Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo
If you’re not paying attention, you might just miss it, so unusual is the location. Opposite the National Stadium, it catches the eye as you turn left on to Roosevelt Avenue. I ask Spencer, my driver, to slow down, and then ask him what it is. “It da Jamaica wall of honour, man,” he says solemnly. When we get out of the car, I see that a drainage canal runs alongside the wall that stretches over 30 feet, and is an artistic tribute to the sporting legends that have brought such glory to a tiny island.
Some of the paintings are crude, especially the unflattering portrait of Michael Holding from his Whispering Death Afro days, but others are beautifully executed. The one of Lawrence Rowe – Yagga to those that adored him – playing a shot off the back-foot grabs your attention, as does that of Courtney Walsh poised to bowl with that languid action.
And while the island’s cricketers have been tremendous ambassadors, starting with the incomparable George Headley, it’s perhaps revealing that the first three faces on the wall are all athletes. Arthur Wint, Jamaica’s first Olympic gold medallist [London, 1948], has pride of place, and next to him is Merlene Ottey-Page. But for drug cheats from behind the Iron Curtain, Ottey would have been the premier sprinter of her age, rather than someone doomed to silver and bronze.
Next to her is Donald Quarrie, sprint hero of the Montreal games and predecessor to the likes of Asafa Powell. The cricketers come only after that, and Spencer speaks breathlessly in his scattergun patois about Rowe. “I watch him as a little boy. He da man.” When I mention that even King Viv idolised Rowe, Spencer beams with pride.
The misfit among the murals is easy to spot. Sir Frank Worrell was born in Barbados and when I ask Spencer why he’s there, he has no answer. But as the memorial service for him at Westminster Abbey revealed, Worrell belonged to far more than one island. A captain who transcended the sport, he’s remembered as the binding force that helped to make this conglomeration of islands the game’s premier power.
Even more poignant than the hero who dies young – Worrell succumbed to cancer at the age of 42 – is the one who falls from grace. Allan ‘Skill’ Cole is still regarded as the greatest footballer that Jamaica has produced, and the first to play professionally in Brazil. But in 2002, he was one of six men implicated in a drug bust. A Rastafarian, Cole was a dear friend of Bob Marley, with whom he would have kick-abouts on Hope Road. His dreadlocks and his fondness for ganja eventually ended the Brazilian adventure, and he was briefly Marley’s manager. And to this day, some insist that he might have penned a couple of Marley’s hits.
As we walk back to the car and the reggae classics playing on the radio, you can’t help but think of Marley’s most haunting lines. Good friends we have, good friends we lost along the way…