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Interviews

Reds hits rewind

One of the best known radio voices of the Caribbean belongs to a man who stammered as a child

Sriram Veera
09-Jun-2011
Joseph 'Reds' Pereira

Reds Perreira broke the story of the West Indies rebel team to South Africa  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

It is sometime in the early 1950s in Georgetown, Guyana. Frank Sinatra's voice fills the room and the boys and girls are swaying, but one kid stands apart a little, shy. He has a problem, a terrible stammer that is killing his confidence.
"By the time I went 'May I…' Sinatra's song would get over. I struggled socially in school. I couldn't participate in discussions because I couldn't get my questions or replies out."
He would, though, grow up to be Joseph "Reds" Perreira, a famous radio commentator and sports administrator in the Caribbean. His voice, clear, loud, and with no hint of a stammer, goes on to boom through radios across the world for decades.
It's a remarkable story. Reds covered 145 Tests and over 300 ODIs and regards himself lucky to have had the career he has had. As you would expect, he has stories to tell. To start with, about how he overcame that stammer.
"My mother, a marvellous lady, allowed fantasy." And so the young boy would lie in bed and do imaginary broadcasts for imaginary matches. "Statham comes in to bowl to Kanhai. Kanhai goes back and plays to third man. Kanhai moves to 13, West Indies move to 50. It's important that Kanhai and Sobers stay together." And on and on. For 30 dreamy minutes. Every day.
As a teenager Reds lived in Denmark for a year and worked as a dishwasher. He spent his spare time sorting out his stammer, without a therapist. Not quite The King's Speech but sort of. He returned to the Caribbean, took up radio commentary and went from strength to strength.
Fast forward to a pivotal moment in his reporting career. It was Reds who broke the story of West Indies flying out to South Africa for the rebel tour. It was breaking news before breaking news became a fad, and a development that tore the Caribbean apart.
Reds was travelling in Barbados when he was stopped by a man; his version of Deep Throat. "I swear I will never ever call his name," he says. "He has passed away, but it would be a betrayal.
"So he tells me, 'West Indies rebel team is going to South Africa. Do your homework.' And slips away. "I'm thinking, 'It will be so bad if BBC breaks this story.' I'm thinking hard."
So he calls a friend and asks her about flights from Port-of-Spain to Miami, via Barbados. Too many. She needs a name. He gives her a couple and, voila, hits the jackpot. She confirms that the players are on a flight out the following day.
"So I went on air and said, 'Breaking news. A West Indies rebel team is going to South Africa.'" The telephone threatened to ring itself out of service. "If I was wrong, my whole career would end. Next day every one turned up at Barbados airport to see if I was right or wrong." The plane comes in. People get on the plane. No West Indies team. Reds is sweating.
"Oh my god, I really am in trouble here. I walk around, searching. I meet a red cap, people who handle bags, and nudge him: 'Seen anything?' And he goes, 'Pereira, I saw Alvin Greendige come in with family and take a suitcase to American Airlines.' Reds hits up the airline's manager. "I'm not here to cause trouble. Just confirm by nodding your head whether the team is in. And he nodded." Reds' biggest scoop had come to pass.
All of a sudden, a van arrives. Screeching tyres. Out come Sylvester Clarke and the rest of the team. "I was very relieved. The first plane was a decoy. Then they met Colin Croft and Lawrence Rowe up ahead."
Reds' views on the tour have no ambivalence. "It was disappointing. We were made honorary whites! That hurt a lot of Caribbean people. Honorary white for a month. Then, when the tour is over, you can't go into the same hotel or restaurant. It was a bit of a farce."
Reds' fame grows. He does boxing games. Foreman v Frazier in Jamaica. Foreman v Ali. ABC runs a 45-minute programme with Reds ringside. A career on the rise. He meets the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis. He meets Fidel Castro in Cuba.
"I shake hands, bow and prepare to leave, when Castro stops me through an interpreter. He wants to know why cricket is so popular in the Caribbean. I told him, 'As a colonial country, we beat our rulers, England, and it inspired our people to fight for independence. What baseball is to Cuba, cricket is to West Indies.' He got it."
Reds' voice comes through the wireless all over the world. India, Australia, England, Sri Lanka. New Zealand, everywhere. He stays for a week with Hanumant Singh, former India batsman, in Singh's Cuffe Parade home in Mumbai. He spends time with the Chappells in Australia. "Chappells either like you or dislike you. Luckily for me, they thought I was an okay guy."
"We were made honorary whites! That hurt a lot of Caribbean people. Honorary white for a month. Then, when the tour is over, you can't go into the same hotel or restaurant. It was a bit of a farce"
Perreira looks back on the West Indies rebel tour of South Africa
The travels continued till suddenly, one day, his heart gave way. He was in Sydney, Australia, covering West Indies' 1996 tour of Australia when he had a stroke on the 1st of January. "My life changed. Whole left side was gone. Paralysed. I was lying in bed in the hospital in Sydney." Reds doesn't omit to provide the cricketing background as well. "That was the game Windies lost on the last ball - Bevan hit Harper for four.
"With modern medicine, doctors, friends, and a positive mindset, I recovered," he adds. Commentary played a part. The physiotherapist brought in a tape of the match between Sri Lanka and Australia and Reds did commentary for it, from his hospital bed. Like in his childhood; the days of imaginary commentary. "Vaas comes in, bowls to Waugh, who goes on the back foot to tuck it away. They run hard and come back for second. The score moves to…" The voice returns. The heart stabilises. Reds is back. Or is he?
A game between New Zealand and West Indies later in 1996. Curtly Ambrose has the ball. A nervous Reds is behind the mike. "I don't know whether any word is going to come out of my mouth." They do, though. "Ambrose runs in to bowl to Crowe, who goes back and plays it to mid-off." All is well.
His mind goes back to the Kerry Packer series. He commentated on Lawrence Rowe's 175 against Lillee and Thomson. "It was one the best knocks I have ever seen in my life, and hardly anyone saw it. "Packer gets a breakthrough and gets the SCG. West Indies v Australia, starting at 2pm. By 4, the crowd start to come. Australia are batting first. Now it's 6'o clock and the crowd are packing in. It's 8pm and your skin is crawling. I can't believe what's happening. Are there really 50,000 people in? Packer was delighted. Champagne flowed like water. Finally, he had made the point to the Australian board. I was delighted too. West Indies won that game, you see!"
Those were happy times, on the road with West Indies when they were rulers of the world.
Reds tells another story. "It's in South Africa and they make me read out a letter on air. A custody case in court. The judge asks the boy whether he wants to live with his father. 'No, lord, my father beats me. No, lord, my mother too beats me.' Halfway through I realise the joke is on me, but what to do? 'Send me to the West Indies team. They don't beat anyone.'
I laugh. Reds doesn't. I wonder how West Indies' fans have endured the last 15 years of decline.
Fast forward to today. Reds, no longer active in commentary, is in the press box. A call comes in from a radio network. They're doing live updates from the ground. Reds clears his throat. "Simmons and Sarwan are playing really well. West Indies 100 for 1. Simmons is playing the big shots and, importantly, rotating the strike well. Sarwan is looking good. West Indies are looking good..."

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo