George Headley

An old master

A conversation with the most distinguished figure in the Bridgetown Test crowd

George Headley takes the plaudits at Bridgetown © WCM
'No,' says George Headley, 'I don't want to do that. I had a little heart trouble a while back. I don't want to do that.' So, I put the tape-recorder under the seat and, while the Bridgetown Test match proceeds along its inevitable course, we carry on talking. This reduces the number of direct quotes but widens the scope for discussion as the slight figure in patterned shirt and dark trousers sits, barely recognised, in the members' stand, picking off reminiscences like short singles and reacting to the action below us in a deep, craggy rumble. 'Oh no!' he exclaims when Peter Willey is adjudged lbw. 'That spoils my day.'

His heart missed a beat, he says, when he was called on the public-address system. But the call was not concerning his mother, who is 95, lives in New York, and has recently undergone surgery.

He was born in Panama on May 30, 1909, of West Indian parents. He became known during the 1930s as the Black Bradman, though not necessarily within the Caribbean territories, where Don Bradman was often thought of as the White Headley.

He is no hardliner on the issue of race, and has no wish to be quoted on any matters of controversy. But he expresses regret, from a cricketer's point of view, that the great South Africans of the 1970s were not seen in Test cricket. Here speaks a man who proudly wrote 'African' on his immigration form before the 1930-31 West Indies team entered Australia. One of the other players - he won't say who, though the edge of contempt in his voice is sharp - put 'European' even though he was a half-breed.

He enjoys thinking back to that tour, his first, even though the first four Tests were lost catastrophically. 'Chappie' Dwyer, he says, not M. A. Noble, was responsible for getting a faster wicket at Sydney, where the sweet first victory was secured - Headley making his second century of the series. He recalls how often the old-time Australian Test players bowled at the touring team in the nets - 'sussing them out' for Woodfull. He remembers, too, trying to play Grimmett's crafty spin by moving down the pitch: 'I was stumped!' he says, gripping my arm and shaking with laughter, his blue eyes disappearing beneath dark brown curtains. Nonetheless, Grimmett regarded him, according to C. L. R. James, as the best on-side player he met.

Clear in George Headley's memory is how the Queensland aborigine fast bowler Eddie Gilbert skipped down the pitch and shook Learie Constantine's hand after being hit for six for the first time ever. And he seemed particularly fond of Stan McCabe and Archie Jackson. His tastes today centre upon Dennis Lillee, for whom he has unbounded admiration.

Headley on the attack against England in 1939 © The Cricketer
Headley needed protection after the commemorative photo session of the veteran Test players during an interval in the Bridgetown Test. Dozens mobbed him as identification spread, wanting to be photographed with him. Hundreds sought his autograph. In the eyes of many senior cricket-watchers he is still the greatest of West Indies batsmen. He carried a heavier batting burden than any of his successors, with a fast attack to back him up which, if often fairly spectacular, contained only half the ferocity of Clive Lloyd's squad.

He believed in attack, this diminutive genius, and, like Len Hutton from another context, deserved the freedom which stronger batting support would have permitted. Twenty-one of his 22 Test matches were against England or Australia, and he made eight centuries against England and two against Australia in his 40 innings: a staggering ratio of one in four. Twice he made two centuries in a Test against England, and his two double-centuries came off English bowling. His Test average of 60.83 is higher than those of Sobers, Kanhai, the three Ws, Lloyd and Greenidge, and decimal points away from that of Viv Richards.

Now, his career seen out in English league cricket and a couple of Test caps earned by his son Ron, George Headley takes life easy, quietly proud of his record and of being, in 1948, the first black man to captain West Indies ('It wasn't altogether a popular appointment').

It delighted all at Kensington Oval that he had taken the trouble to travel down from Jamaica for the Test, and to see him in concentrated discussion with former players such as Andy Ganteaume, Derek Sealy, Everton Weekes, Teddy Hoad and Jim Laker conjured swimming, sunlit visions of former times.

The shoulders are thin but squarely hung, the hair ash-grey, the eyes dreamy yet alert. The whole countenance seems compounded of wisdom and cool practicality - a practicality which surfaces after such questions as would he have worn a helmet if playing today? 'I might,' he drawls, 'I might.'

At lunch he warned me about the pepper sauce, and chuckled when I ventured and had my lips badly stung. To every wellwisher he attempted to rise, grateful for their cordiality. He signed postcards, booklets and napkins. There was so much else I thought of too late to ask: how would he have scored runs off this four-prong pace attack - his answer would undoubtedly have been cautious - and did he truly lack a night's sleep before a Test innings - not through apprehension but through long analytical anticipation - and were his morning bowel motions as described by C. L. R. James in Beyond a Boundary?

We parted not at his bidding, and I watched the afternoon play with a certain distraction.

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly