Alf Valentine

Leslie Smith

Alf Valentine: 'A fine bowler and an object lesson' © Getty Images

Anyone looking at the forefinger on the left hand of ALFRED LEWIS VALENTINE would notice at once the circles of worn-away skin caused by continuous spinning of the ball. They would then appreciate why this slow left-hander, in 1950, became on of the most successful bowlers ever to leave the West Indies. His record of 33 wickets in four Test matches has seldom been surpassed.

Born at Kingston, Jamaica, on April 29, 1930, Valentine was no more than 20 when he visited England as an unknown quantity, having played in only two first-class matches, in which he took two wickets for 190 runs. To Jack Mercer, the former Sussex and Glamorgan medium-paced bowler, and John Goddard, the West Indies captain, Valentine owes much of his success. Mercer was his coach and impressed upon him the value of true finger-spin; Goddard saw his potentialities during the two games he played for Jamaica. Despite Valentine's lack of success in figures, Goddard considered he would do well in England and was largely instrumental in Valentine being selected for the tour.

Valentine had no relatives who played cricket, but became interested in the game from an early age, and when 12 he represented St Catharine's School, Spanish Town, Jamaica. Batting never appealed to him, but he made rapid strides with bowling and his best school performance was nine wickets for 28 runs.

Valentine remained at school until the age of 16, and then played junior grade cricket for the Police at Spanish Town. In his first year he won a prize bat for heading the bowling averages. When 18 he entered the senior grade and represented his local club, St Catharine's, about 13 miles from Kingston. At the age of 17 he met Mercer, who recommended him for special coaching to the Jamaican authorities. Mercer took special interest in him and insisted that Valentine, already the possessor of a good length, should concentrate on spinning the ball. After several fine performances for St Catharine's he was chosen to play for Jamaica against Trinidad in the matches regarded as trials for the purpose of picking the team to England. On matting pitches Valentine was heavily punished, and it says a good deal for their judgment of a cricketer that Goddard and his fellow selectors saw in him the slow left-hander for the touring side.

Although Valentine bats right-handed, he uses his left for everything else. He did not attempt to model his style on any other bowler, preferring to develop in his own way. Unlike most bowlers, Valentine does not mark the spot where he starts his run. He simply judges the distance to the wicket, takes a few steps, and bowls almost square to the batsman. His action takes little out of him and he can carry on for hours without tiring. Every night he uses surgical spirit to harden the skin of his spinning finger, and this prevents soreness and discomfort.

The early form of Valentine did not suggest that he would be one of the men so feared by English batsmen. He took only three wickets for 206 runs in his first two matches and, despite five for 67 against MCC at Lord's, it seemed doubtful whether he would gain a place in the first Test. Then came a startling performance of eight for 26 and five for 41 against Lancashire at Old Trafford a few days before the match with England on the same ground. This clinched the argument and Valentine won his place. The result was eight for 104 in the England first innings, one of the most remarkable performances by any bowler on his Test debut. A few weeks later he took seven for 57 at Liverpool, and so has happy memories of his cricket in Lancashire.

Valentine never looked back, and for the rest of the season he enjoyed almost unbroken success. Other splendid achievements were six for 39 in the second innings of the last Test at The Oval, and five for 6 against Kent at Canterbury. Altogether Valentine, in first-class matches, took 123 wickets, six fewer than Ramadhin, his colleague and chief partner in the overthrow of England's batsmen. Valentine, like Ramadhin, beat the previous highest number of wickets by a West Indies bowler in England, the 107 by Learie Constantine in 1928.

Tall, slim, with sloping shoulders, Valentine has no pretentions as a batsman, and he scored no more than 49 runs on the tour without ever reaching double figures. This may have been due to the fact that his eyesight was far from perfect. He began the tour without spectacles, but midway through the season another member of the team asked him the score. Valentine said he could not see, despite the scoreboard and the figures being large and clear. Arrangements were then made for him to be supplied with spectacles which he obtained under the National Insurance scheme, and he wore them for the rest of the tour. He used sticking plaster near the temples to prevent the spectacles slipping, but with or without them Valentine was a fine bowler and an object lesson to Englishmen in the value of true finger-spin.

© John Wisden & Co. Ltd.