In 1981 while working at an alumina refinery in Jamaica, I tried to talk my way into the company’s cricket team. The powers to be would have none of it. The popular saying goes: `if you can’t beat them, then join them.’ But, they didn’t want me to join them. And so, I had to find a way to beat them.
About the same time, Sir Vivian Richards was reveling in Somerset’s Benson and Hedges Cup win over Surrey at Lord’s – their first, and I knew long ago that he liked visiting Jamaica. And so, at my wits end, I picked up the phone and called him. In those days - and still today - Sir Vivian was a sharp dresser, and so I had before anointed him `Joseph’ as in the Biblical character `Joseph Coat of Many Colors’. And so I said, “Joseph, can you come down to Jamaica to play a cricket match for me?” I suspect that the desperation in my voice gained his empathy. So when he said yes, I picked up the phone and called Kirkvine Sport Club’s board member Mr. Patrick Anderson and announced that I am getting together a cricket team to play Alcan’s. Pat laughed. And more so when I told him in passing, that my one-down batsman would be Vivian Richards.
To round out my invitational XI, I got a hold of Richard Austin, Jeffry Dujon and Courtney Walsh. The latter two had yet to play for the West Indies. But, I impressed on them the wisdom of showing off their talents to the then West Indies vice-captain. Maurice Foster who had long played for the West Indies responded as well. With Dujon and Walsh signing on, a host of other` wannabes’ began camping at my doorstep. “I can only take five more,” I told them. My invitational XI beat Alcan’s and names I had never heard of before, like `impresario’, were thrown my way.
Be that as it may, when Sir Vivian was being readied to take over from Clive Lloyd, rumblings about him being neither ready nor worthy were being bandied. And so, I sprung to his defence. I wanted my support to be ventilated at the then highest level, and so I sounded out The Cricketer International magazine, edited then by Christopher Martin-Jenkins.
In a short turnaround a red and blue airmail envelope arrived from England, not only accepting my draft, but offering to pay me for using it. The proposal was made by no other than `The Major’ himself. The piece - titled Life After Lloyd - appeared, much to my delight, and virtually unedited in the February 1986 issue of Chris’s magazine. It was my first foray into cricket writing. Four years later in January 1990, the same thing, albeit with another West Indies cricketer, occurred.
Before we had joined forces at Kingston College in Kingston, Jamaica, Michael Holding was my adversary, and I, his. My cricket team from Gore Terrace on the east or right (no pun intended) side of Constant Spring Road would in the summer months go across the divide to play his, at the Red Hills Oval. That ground could either be accessed by taking a shortcut through the back of Merle Grove High School, or the long way down Dunrobin Avenue then using a slip-way. In matches, I used to feel his pace as he had a penchant for seeking out my un-padded back-foot. You see, in those days, my team could only afford one pair of pads – to be shared by both batsmen.
Then our paths would again cross when he arrived at Kingston College High School. There we played Junior Colts, Colts, Second XI and ultimately Sunlight Cup cricket, up to when I left in June 1970.
It was fitting therefore that when he retired from international cricket after taking 249 wickets in 60 Tests, I would write a few words on his behalf. Those I again boldly sent to The Cricketer International magazine for their perusal. Voila. There came the same old-fashioned red-and-blue airmail envelope offering me a fee to publish the same. That following month - January 1990 - Farewell to `Whispering Death’ appeared.
And so one can only imagine how grief-stricken I was when I learnt of The Major’s death on New Year’s Day. This must be a joke, I thought, especially coming so swiftly on the heels of the passing of the other great cricket luminary - Tony Greig. But, the calendar read January. Not April.
I did not need to read the volume of glowing tributes that scribes world-wide would pen in his memory. By him having written twenty-five (25) books on cricket, I knew how `steep’ he was. With a frame so wirey, this ability to churn out books showed that a man’s stature isn’t to be measured by the size of his girth, but by the depth of his heart. In the last few months, I have been struggling through his The Spirit of Cricket – A Personal Anthology. Just like his writing Chris’s commentary also had a regality and a stateliness about it - not unlike the departure of a British Airways `Triple-Seven’.
Funnily, the poet Jeff Cloves just recently wrote of a similar kindness CMJ extended to him – getting his work into Wisden - as a poet.
Known in the press box as `The Major’, a name I suspect stuck because of his carriage, Chris and I were on speaking terms from that time in 1986, up until the last time I last saw him at the Fifth England-West Indies Test match at the Queen’s Park Oval in March 2009.
But whether it was at Queen’s Park, Sabina Park, Kensington Oval, The Oval , Headingly, Old Trafford, the Gabba or the SCG, his ice-breaker was militarily the same: “Hi Ray. Are you still in the States?” he would ask, as his face slowly transformed, drawn back like a curtain into a Cheshire cat-like grin.
Over time, I had often wondered why the question was so consistent. Was it just that he was bemused that I wrote from such a distance away from the action? Or was it more? Could it be that he empathized with my voluntary exile from the Caribbean, like so many others? I never asked.
Chris also had a wry sense of humor too. Back in the summer of 2007 when England were engaging the West Indies in The Third Test match at Old Trafford, the West Indies batsman Runako Morton got a fifty in his second innings. The next day in his copy, Chris described the late batsman as having in his stroke-play (quote): `A touch of Lawrence Rowe. “ Chris,” I whispered, after having read it, “that’s sacrilege.” He paused, thought and then grinned: “Well, I had to get a Jamaican in there somewhere.”
And so I salute Christopher Martin-Jenkins for giving me encouragement, by way of a couple of breaks. I hope modern-day stalwarts in the print medium, will not only remember, but emulate his generosity.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the January 14th, 2013 edition of The Jamaica Observer.