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Sonny Ramadhin

Selection for West Indies' 1950 tour of England, aged 20, was one of the most audacious hunches in history

Sonny Ramadhin bowls, third day, first Test, England v West Indies, Edgbaston, June 1, 1957

Sonny Ramadhin bowled 129 overs - 31 in the first innings and 98 in the second - against England at Edgbaston in 1957  •  Getty Images

RAMADHIN, SONNY, died on February 26, aged 92.
The selection of Sonny Ramadhin, then 20, for West Indies' 1950 tour of England was one of the most audacious hunches in history. An orphaned son of workers on one of Trinidad's sugar plantations, he had played just two first-class matches when the squad was chosen. On the ship bound for England, he had to be shown how to use a knife and fork; senior players signed autograph sheets for him and fellow spin-bowling tyro Alf Valentine. Sonny, a sobriquet bestowed by school-mates in appreciation of his smiling disposition, was the only name he knew. He was unsure of fielding positions, and had never heard of any of England's batsmen.
In the opening Test at Old Trafford, he became the first player of Indian heritage to represent West Indies. By the end of the summer, he was a superstar - one of the main architects of West Indies' first series win in England. For all time, he and Valentine would be conjoined in Lord Beginner's exuberant calypso: "Those little pals of mine / Ramadhin and Valentine." The supporters who celebrated the Second Test victory at Lord's were among the first wave of post-war immigrants from the Caribbean: Lord Beginner and his co-composer Lord Kitchener had arrived two years earlier on the Empire Windrush. They had been pitched into a bleak and often racist environment; one of the song's lines described how the fans "jumped and shouted without fear".
Ramadhin took 26 wickets at 23 in the Tests, and 135 at 14 on the tour; he was a shoo-in as one of Wisden's Five (as was Valentine, who hoovered up 123 wickets; next was medium-pacer Gerry Gomez, with 55). Any batsman expecting a conventional off-spinner was soon disabused. Ramadhin stood 5ft 4in and weighed nine stone, but - sleeves buttoned down, and often bowling in a cap - he turned the ball both ways with no discernible change of action. To his stock off-break, spun off the inside of his right forefinger, he added a leg-break, spun off the middle finger, and a delivery that did not spin at all. John Arlott thought his method resembled S. F. Barnes; Denis Compton recalled a "blur of black hand, white sleeve and red ball, which made it impossible to gauge the spin". He was a mainstay of the West Indies attack until the early 1960s and, although never again quite as devastating as in 1950, he was always a threat. In the stormy 1953-54 series against Len Hutton's England in the Caribbean, he was the leading wicket-taker on either side, with 23 at 24; two years later, in New Zealand, he claimed 20 at 15.
Ramadhin was born in St Charles Village in Trinidad, not far from the capital, Port-of-Spain. His parents died when he was a toddler, and he was brought up by his grandparents, who had immigrated from India to work on one of the island's cocoa estates. He learned to bowl in cleared patches of cane stubble, but at school won a trophy for his batting. At 16, he joined the Palmiste club, where he came to the attention of Clarence Skinner, who had played for Barbados and recruited him for the Trinity Leaseholds Oil Company team. Skinner also found him a job, cutting the fairways on the company's two golf courses. "We weren't allowed to play on them," Ramadhin told the writer Simon Lister. "They were not for the employees - just for the whites."
In January 1950, he was chosen for two matches between Trinidad and Jamaica, trials for the tour of England. On his first-class debut, he took five for 39, and eight in the match. After four more wickets in the second game, he was chosen. Valentine, playing for Jamaica, was less successful, but still earned selection. Ramadhin's first game on tour came in a chilly, rain-shortened opener at Worcester; it was so cold in the early weeks that he wore pyjamas under his whites. But he gradually warmed up. In an innings victory over Glamorgan, he took a second-innings five-for - "looks a more than useful bowler," said the Western Mail - and 11 for 155 in another big win at Taunton.
In the First Test, on an Old Trafford pitch that turned from the start, West Indies were undone by Bob Berry and Eric Hollies, though Valentine took England's first eight wickets before Ramadhin nipped in with the last two. He bowled better than his figures - four for 167 in the match - suggested. Wisden said he produced "highly skilled slow bowling". England's 202-run win may have convinced them that their opponents were no more of a threat than previous West Indian teams. If so, they were wrong. At Lord's, Ramadhin took five for 66, as the tourists gained a first-innings lead of 175; then, after John Goddard set England 601, he added six for 86 from 72 overs. In The Daily Telegraph, E. W. Swanton said he used the "arts and subtleties of a spinner in a way extraordinary in one who had not a scrap of experience before this tour". He was also deadly accurate, bowling ten successive maidens in the first innings, and 11 in the second. England could not pick him, and Hutton thought his deceptively quick arm action was reminiscent of Wilfred Rhodes. Ramadhin's list of victims included Cyril Washbrook, Bill Edrich and Godfrey Evans, but he admitted: "I didn't know which was which, or who was the next batsman coming in. I just bowled against whoever walked out." For the Caribbean, victory at Lord's, wrote the former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley, was "more than a sporting success. It was the proof that a people was coming of age."
West Indies won by ten wickets at Trent Bridge - Ramadhin five for 135 in the second innings - and sealed a 3-1 win with an innings victory at The Oval. As the tour progressed, the calypso was played frequently. "I heard it on the radio before one of the later Test matches," said Ramadhin. "It was great to hear people singing your own name - it was as if they were worshipping you." Less than a month later, he was on the subcontinent with a Commonwealth XI led by Frank Worrell, setting a template for a career that included little first-class cricket in the Caribbean, outside Tests. Ramadhin spent most English summers playing for, among others, Crompton, near Oldham, in the Central Lancashire League. He went to Australia in 1951-52 but, after a successful start - five for 90 in the second innings at Brisbane - he was targeted by Australia's batsmen, and his 14 wickets cost nearly 50.
In 1952-53, he was left out of the Fifth Test of the home series against India. But in 1953-54, Hutton's team were no nearer to reading him, and the writer Frank Birbalsingh recalled Willie Watson's reaction when Ramadhin bowled him at Guyana: "His face registered a suspicion of mystery, as if the delivery had somehow confounded scientific laws." But there was plenty of suspicion, voiced by Tom Graveney among others, about the legality of Ramadhin's faster ball. In 1999, Ramadhin admitted to the Daily Mail: "It's about time I got it off my conscience. There was no way somebody of my build could have produced my faster ball without throwing it. Nowadays, the television cameras would have picked it up immediately."
When West Indies returned to England in 1957, Ramadhin was still their main weapon. In the First Test at Edgbaston, he took seven for 49 - his best Test figures - as England were bowled out for 186; a post-lunch spell brought him six for nine in eight overs. "Scarcely ever, it seems, does he bowl two balls alike," wrote John Woodcock in The Times. But in the second innings, England hatched a plan. In a marathon fourth-wicket stand of 411, Peter May and Colin Cowdrey thrust their front pads down the pitch, and kicked the ball away in the expectation they would not be given lbw. With two bowlers off injured, captain Goddard had Ramadhin bowling 98 overs, still a record for a Test innings, while endless appeals went ignored. England's twelfth man Johnny Wardle recalled: "I could have cried for Sonny. I reckon a good proportion of them were absolutely plumb." An exhausted Ramadhin was rendered ineffectual for the rest of the series, but still topped the tour averages with 119 at 13, and in the 1959-60 home series against England took 17 at 28.
His long-term residency in England eventually made him eligible to play county cricket. He joined Lancashire in 1964, and had a successful first summer with 80 Championship wickets at 24, though he played only a handful of games the following year. It was not the end of his connection with the county: his son-in-law Willie Hogg and grandson Kyle Hogg both became Lancashire players. Ramadhin played Minor Counties cricket for Lincolnshire into his early forties, and in the leagues until he was nearly 50. In 1995, he was awarded Trinidad & Tobago's highest honour, the Hummingbird Gold Medal. For many years he was a publican in the Oldham area. And he always relished the memory of bamboozling the world's greatest batsmen: "The psychological advantage of being Sonny Ramadhin was worth three wickets an innings."