December 23, 2013

'You had to learn to survive first, then think about the opposition'

Alvin Kallicharran talks about coming up the hard way, the lessons captaining West Indies taught him, and the rebel tour of South Africa

Excerpts from the show

Subash Jayaraman: You've spoken about your humble beginnings in Guyana. Could you talk a little bit about your early struggles before you became a professional sportsman?

Alvin Kallicharran: You know, sometimes - I am coaching now, and I have spent most of my life coaching - I hear that word "talent". You know you can define the word in so many ways. How do you know you have got talent? The simple reason I put it to you is that when I grew up in that little area of population of 1500 to 2000 people, we were people who just survived from day to day. I wasn't different to any one of those kids or their families growing up in that area. All we know is, we play in the streets, we go to school, and as we go back home we pick up a stone and we throw it. You pick up a stone, you hit it.

I was fortunate in the sense that when my father - what the people have told me was, he was unfortunate not to reach different heights [in Guyanese cricket]. Because my father was working in a plantation - he was a cane cutter, so he was a surviving man. I remember him coming to practice with the team once a week. And then on Saturdays and Sundays playing in the local competition. It was for two days. And my father was the captain of the team, and they were a successful team. So I learnt a lot from that as a kid, looking at these men playing cricket, because they are playing in the village. You listen to everything they say. You watch everything they do and then you copy.

SJ: You came into a West Indies team that had legends of the game. and you scored a hundred against New Zealand in Guyana and you followed it with another century in Trinidad. Did you feel at that time that you were ready to play for West Indies and you deserved that selection? Did you feel relieved that you scored those two centuries right off the bat?

AK: I believed that I was ready for it a long time ago, because I made my debut at 16. I believed I was ready before then. But we had such a great batting line-up then. You have to consistently keep fighting until your time comes. If you don't fight, you are not going to survive. When you look at the standards that those chaps set, your role models like Rohan Kanhai, Roy Fredericks, Clive Lloyd. And then you have Lance Gibbs. You know you have to fight to get in. There is no other way to do it besides scoring runs. There is no other way, there is no short cut to this other than scoring runs. At least when you are scoring runs you are reminding people you are around.

SJ: What did it mean to you to represent West Indies?

AK: There is two ways to explain that too. No. 1, Guyana unfortunately became a divided country since we were born - between Afro-Caribbeans and Indians. So it became a divided country racially.

How are you going to be successful? If you take Rohan Kanhai, who is an Indian, he became one of the greatest players the world has ever seen. Joe Solomon is an Indian who played for West Indies. If you see obstacles and you can't fight adversities, you are going to struggle.

Obviously the Afro-Caribbeans, you got to understand that they are more athletic and they have got rhythm and they are quick. So basically they become the quick bowlers that made West Indies cricket successful. We being Indian boys growing up in the villages, we are not used to this kind of life. You should sit in the dressing room and you hear the comments. "You Indian boys are too weak. You are not strong enough. You can't do this. You eat dal and chawal bhaji [pulses and rice and vegetables]. You boys must go and eat beef." It became an intimidation. For me, I took it as [saying that] I've got to work harder if I am going to be successful. That is what I did. I used to train harder. I used to run and run and run. So that played a big part in my athleticism. At the end of it I became one of the best fielders in the West Indies. I am not complimenting myself. That is what made me, and the hardship became easy.

SJ: You talked about the pride - the pride of representing the West Indies, the pride of wearing the maroon cap. Do you still believe that sort of tradition continues to exist in the cricketers coming from the various regions of the Caribbean?

AK: No. If it were, West Indies would never be in the situation they are in. Nobody replaces a Garry Sobers. Nobody replaces a Rohan Kanhai. Nobody replaces a Lance Gibbs. Nobody replaces a Clive Lloyd. Nobody replaces a Vivian Richards - the greatest player I have played with. Nobody replaces an Andy Roberts. Nobody replaces a Michael Holding. Nobody replaces a [Malcolm] Marshall. You have got to work for that. You have got to work to replace those kind of people. They appear only once in a lifetime. Everybody thought they were just going to walk in and be like Andy Roberts and Holding or Vivian Richards, or be a Lloyd or Kanhai or Sobers.

Garry Sobers - the greatest cricketer that every lived - could you imagine how hard he had to work to be successful? They were your role models. They set high standards for people like me, and Richards and Holding and Marshall. Michael [Holding] was saying the other night: "They set the standards and became our role models."

SJ: You say that the current crop of cricketers from the Caribbean don't work as hard as you guys did back in the 1960s and '70s and the '80s, and take things too much for granted?

AK: It was a bunch of people who want to make big money and don't work for it. I am not saying money isn't important. Money is very important to all of us. But if you know the value of what it means to play for West Indies, and what it means to play for Guyana or Barbados before it. Play for your country before playing for the West Indies. If you know the value of that, then you can understand. These chaps have done well financially. There is nothing wrong with that, but can you please put cricket first? Put cricket first and then achieve things out of cricket - your financial gains.

SJ: I want to talk a little bit about your playing career. One of the highlights that gets spoken about all the time is about how you took apart Dennis Lillee in the 1975 World Cup. You scored 35 runs off 10 balls, I think - seven boundaries and a six. You grew up in Guyana and you are a batsman of short stature. When and how did the horizontal bat shots, the hooking and the pulling, come about?

AK: Comes from Hanuman. (laughs) If you are an Indian, you will understand that. Being an Indian, I believe in that mantra. Dal and channa [chickpeas] - what they call in the English language split peas, bhaji and sabzi [vegetables]… I'm kidding.

Look, we were brought up in a world and taught how to survive in that period. When you have to survive and fight, you don't see danger. Dennis Lillee bowling at that speed, Jeff Thomson - he was quicker… You have to fight the opposition. That is what we were taught.

Once we walk out to bat, there is no rich or poor and there is no black or white. It is just me and you. So I was brought up in that culture of being a streetfighter - that you don't see danger, you don't see anxiety. All you are looking at is tomorrow - how will you fight again. So Lillee bowling to me is, just... I'm going to bat again tomorrow. Not that I don't respect him. I respect what opposition we are playing against, but if you say that you are going to walk out and feel intimidated, what are we going out there for? Why did they select me if I am not going to fight?

SJ: You debuted against New Zealand and your second series was against Australia. The Aussies, since you were young and just coming into the team, kind of targeted you. And this World Cup barrage was in a way a payback for that. Is there any truth to that?

AK: I had a good series against Australia. In 1972 I played against the Australians and I was just learning a bit about their aggression, which was unknown to us in that period. It was unheard of, the verbal aggression. They intimidate you with… it is not the Queen's English, it is not in the dictionary. They could intimidate people, and racially. They call you "black so-and-so". It happened to me, it happened to non-white players all over the world. What the Australians did verbally, it is gamesmanship, and they use it to their convenience.

SJ: Was any of that on your mind when you walked out to bat against Australia in 1975 [World Cup]?

AK: Yes. No. 1 is understanding that part of it. And No. 2, to play against Australia - at that time the best team in the world - you have got to compete with their aggression, and their aggression is second to none. You have to lift your game to 50% more than how good you are. If you don't lift your game up, you are not going to compete against Australia. You have to raise your game, you have to raise your temperature. There is a temperature.

That is how it goes. Because we were survivors. If you don't survive, somebody else will go and take your place, because West Indies could have produced two teams at the same time. That means you have got to find out how to survive yourself first, then compete against the opposition. That is what made us successful, apart from the abilities of some of the greatest players who have played this game.

SJ: You just mentioned how West Indies could put out two great teams. And you had to when the World Series of Cricket happened. A lot of the West Indies players were gone to Australia. You yourself couldn't go because of some contractual stuff. And then you became the captain and you took the West Indies team, the under-strength squad, to India. I want to talk about your captaincy. Did you feel you were ready to be a captain? And what are your memories of the captaincy?

AK: No. 1: I wanted to be captain on my own. I wanted to earn it. It was pushed upon me. I took it because I couldn't go to Packer, and Packer was going to pay me much more money. He did it twice. I didn't want to be bought. I took the captaincy to go to India and to play six Test matches and to only lose one. That is a credit. We played six Test matches, we lost only one. I scored the most runs anyway - from the top.

SJ: What did you learn from your experience, from your stint as captain?

AK: I've learnt to be a fighter. I've already been a fighter. There is nothing to learn. There is nothing to learn to understand people. But when I came back, the saddest thing happened to me. When I came back from that tour, all I had from the West Indies cricket board - I had a telephone call saying that Clive Lloyd has been reinstated as captain of the West Indies cricket team. Are you available to go to the 1979 World Cup? That is all I had. That was my thank you.

SJ: That must have been very hard for you to take.

AK: You put yourself in my shoe. The secretary of the cricket board, he is now dead, he can't answer. It is just between me and god now. That telephone call. He was a fellow called Gerry Gomez, he was the secretary of the WICB. He rang me only a week after I came back from India.

SJ: How did you decide to address the situation? You continued playing for another two or three seasons before you went on that rebel tour to South Africa.

AK: Whatever it is, it was never the same again. Now you realise, you become a victim, and that nobody cares for your game, that West Indies didn't care for your game.

SJ: Was that a big motivation for you and the other 17 players that went to South Africa?

AK: No, no, nothing like that. That was nothing like that.

Clive Rice and I became good friends. We talked about life in different ways. And then he tells me a few things about what happened in South Africa. I don't know South Africa. All I know is that it is a racially divided country. Apartheid does exist. And we talked. He said, [us playing there] can help improve relationships among people in South Africa. And here is me, without a job, not selected to go to Australia. So if I am sitting in winter and not doing anything - and in those days we don't earn enough money to live… I went to South Africa to play for Transvaal because West Indies went to Packer. Why they never discuss Packer? It is a key thing.

It is no different to what they played in Packer. Because Packer wanted something in Australia, that is why he did it, didn't he? That's why I never understood it. They went to Packer because of money. Whatever you want to tell, it was because he was paying money.

SJ: That was the reason that you and other players went to South Africa as well?

AK: No, I went before. I went to play for Transvaal as an individual. Then there was this agent in Barbados who said they were putting together a West Indies team [to tour South Africa]. They had an English team that went there first. And then a Sri Lankan team. And then an Australian team. So we weren't the first ones to do anything to be a "rebel". It was happening anyway.

SJ: Absolutely. But the reaction back home was unlike anything that any of the others felt in their homelands. Like, I read that you guys were heroes in one part of the world when you went to South Africa, but you were outcasts in your homelands.

AK: Exactly. But here again, if you check the history, check the records, see when South Africa were open to cricket, who were the first ones to travel to South Africa. I won't call names, but you can check who went to South Africa to make money. I want you to check and tell me who were the first people who started [going to] South Africa. Then you are going to understand.

SJ: You were also involved in a very famous on-field incident, where at close of play you tried to walk off and were run out.

AK: Everyone can read into how stupid it was. After batting a whole day, you go into the dressing room - are you going to run the single? You play a ball to sill point, bat-pad on the off side. Are you going to run a single?

SJ: No.

When the appeal was made and the umpire, Douglas Sang-Hue, had to give you out, were you angry? Disappointed? What was your mental status?

AK: There is no mental status. He brought an abrupt end to probably the best innings that you have played in your life. When you bowl England out for 130. The player who got out before the partnership was Sir Garry Sobers, the greatest cricketer who ever lived. At the end of the day, to be 148 not out [142 not out]… [Bernard] Julien was batting with me. I was just a youngster. And then the South African [Tony Greig] got me out and Sang-Hue was caught off guard, I think.

SJ: So you call him a South African? You won't call him English?

AK: He is South African. And that is what you call him. That too, mediocre South Africans. Because if they were good for their country, will they play for another country?

SJ: After the run-out decision was made, the next day was a rest day. So who was involved in the resolving of the situation?

AK: It was diplomatically sorted out. That was all.

SJ: I think you shook hands with Tony Greig.

AK: That was politically. That wasn't me. I was forced to do it.

SJ: Where are you in life? Cricket has always been a part of your life, and continues to be so even after you retired from playing competitive cricket. What kind of role does it play now?

AK: I am making a transition now. I have come to America because my wife is from America. I am making a transition now. I am doing some work here. About 150-200 kids born here playing the game, and we have been working with them in the past few years. Now I am here on a more permanent seasonal basis. In addition, after-dinner speaking. I have done a bit of coaching in California and a few other places. That's all that I am doing at the moment.

SJ: Do you still feel like you want to continue coaching?

AK: I would love to, but unfortunately, when you come from a country like Guyana… I sent my CV to Guyana a couple of times and there was never a reception or any acknowledgement. I would love to get involved. When it happens, I believe I will be able to do a job. Until then, I'll just have to wait.

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