A rebel without a redemption song
A tragi-comic meeting with Richard "Danny Germs" Austin who returned to Jamaica after the 1983 rebel tour of South Africa and lost himself to drugs
"If West Indies win by Wednesday, you can never die. The spirits you know …" He is clutching a crumpled paper-bag of peanuts, his eyes are bloodshot, saliva drips out from the corner of his mouth, his head is tonsured, he is dishevelled, probably homeless, and he was just chased away by the cops from the boundary line. The kids call him Danny Germs. He used to be Richard Austin. A West Indies Test cricketer. He even represented Jamaica in football and was by all accounts a good table-tennis player. He was one of the cricketers who went on the 1983 rebel tour of South Africa and found himself ostracised on return. These days he is high on cocaine, wasting himself on the streets of Jamaica, and in general drifting his life away.
"Bishen Singh Bedi is going to die," he mutters before he pats me on the back and says, "I am just f****** with you man!" Austin smiles. He leans across to speak to an old lady sitting behind us. He is polite, courteous and gentlemanly to her. He doesn't ask her money. He does ask me. "I don't know how he gets by," Tony Cozier says when I ask him about Austin. "Some time back, Robin Jackman and I met him at a bar. He made intelligent observations about the game, you know."
"Platinum can pass through hydrogen. No other metal can go through it. White metals yes. You see this line running through the eye of this man?" Austin is pointing out to the line in the Jamaican currency note that I had given. He had asked for 100 us dollars. I had just 100 Jamaican dollars. He looks happy. Someone tells me later, "Yes it's sad that a West Indian cricketer is living like this but there are so many other people like that in Jamaica." And in India and around the world for that matter. But then, this is a Test cricketer.
"I am not bright. Buttons are bright. I am a learned guy. L-e-a-r-n-e-d." Often, during our chat, he spells out the letters. "Rhythm. R-h-y-t-h-m. Composition. C-o-m-p-o-s-i-t-i-o-n." He talks about music, about table-tennis, about spirits, and about the crime in the city. Out in the middle, Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh steal a quick single. Austin gets excited and thinks there will be a run out. He exclaims, stands up, waves his hand excitedly, almost willing the fielder to fire a direct hit and sits back with a sigh.
"My kid was murdered because he was a black man, you know," he says suddenly. "The cops shot him in New York, in the head." The lady behind us shakes her head and whispers to me that it's not true. She gets up and goes away. I ask him about the catch he took at Kensington Oval in the Test against Australia. I tell him that Tony Cozier was raving about it. "Tony eh? Good man. It was off Graham Yallop, you know. It was at backward square-leg. It was the worst ball that Colin Croft ever bowled to take a Test wicket and I took the catch. They say it was one of the best catches seen here."
"Have you had mango chutney? I like it." He asks me which city I am from. "Hmmm. I have been all over India," he says. "I like Mumbai. It's fun party place. Some of the other places can be a bit dull, you know." His face droops; he shakes his head and laughs. I am not even sure whether he has ever been to India. "My friend lives in Mumbai. I know another who lives in Lahore."
"I do nothing." Austin stares out in the middle at the cricket as he says that. "I do nothing." He just lives. Austin isn't alone. Herbert Chang, who played for West Indies once and was also on that rebel tour, is also living it rough. "Good man, Chang," Austin says before suddenly jumping up. He holds stance like a left-hander and leans forward to play a flick. "Chang was a stylish player you know. Good man." Austin himself was an offspinner who could even open the batting. "He could even keep wickets," Cozier says. "He was a fine all-round cricketer."
"Do you want peanuts?," Austin asks a 15-year old sitting beside us. And he stretches his left hand out, holding the peanut bag, towards the boy. Austin and the kid talk about platinum, hydrogen and white metals. We are sitting in the George Headley stand. Suddenly, he decides to leave. He gets up, makes me sit in front of him, casts a spell - his finger touches his chin, lips and forehead, and he makes a circling motion around me. "You will be protected." And he slips away. I see him later at the end of the day's play, on the road, hitch-hiking his way out of the ground. Just before he leaves, he spots me, envelops me with a hug and asks me to be careful while walking in the streets here. "They just knife you. But you don't worry. You won't die. You are protected.
"Lawrence Rowe is in town you know. I am going to meet him and have a party later on". A short while earlier, inside the ground, Austin must have seen Rowe walking out, clad in a suit, and having a Player's pavilion named after him. Rowe was officially restored to Jamaican cricket. Rowe was Austin's captain on that fateful tour which affected both men's lives. Rowe went to USA to escape from the public anger in Jamaica and rebuilt his life. Austin came back to Jamaica and destroyed his life. Life has been one long dark night of the soul for him. This might be the land of Bob Marley but not everyone gets to hear the redemption song.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo