Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo
It will forever be a source of embarrassment to me that I didn't recognise him. We were sitting in the lobby at the Jamaica Pegasus, typing in the details of Inzamam-ul-Haq's retirement press conference, when someone came and sat down on the leather chair across from me. Still lean and with a face that hadn't been ravaged by time, there was something about him that caught my attention. As I turned back to my work, my friend spoke to him: "Such a shame about Bob, isn't it?" The man shook his head ruefully. "We played together, you know. When I was at Derbyshire."
I perked up when I heard that, but still couldn't identify him. When he got up to speak to someone else, I quickly leaned over and asked my friend who it was. "Lawrence Rowe" was the answer. I swore quietly, but my friend assuaged the sense of shame somewhat when he said: "I didn't recognise him either at first. Someone told me."
Lawrence Rowe. Viv Richards' hero. My hero's hero, and too good an opportunity to miss. When he came back to his seat, I got up and went over. I asked him if he would be prepared to chat sometime, fully expecting a demand for dollars or a snub of some sort. Too many years on the beat and too many idols with feet of clay does that to you. Rowe only smiled. "I'd love to," he said. "Maybe sometime during the game tomorrow? I'll be at the ground doing some analysis for a local station."
On Monday afternoon, once Zimbabwe had recovered to post 202, I set about looking for him. The volunteers in the press box didn't know where he was, but offered to find him for me. I sent down a note with my name and organisation on it, asking what time he'd like to meet. Half an hour later, the volunteer returned. "Mr Rowe will come up and see you at 4 o'clock," she said.
Five minutes before the hour, he was there. His arrival caused more than a few whispers. In these parts, he's as close as you get to royalty. Back in 2004, when Jamaicans chose their five cricketers of the century, he was one of two batsmen chosen alongside Michael Holding, Courtney Walsh and Jeffrey Dujon. The other? George Headley.
Mention Headley, and he laughs. "Back in 1972, after I made all those runs on my debut, do you know who they were comparing me to? Headley and Bradman. Imagine that. Headley and Bradman!"
Those that watched him, including Spencer, who drives me around town, still swear by him and his ability to play shots to every corner of Sabina Park. The pull and the hook were two Rowe specials. "See that building over there?" he says, pointing to a construction quite a few yards away from the stadium. "I once hooked Chris Old as far as that."
By the time he led a rebel side to South Africa in 1983, his career was over and the political heat generated by the tour made it impossible for him to live in Jamaica. He moved to Miami, where he runs a small business. In many ways though, Sabina Park is home, the hallowed turf where he made three of his seven centuries while averaging 113.4 in four Tests. "It's a very special place," he says, looking out of the plate glass window as Dwayne Bravo pulls the ball over midwicket for six. "Whenever I played against a touring side here, I seemed to make a hundred, whether it was for Jamaica or the West Indies."
More than 35 years have passed since he scored 214 and 100 not out on his debut against New Zealand. The images though are emblazoned in the memory. "What do I remember most? Well, I'd come out to knock up before the toss, and the bat fell out of my hand. So I just went back and sat in the pavilion. Then Garry [Sobers] came in and told me that we were batting, and that I'd go in at No.3."
He pauses, and gestures towards the Kingston club Stand. "See those benches there? That's where we sat in those days. But it was right next to a stand, and everyone was so enthusiastic about me playing that they couldn't stop talking to me. Finally, Garry had to come out and tell them, 'Look, the boy has to concentrate. Don't disturb him.' When Joey Carew was out, I went in. The first ball I faced went off the middle of the bat, and I knew . I knew I was in for a big one."
We talk about his eye problems, the injuries and the grass allergy that so blighted a career that lasted only 30 Tests. The numbers aren't exceptional, 2043 runs at 43.55, though unlike today's 50-plus men, he had no popgun attacks to play against. Why then is he so adored? "There was no shot in the cricket manual that I couldn't play," he tells you. "Even 30 years later, some come up to me and say that I was the best they've ever seen."
From someone else, you'd dismiss it as delusions of grandeur, but by all accounts, Rowe was ineffably special. When he was a young man, Richards sprayed Yagga - Rowe's nickname - on his backyard fence. That's all the proof I need. Who cares about numbers?