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Hooper the 100-Test man

The job spec might more realistically have spelled out terms for a saviour rather than a captain, because that was what the West Indies Board was looking for when they appointed Carl Hooper as captain in March 2001. There had been talk of rebuilding, but widespread panic at their consistently substandard performances called for something swift and spectacular. When Brian Lara resigned in February 2000, Jimmy Adams had taken the helm. After initial victories over Zimbabwe and Pakistan, the failures were miserable, especially the 5-0 trouncing in Australia. Adams was not a singularly poor captain. His two predecessors (Courtney Walsh and Lara) had faced almost the same pattern of wins and losses. Team problems overshadowed the captaincy.

But with their competence as cricket administrators under heavy scrutiny, the besieged management of the WICB began clutching at old straws. Gauging the inexperience of the team and its youthful disregard for peers in authority, the Board sought an older figure who might command respect. Richie Richardson, the former captain, was a good prospect, but he had just had a bad season. Desmond Haynes would have been ideal, but he was still involved in litigation against the WICB. Hooper was the Guyana Cricket Board's choice.

At that time, the WICB was about to elect its new executive. For the first time, president Pat Rousseau was facing a serious challenge to the presidency and vice-presidency, in the forms of Alloy Lequay (Trinidad & Tobago) and Wes Hall (Barbados). The Guyana vote would be crucial, and Hooper's return was a powerful trading card. Rousseau was returned and Adams was dumped - he read about his sacking in the press.

Sir Garfield Sobers didn't see how Hooper could possibly represent a West Indies future. Michael Holding vowed not do any commentary in protest at the appointment. Professor Hilary Beckles, the historian, coined the word "Hooperizeration" to describe a post-nationalist syndrome that abandoned all ties to nationalist projects in favour of individualism.

The public objections to Hooper's return were two-fold: he had turned his back on West Indies cricket and he had never seemed committed enough to live up to the potential he had offered so tantalisingly since his Test debut in 1987-88.

Now here he was, dropping in on West Indies cricket as a saviour from Down Under. Why should anyone have any more faith in him than they did in Adams, Lara or Walsh?

Carl Llewellyn Hooper is 35. Apart from Brian Lara, he is the most senior West Indian player. He and Lara are the two who have evoked the most extreme emotions among cricket-lovers. Lara has already fulfilled unimagined dreams, revelled wildly in his glory; West Indians do not know if their dream of Hooper has already seen the light or if it is still lurking ahead at nightfall.

Hooper is most commonly described as enigmatic. It suggests complexity, but in his case, and more frustratingly, it means that the occasional brilliant sparkle on his flat surface sheds no light on his true character. And how do you trust a man whose character remains an enigma?

In his second Test, against India at Calcutta in December 1987, Hooper made 100 not out - an innings that appeared to exhibit unfolding greatness. That promise has haunted his career. Hooper is without peer as a batsman of elegance, style and exquisite timing. Collect his finest moments and they complete the portrait of cricket as art. Yet there have been flaws beyond comprehension. He plays spin effortlessly, is unruffled by pace, but can suddenly descend into rank amateurishness to get out in full swing. Carelessness? Lost concentration?

His Test average has lingered too long in the thirties for a batsman of his ability; outside the Test arena, Hooper has kept the promise with a first-class average of 47.16. At Kent, he scored more than 1000 runs in each of his five summers. In Australia in March 2000 he won the Jack Ryder Medal as the best player in Melbourne's grade cricket. When he returned to the Caribbean for the Busta Cup series, he scored a tournament-record 954 runs at 95.40 with four centuries. But these performances reflect the individualism that Beckles described, and have nothing to do with a commitment to West Indies cricket. Hooper articulated it in his own declaration in 1994 as he left the Caribbean to play county cricket, that "For now, my fitness comes first and Kent second."

Hooper complained of WICB neglect over the back injury which excluded him from the 1993-94 home series against England. During the 1995 tour of England he had complained of mental and physical fatigue and asked to go home, a request that was turned down. Then in 1996 he withdrew late from the World Cup in India and Pakistan.

At Lord's in July this year Hooper was conspicuously absent from the ICC's meeting of Test captains. The WICB did not know that he had declined the invitation "on personal grounds" until they read about it in the press. Hooper never even thought to inform the WICB of his non-availability.

None of these episodes presents an image of commitment. The absence of it is a bone that has always stuck in the West Indian throat. So when in April 1999 he announced his retirement just before the seventh and final one-day match against Australia at Kensington Oval, leaving the WICB with a hole to fill three weeks before the start of the World Cup, it was greeted with cheers by spectators. It seemed unkind, particularly from a Barbadian crowd who fondly called him Sir Carl, but it was a measure of how deeply aggrieved spectators were by his nondescript performances. Informed sources say he had been tipped that he was going to be dropped and to save face he was advised to retire. He had already complained that his performance suffered from the harsh criticisms from West Indians.

This was the problem he identified. Not too little practice. Not inadequate training. Nothing about examining his own fitness level. The problem was an external one, outside his control. And that, it seems, has been the way with his captaincy.

Hooper's return to West Indies cricket has been marked by his new-found zeal for religion. Since his problems are not of his own making, he has put his captaincy in the hands of his God.

And God knows he has been blessed. Against India in the recent series he made his highest score of 233, but throughout that tour he had been favoured by chances. He showed off some of the Hooper form, but as captain it was as if he did not have to do anything but say a prayer before the day began and thank the good Lord when it ended.

Shortly after his appointment he faced defeat by South Africa at Queen's Park Oval. Mervyn Dillon had just returned to the pavilion and Walsh was on his way to end the misery. Hooper stood alone, about two metres behind the wicket, one hand on his hip, the other holding the bat upon which he seemed to be leaning like a crutch. The afternoon sun shortened his shadow, reducing him in his solitude as he awaited Walsh. He cut such a lonely figure: the body heavy, the shoulders sagging, the whole countenance suggesting bemused disappointment.

It would become a familiar sight as the captaincy wore into its second year. He too has followed the pattern of his predecessors. His first one-day series against South Africa ended in a 5-2 defeat. Success followed against Zimbabwe in the two-match Test series (one win, one draw) and in the Kenya ODIs (3-0), but there were more collapses in Sri Lanka, despite Lara's stunning comeback. Then came the losses to Pakistan in the one-dayers, before India came to the Caribbean. West Indies won the Test series but lost the ODIs. Against New Zealand they won the ODIs but lost the Test series.

The team's mixed fortunes seemed less disheartening because players were beginning to show form. The bowling was still weak, but there was obvious tightening of batting and fielding. But the New Zealand series exposed Hooper's weakness as a strategist. Time and again his inertia in setting fields resulted in expensive runs. His bowling choices were continually questioned by commentators. Why didn't he bowl himself more? At critical moments he seemed to retreat mentally from the game, and Lara appeared to be taking charge. By contrast, Stephen Fleming was constantly involved in strategic planning. The difference was marked.

Hooper retreats into some inner world at crucial moments, as if he can no longer bear to be involved. Perhaps he has no killer instinct. Maybe his faith allows him to back away and put it in divine hands.

Is he captain, saviour or a man on his own? God alone knows.

Vaneisa Baksh is a Trinidad-based cricket writer. This article first appeared in the September 2002 edition of Wisden Cricket Monthly. Click here for details of how to subscribe.