Odd Men In

Frank Worrell: The captain who helped West Indies make their own West Indian way

Frank Worrell came to the West Indies captaincy late and died young but left an indelible mark on the game

Paul Edwards
Paul Edwards
Frank Worrell  •  Getty Images

Frank Worrell  •  Getty Images

Some cricketers change the games in which they play. In the early 1960s, Frank Worrell changed the game everybody played. It took him 15 matches to do it although some would say that simply walking out to toss up with Richie Benaud before the famous tied Test at Brisbane was enough. And that fine historian Hilary Beckles argues that his appointment as the first black West Indies skipper was the "grand historic moment". George Headley led the team against England at Bridgetown in 1948 but Worrell had been made captain with tenure. Thousands of people across the Caribbean wondered what he would make of the job.
Weaker men would have been weighed down by the expectation but the 36-year-old Worrell had both long experience in the game and a natural capacity for leadership. He fully understood that the significance of that Australian summer extended far beyond five games of Test cricket, albeit the 60-61 series, which Australia won 2-1, is still seen as one of the finest ever played. "Had Frank failed on that tour it would have set back West Indies cricket, and especially the black cricketer, by twenty years", wrote his opposing skipper, Richie Benaud. As it turned out Worrell triumphed so spectacularly that when a note was placed in the Melbourne Evening Herald on the eve of the team's departure stating West Indies would be driving round the city the following day on their way to a civic reception, over half a million people turned up to bid them farewell. There was tickertape and there were tears. Every subsequent series between Australia and West Indies has been played for the Frank Worrell Trophy.
Worrell's team won eight of their next ten Tests under his leadership. It might be suggested that a team containing Conrad Hunte, Rohan Kanhai, Garry Sobers, Wes Hall and Lance Gibbs would have done quite well with anyone in charge but that would be to underestimate West Indies' previous capacity to splinter into island cliques. Worrell would have none of that and, as so often with him, there were incidents which transcended the to-and-fro of each series. India were beaten 5-0 in the Caribbean but when Nari Contractor ducked into a short ball from Charlie Griffiths in the game against Barbados, Worrell was the first to give the blood that helped save the batsman's life.
Barely a year after that home series Worrell led West Indies in England in what would be his farewell to top-level international cricket. Test matches in that era were sometimes rather dull affairs, characterised by attritional batting and cautious captaincy. Yet as in Australia, West Indies sought to attack whenever they could and their 3-1 series victory was welcomed. "No more popular side has ever toured in the old country," said the team's scorer, George Duckworth, whose memory stretched back over 40 years to his playing days with Lancashire and England. And the series again produced one classic when the Lord's Test was drawn with England needing six runs to win but having only one wicket in hand.
Film survives of the final day of that game and participants recall how Worrell was almost the only man on the ground who retained his composure. Indeed, it was said his leadership was so undemonstrative that those watching his teams play could not tell who was captain. Perhaps so - few skippers have been less given to flamboyant gestures - yet it is also true that no member of a team captained by Worrell had any doubt who was in charge. He rarely sought to suppress the natural volatility of players like Kanhai and Hall but he always sought to harness it. For every rule there was a reason.
Jack Fingleton's book The Greatest Test of All had described the game at the Gabba in the detail it deserved. Now Alan Ross's The West Indies at Lord's accorded comparable honour to the drama in St John's Wood. Ross also considered the next three Tests before ending with his own tribute to the tourists: "No one applauds in the Press Box, but if words can carry feelings as well as facts, then Worrell's West Indians, back now in their Caribbean islands, must know of them. Images, after all, mean more than statistics and with these they were lavish. Enriching the common idiom of the game, they restored to it not only spontaneity, but style."
Having disposed forever of the argument that a black man might not be worthy to lead the countries of the West Indies in unity, he seemed set for other honours, both in international cricket and in the wider political ferment of Caribbean politics
Worrell retired from Test cricket immediately after the England tour and played only ten more first-class matches. He was 39 and had long known that his powers were declining. It was nearly 20 years since he had shared in two first-class stands of over 500, the first with John Goddard, the second with Clyde Walcott. Those stands for Barbados against Trinidad were followed by a first Test cap in 1948. Some glorious seasons followed, summers at home and abroad in which West Indian cricket was dominated by Worrell, Weekes and Walcott, by the spin bowling of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, by the first flowering of Sobers and Kanhai.
There seems little dispute that Worrell was a cricketer of world class during many of those post-war seasons. Yet each of the game's eras produces players worthy of such an accolade and the back pages of the newspapers make much of their exploits. Worrell, rather by contrast, did things in the last years of his career which attracted the interests of the news editors and political columnists. As ever, cricket became a lens through which social change could be assessed. Writing for The Cricketer in May 1967, CLR James moved with typical ease from Worrell's cricketing achievements to a wider impact.
"Worrell made the tremendous decision to restore to Tests the spirit of the game he had learnt in Barbados… Having rapidly created his instrument, Worrell initiated a regeneration. Benaud, the Australian captain, met him halfway and the result was the most exciting Test series in living memory.
"He has shown the West Indian mastery of what Western civilisation had to teach. His wide experience, reputation, his audacity of perspective and the years which seemed to stretch before him fitted him to be one of those destined to help the West Indies to make their own West Indian way."
Yes, seemed. James was writing an obituary for a dear friend who had died of leukaemia less than two months earlier at the brutally early age of 42. In the months after the England tour Worrell had been showered with honours, some from the West Indies, others from the English league clubs he had represented when not required for a tour. He was knighted in the 1964 New Year's honours list and had become Warden of Irvine Hall at the University of the West Indies, as well as being appointed to the Jamaican Senate. Counterfactuals are pretty tedious exercises but historians still ponder the contribution Worrell might have made to public life in the Caribbean and beyond had he been granted a full lifespan. Having disposed forever of the argument that a black man might not be worthy to lead the countries of the West Indies in unity, he seemed set for other honours, both in international cricket and in the wider political ferment of Caribbean politics.
Worrell was also the first sportsman to be honoured with a memorial service at Westminster Abbey and EW Swanton gave the address before a congregation of 1500 that included the great, the good and the humble. "He was essentially a bringer together by the sincerity and friendliness of his personality," Swanton said. "In the television age men famous in the world of games have a formidable influence and strange figures are sometimes magnified into heroes. Frank Worrell was the absolute antithesis of the strident and bumptious… He was a federalist, nearest whose heart was the unity of the West Indian peoples in all their diversity… Under the subtle knack of his personality, differences of colour and island prejudices seemed to melt away."
Over fifty years later one does not have to search hard for tributes and memorials to Frank Worrell. Banknotes and stamps have featured his image; sports centres, streets and halls of residence have been named in his memory. A monument to Worrell, Weekes and Walcott, all three of whom were knighted, can be found surrounded by tropical flora in the park opposite the 3Ws Oval at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus in Barbados. Both Worrell and Walcott are buried in the grounds of the campus on a hill overlooking the square.
And next week West Indian cricketers will begin another Test series against England. It cannot be called a tour since it appears Jason Holder's players will be visiting just two cricket grounds and one airport. And it is probably overstraining the metaphor to describe them as Frank Worrell's grandchildren; too much has changed in fifty years. But were they to be reminded of their former leader's contribution, Holder's cricketers might be honoured to be thought of in such terms. The great West Indian teams that followed Worrell certainly knew what they owed him but so did some people in the Caribbean who would never pick up a bat. And Beckles links that historic appointment in 1960 to both nation-building and anticolonialism:
"The cricket hero… became a demigod, a role model, placed socially above community, and invested with popular expectations that suggest iconographic worship and idealisation. Frank Worrell was the epitome of it all: graceful, sincere, smart, mature, sound, visionary, morally correct and successful - all the things that a young nation state should be. Within this paradigm, Worrell was the symbol of nationalist pride, anticolonial achievement, and sociopsychological liberation. He represented West Indians at home and abroad as a statesman and ambassador."
Worrell, himself, might be a little amazed by all that. Humility often goes with greatness. Yet his was a black life that mattered, not simply for its own sake, as all do, but for the impact he made on thousands of other black lives in the Caribbean. Revolutions are rarely so gentle.

Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications