but that was not the Runako who played here. What he needed in his life was some structure, and Queen's Park gave him that structure, and he worked within that to help kids."
Morton left behind a wealth of friends and colleagues, cricketers he played with and against, all given pause when they heard of his passing. Shane Watson, a participant for Australia in the two matches in 2006, said that Morton's death left him pondering. "It really hit home to everyone, especially me, about your life journey and what that entails," Watson said.
Morton was unable to achieve all that he could have done on the field, at least partly because of the difficulties and distractions he experienced off it. But his story should not be simply defined as a cautionary tale, for his life was richer than that. The last word should perhaps go to Ambrose, who saw both Morton's infinite promise and his numerous failings, at an early age.
"I'm quite sure most people will remember him," Ambrose said. "He didn't really set the world alight as a cricketer per se. But most people will remember him for his positiveness and the way he played his cricket. A very competitive person, and he always played to win - never give up. Most people will remember him by that."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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