Obituary

Conrad Hunte

HUNTE, Sir CONRAD CLEOPHAS, died of a heart attack after playing tennis in Sydney on December 3, 1999, aged 67. Conrad Hunte was one of the greatest West Indian batsmen of a great generation; he also played a major role in the reconstruction of South African cricket, and was a figure of moral authority in the wider world. As a batsman, Hunte could match anyone stroke-for-stroke, especially on the leg side, if he wanted. But he subdued his attacking nature in Test cricket to let his team-mates play their shots, a decision which was vital in making the West Indian side of the early 1960s one of the most complete of all time. It was an early signal of the determined thoughtfulness that was to stamp his whole life.

Hunte was born in a one-room house on Barbados's Atlantic coast. His father worked on a sugar plantation, and Conrad was the oldest of nine children. He began playing cricket with the village boys at the age of six, using a palm-frond as a bat. His father was more anxious that he should get an education, and prevailed enough to ensure that his teenage son got work as a primary school teacher. But cricket slowly won the contest. Batting first in a representative match between two local leagues at Kensington Oval in 1950-51, Hunte was dropped on nought by Denis Atkinson, and went on to 137 not out. That secured him a place in the Barbados team when he was just 18, and he made 63 on debut against Trinidad. However, there was little first-class cricket in the Caribbean at that time, and his progress was frustratingly slow. He made 151 and 95 for Barbados in the important matches against E. W. Swanton's XI in 1955-56, and hoped that would get him selected for the 1957 tour of England. In the meantime he went to work at a bus plant and cotton mill in Lancashire, trying to get a chance in the Leagues. Out of sight, out of mind, he was omitted in 1957 - allegedly because he never replied to a letter - and spent that summer playing for Enfield.

He finally got his chance in front of his home crowd, when Pakistan toured the West Indies early the following year, and batted throughout his first day in Test cricket, making 142. Two Tests later at Kingston, Hunte made 260 - an innings overshadowed because his partner in a stand of 446 was Garry Sobers, who scored his record 365 not out - and followed that with a third century, a mere 114, in his fourth match, at Georgetown. Since Sobers made twin centuries, he was again second fiddle. Such form could not last, and he struggled in the subcontinent in 1958-59. "My success had gone to my head," he admitted later. When the tour reached Pakistan, he was dropped. But, for all their strengths, West Indies were short of opening batsmen; indeed, throughout his Test career, Hunte never had a settled opening partner. Also, his class was not in doubt, and by Australia in 1960-61 he was a fixture, making the crucial throw in the Tied Test that stopped Wally Grout scoring the winning run, and then hitting 110 at Melbourne.

The cricket on that tour, however, was secondary to the real change in his life. The captain, Frank Worrell, encouraged the players to build good relations locally, and Hunte impressed many people with the eloquence of his speeches. A local journalist, James Coulter, took him to see a film called The Crowning Experience, based on the life of the black American teacher Mary McLeod Bethune. This was promoted by Moral Re-Armament, the then-vogueish organisation which strives to provide an ethical basis for society. In England, on the way back home, he went to see Dickie Dodds, the former Essex batsman and dedicated MRA man. Hunte was taken to a conference in Switzerland, and resolved to pay back £10 he had cheated on his tour expenses three years earlier, and to live his life by new standards: "absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, absolute love". Henceforth, between cricket commitments, he travelled on behalf of MRA.

Conrad Hunte in 1963.

Hunte came to England in 1963 as Frank Worrell's vice-captain, and he took the decision, with the same certainty that he declared for MRA, to curb his attacking instincts and become the team's sheet-anchor. He began the series at Old Trafford with one match-winning innings, 182, and finished it at The Oval with another, 108 not out. When Worrell retired, Hunte hoped for and expected the captaincy. Sobers was appointed instead; there was speculation that Hunte's heart-on-sleeve nature and his continuous proselytising for his beliefs even within the dressing-room told against him. He wrestled with his bitterness and his conscience for six weeks before waking up a rather bemused Sobers in his hotel room to proclaim that he would keep playing, and do his utmost. He did: though he failed to make a century in the next series, home to Australia in 1964-65, Hunte topped the Test averages with 550 runs at 61.11. He made another Old Trafford hundred at the start of the 1966 series, and his eighth and last Test century in Bombay that December, batting with the debutant Clive Lloyd. His final Test average, just above 45 in 44 Tests, was a mark of his quality.

Some sources give Hunte the credit for persuading his team-mates to stick with the tour in India after a riot in Calcutta, though it is uncertain how much the team listened to him by then. He was in the habit of leaving notes around the dressing-room containing uplifting messages: "It was tiresome for some of the boys," said Sobers. Even Hunte's mentor Dickie Dodds admits there might have been a problem: "They certainly pulled his leg. But I think he was the conscience of the team, and his moral force gave the whole side an ethos." After retiring from cricket, Hunte worked for better race relations through an MRA inter-racial group, and travelled the world before settling in Atlanta, where his wife Patricia was a TV newsreader. In 1991, as South Africa inched towards change, he rang Ali Bacher and pleaded to be allowed to help the reconciliation process. He kept phoning, then arrived and stayed for seven years, quietly funded by MCC, with the title National Development Coach. The emphasis was on motivating and inspiring young people in the townships. He was a magnificent influence. However, shortly before he died, Hunte had returned to Barbados, with encouragement from the Government, which knighted him in 1998. There he won a fiercely contested election to became President of the Barbados Cricket Association, with a mandate to revive it. There was talk of him standing for the presidency of the West Indies Cricket Board. Amid all this, he remained deeply committed to the cause of his life, and was due to speak at an Australian MRA conference when he died. "I've never met a better person," said Bacher, who worked with him all through the South African years. "I never heard him speak ill of anyone."

© John Wisden & Co