The first great black West Indian batsman, 1985

How Headley's genius paved the way

The death, aged 74, of George Alphonso Headley, MBE, whose obituary notice was published in the 1983Wisden, naturally prompts some estimation as to where this indubitably great batsman stands in the cricketers' pantheon, and especially in relation to the fellow West Indians who have followed him.

Headley was not the first West Indian batsman to be designated great. That distinction, according to the sure judgment of the senior West Indian historian, C. L. R. James, belongs to George Challenor, who so impressed the English critics when he came over with the West Indian teams of 1906 and 1923. On this latter tour he delighted everyone with his classical off-side play and finished third in the season's first-class average with 51. Challenor came also - and I dimly recall him - in 1928 and played in West Indies' first-ever Test Series of that year, though by then, at 40, he was past his prime. The cricketers of Trinidad and British Guiana (now Guyana), as well as those of his native Barbados, will have learned by Challenor's example, as also from that of his fellow-islanders, P. H. Tarilton and H. B. G. later Sir Harold, Austin. It was these white Bajans who, practising the batting art on flawless turf pitches and influenced in their method by the successive English sides which visited the southern colonies of the Caribbean, helped in their corner of the world to point the way forward.

Headley was certainly the first great black West Indian batsman, and the extraordinary thing is that he learned the game not in one of the traditional strongholds of Bridgetown, Port-of-Spain or Georgetown, where inter-colonial rivalry had flourished for more than half a century, but in far-away Jamaica, cut off from the south by a thousand miles of sea. Until, after the Second World War, they became connected with the rest of the Caribbean by air, the Jamaicans' experience of first-class cricket was confined to visits by MCC and privately organised teams, notably the three brought between 1927 and 1932 by Lionel, Lord Tennyson.

Headley was genius, almost self-taught, who as an eighteen-year-old suddenly announced himself with a succession of very high scores against Tennyson's second team of 1927-28. As historians know well, he was due to have left Jamaica for the United States in order to be trained as a dentist before the first match against the touring side, and it was only the delay in the issue of a visa that allowed him to play - and to announce himself with an innings of 71. When this was followed by 211 against the Englishmen in the second representative match, dentistry's loss became cricket's gain.

Two years later, in his first Test match, played in Barbados, Headley made 176, the first of the ten Test hundreds he had built up when the war came. In the decade which preceded it, this wiry but short, slight fellow, coming in at No. 3 more often than not with next to nothing on the board, held Test innings after Test innings together. At the end of a tour or a series he had averaged, as like as not, more than double the next man. In England in 1939, aged 30 and at his peak, he scored 1,745 runs, averaging 72. No-one else reached a thousand or averaged more than 30. He stood alone.

Headley's reputation rests on his achievements in the nineteen Tests in which he participated between 1930 and 1939. He played in only the first Test of each of the first three post-war series in which West Indies were concerned. On each occasion injury took over, and he did little except to add to his laurels the distinction of being their first appointed black captain. This was in the Barbados Test of 1948, and it is scarcely to the credit of the authorities that twelve years were to elapse before the next man, Frank Worrell, was to be given the chance in Australia to strike a blow for his race.

Incidentally - or almost - Jeffrey Stollmeyer, no mean theorist himself, wrote of him in his autobiography Everything under the Sun that in addition to being the 'supremo' among West Indian batsmen, he had a greater tactical sense than any cricketer with whom I have played. In other words, given the opportunity, he might have made a first-rate captain.

In the Lord's Test of 1939 George made 106 and 107 out of totals of 277 and 225. As this was the first Test I broadcast in England, the picture of his batting still remains clear in the mind. His stance was distinctly two-shouldered as he stood there, stock still, sleeves buttoned at the wrist and the plum-coloured cap jauntily askew, a model of wary concentration. Like all the great ones, he played the ball very late yet without any suggestion of hurry. He was almost exclusively a back-foot player, strongest on the on-side. Perfect timing and wrist-work propelled the ball sweetly through the whole segment from mid-on to fine leg with little suggestion of force. But he also had all the off-side strokes at will, being, like nearly at the best of the smaller men, a beautiful cutter.

If the key to his batting was a determined avoidance of risk, it was simply that he - unlike his illustrious successors - knew that he could not afford to get out. If he failed, the end was always in sight. Stollmeyer is quite unequivocal: He was the greatest batsman that the West Indies produced. Of this I have no doubt, and my association with Test cricket in the West Indies spans a period from 1939 to the present day, during which I have seen and/or played with the three 'Ws', Gray Sobers and Rohan Kanhai in their prime: also Viv Richards of the present crop, great players all. To this list of those within measurable distance of Headley, one might perhaps today add Clive Lloyd and Gordon Greenidge but surely no-one else. Whether or not one goes all the way with Stollmeyer's judgement it must be acknowledged that he is in a position to speak paralleled only by his great friend and youthful contemporary in the West Indian side of 1939, Gerry Gomez.

But what of the famous batsmen in Headley's descent who have held the West Indian flag high now for the best part of 40 years? Well, the only sure thing about the batting quality of the immortal trio from Barbados, Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott, is that there was precious little between them in terms of achievement. Between 1949 and 1960, playing around 50 Tests apiece, the three Ws in their widely separated styles scored 39 hundreds: Worrell all grace and elegance; Weekes stocky, punchy, full of the killer instinct; Walcott, towering physically about them both, a driver of awesome power. Throw in Worrell's utility as a bowler and Walcott's as a wicket-keeper, and the cliché a host in themselves scarcely meets the case.

Until Worrell's last glorious phase as a captain, by which time, the other two had retired, each drew strength from the presence of the other two. Likewise Sobers was never called upon to bear the weight of the West Indian batting unaided. He began with the three Ws, and played most of his long Test career in tandem with Kanhai. These were latterly joined by Lloyd, who in these last ten years has been fortified by the genius of Richards.

Of the last four mentioned, three are little less easy to place than their predecessors. Kanhai (the only East Indian under consideration although some may well argue that Alvin Kallicharran should be) combined a rare natural talent with an admirable technique. Lloyd hits the ball just about as hard as anyone who ever played, but one sees him predominantly as a fighter whose easy manner belies a degree of determination second to none. Richards possesses an almost unequalled brilliance, and his finest innings are incomparable. If he fails more often than the others under review, it is because he is a victim of the modern over-exposure of the top players. He will make no secret that he and his contemporaries, wearied by perpetual travel and the limelight, are often merely going through the motions.

There remains the inimitable Sobers. That no-one can approach his record as an all-round cricketer goes without saying. What one wonders is, if he had not taken 235 wickets for West Indies over a span of 93 Tests, and if in consequence he had batted a couple of places higher in the order, how many more runs and hundreds he would have scored than the figures of 8,032 and 26 which, as they stand, tower above everyone else's. Not that anyone ever cared less about the arithmetic of his cricket. If I had to choose anyone to play for my life, as the saying is, I would name Gary without hesitation. In him genius based on strictly orthodox principles found almost perfect expression.

To sum up: Headley enjoyed a lonely pre-eminence in his day, though it must be allowed that the bowling opposed to him was less formidable than much that his successors had to face. Paraphrasing Plum Warner, who used to say, No-one has ever batted better than Jack Hobbs, I would suggest that no West Indian has ever batted better than Headley and Sobers. And a final reflection: how extraordinary that within modern times a few scattered communities with a combined population roughly akin to the three million or so of Sydney or Melbourne should have produced a string of memorable batsmen at least equivalent to the combined output of England and Australia!

© John Wisden & Co