Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Tony Deyal: West Indies cricket Down Under

Published:Saturday | December 26, 2015 | 12:00 AM

For my generation, cricket is still the glue that holds the West Indies together. It is also, for many of us, the common thread in our own lives. We are not all as extreme as Mr Smith of Hawthorn in this espncricinfo.com anecdote. One afternoon during a Test match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the public address system announced, "Would Mr Smith of Hawthorn please go home. Your wife is having her baby and must be taken to hospital."

Laughter flowed around the ground as the spectators pictured a stressed father-to-be rushing to the hospital. After more than half an hour, the voice again boomed across the ground, this time with some urgency, "Repeating our earlier message to Mr Smith of Hawthorn. Would he please go home immediately, because his wife is in labour and must be taken to hospital straight away."

Much more mirth from the crowd, this time, picturing a man reluctant to leave the cricket - but surely by now bidding farewell to his mates to dash to his vehicle and tear off home. How wrong were the 20,000 spectators. Much to their delight, the now pleading message was repeated with grim urgency some 20 minutes later. After a further 30 minutes passed, there was a bland announcement, "Would Mr J. Smith of Hawthorn please go to the Mercy Hospital, where his wife has now given birth to a baby son."

MORE THAN LOVE AND SEX

The British comic, Dennis Norden, truly understood the fanaticism and single-mindedness of the genuine cricket fan: "It's a funny kind of month, October. For the really keen cricket fan, it's when you discover that your wife left you in May." This is perhaps the reason a batsman's wife was so understanding when a fast bowler delivered a bouncer which hit the batsman on the head and he had to be taken to hospital for observation.

The next day, the bowler apologised to the batsman's wife: "I'm terribly sorry about what happened to your husband. I feel very bad about it." "Think nothing of it," replied the wife, "I've been wanting to do that myself for years."

And perhaps this explains another story. "A keen bowler was well into his run-up when a funeral procession passed the ground. He stopped in his tracks, took off his cap, held it over his heart, and bowed his head. The umpire was impressed. 'You're a man who shows real respect for the dead,' he said. 'It's the least I could do,' said the bowler. 'After all, I was married to her for 30 years.'"

Wives also would not like what British playwright Harold Pinter said: "I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth - certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either." But that is another story and certainly not an attitude shared by my fellow West Indians, male or female.

Cricket is still the major thread in the fabric of my life, sometimes embroidered and embellished in my stories and anecdotes, at times a patchwork quilt like West Indies cricket, but on the good days and nights, a comforter like the blanket that Linus, the Peanuts character, clings stubbornly to despite his sister Lucy's attempts to take it away from him.

I love football, and even coached it in Trinidad and during my university days in Ottawa. I was there watching in 1973 when O.J. Simpson broke the rushing record, Secretariat won the Triple Crown, and the Nixon-Watergate hearings took over television. But even that momentous year pales in comparison with a few minutes I spent in the early morning of December 14, 1960, shivering from the morning cold, listening to the radio and not fully understanding the significance of what I had heard.

My father was a truck driver and invariably left for work about 4:30 every morning. I was sound asleep, and he shook me awake despite my protestations to "Leh me sleep, nah. I tired." "Come," he demanded. "Listen to this."

He dragged me to sit next to him trying to make sense of the static from the big PYE radio we had in the living room. It was about four in the morning, but it felt like I had just closed my eyes and fallen asleep. It was the tied Test match, the first in history, and is the bond between my father, me and cricket.

THE TURNING POINT

Up to that time, I played bat and ball in the yard of my uncle's home and with the other kids at school, but without any seriousness of purpose or real feeling for the game. That morning, however, changed many things for me, some of which I forgot and only remembered after my father died. In a sense, too, the many trips to Queen's Park Oval as a five-year-old and onwards, initially taken there by my uncle and then on my own, and my subsequent journeys to Kensington, the Antigua Recreation Ground, Kingston and, the crowning irony of all, Lord's.

It was June 22, 1995. Lord's was the place where Gary Sobers had made centurions of Bernard Julien and David Holford, forcing them to stay with him and bat through the usual crisis of 'collapso' cricket. It was, and always will be, cricket's field of dreams. It was my dream, and it turned into a nightmare.

Before the Test match, the team had split apart between Captain Richie Richardson's faction and Brian Lara's. Lara left the team hotel and went out on his own. I met Ian Bishop, someone I genuinely admired, after a net session on the morning of the first Test, asked for his autograph for an article I was writing, and he refused.

Despite all this drama behind the scenes, the West Indies scored 324 in reply to England's 283, but when they batted again, England made 336, and the West Indies lost by 72 runs. Dominic Cork got seven wickets (including a hat-trick) for 43 runs. It was the beginning of the end, and the end of a glorious beginning for West Indies cricket.

Perhaps the most fitting end is a retelling of an old joke. A cricketer went to Rudy Webster, the sports psychologist, and pleaded, "Dr Webster, it's terrible. I can't score runs. I'm a really poor bowler, and I can't hold a catch. What can l do?"

Dr Webster replied, "Best thing is to find another job." The cricketer moaned, "I can't. I'm playing for the West Indies in the Boxing Day Test match tomorrow."

- Tony Deyal was last seen talking about the cricketer who dropped so many catches that he went to the doctor and complained that the Australian crowd was calling him "Butterfingers". "Don't worry," the doctor advised, "it's not catching."