Writing critically about West Indies cricket and cricketers, or any cricket for that matter, is a difficult discipline. The investigation, the analysis, even the casual historical or sociological gossip about any great cricketer should deal with his actual cricket, the way he bats or bowls or fields, does all or any of these. You may wonder far from where you started, but unless you have your eyes constantly on the ball, in fact never take your eyes off it, you are soon writing not about cricket, but yourself (or other people) and psychological or literary, responses to the game. This can be, and has been done quite brilliantly, adding a little something to literature but practically nothing to cricket, as little as the story of Jack and the Beanstalk (a great tale) adds to our knowledge of agriculture. This is particularly relevant to the West Indies.
A great West Indies cricketer in his play should embody some essence of that crowded vagueness which passes for the history of the West Indies. If, like Kanhai, he is one of the most remarkable and individual of contemporary batsmen, then that should not make him less but more West Indian. You see what you are looking for, and in Kanhai’s batting what I have found is a unique pointer of the West Indian quest for identity, for ways of expressing our potential bursting at every seam.
So now I hope we understand each other. Eyes on the ball.
The first historical innings, I prefer to call them historical now, by Kanhai was less than fifty, for British Guiana against the Australians of 1956.
Kanhai had not as yet made the West Indies team. He played well but what was remarkable about the innings was not only its promise but that he was the junior in a partnership with Clyde Walcott as senior.
It is a commonplace what Clyde Walcott has done for the cricket of British Guiana. In reality, in truth and in essence, the thing should be stated this way. The tremendous tradition of Barbados batting, the fount and origin of West Indies cricket, through Walcott had begun to fertilize another area in the Caribbean. Kanhai was the first fruits. Some like to lay emphasis on the fact that he comes originally from the Courantyne, the home not of depressed sugar-workers but of independent rice farmers. There may be something to this. 1 do not know British Guiana well enough to have, on this matter, an opinion that is worth while. I prefer to remember and to remind of the fact that Christiani coached on the Courantyne. Now Christiani was one of the most brilliant of the brilliant school of West Indies batsmen. Of an innings of 107 not out that he played for the West Indies against the state of Victoria in 1951-1952, A. G. Moyes said that it was the most dazzling innings of the Australian season. So that the burgeoning Kanhai inherited not only the universality of Barbados batting but was able to absorb also the individualism of one of the most brilliant of West Indies individualists.
Kanhai played effective innings which resulted in his being selected for the 1957 West Indies tour in England. I am not making a chronicle. I remember, however, the batting that he showed in all the Tests in England. West Indies was scrambling for openers and much of this responsibility was thrown to Kanhai. He bore it without disgrace, with spasms of alternate toughness and brilliance which only later we were to learn were fundamental constituents in his character.
Yet the innings in 1957 that future events caused me to remember most strongly was his last test innings at the Oval. He faced Truman and immediately hit him for two uninhibited fours. Gone was the restraint which held him prisoner during all the previous innings against England.
Kanhai, I know now, had made up his mind to have a final fling at the English bowlers. But either he wasn’t yet good enough to play such cricket in a Test or he had not shaken off the effect of months of restraint. He was out almost at once. Altogether in 1957, it was the failure of Weekes, Worrell, and Walcott to repeat the victorian cavalry charges of 1950 which threw such burdens on Sobers, Kanhai, and Collie Smith. The burden fell most heavily on Kanhai. But the future batsman was there to be discerned.
The next innings that helped to build the Kanhai personality was played as far away as Australia. It was an innings of over two hundred made in one day. Kanhai simply went to the Melbourne wicket and from the first ball hit the Victoria bowlers all over the place until he was tired at the end of the day. It is my firm belief that here again, the great Barbados cricket tradition was at work.
In Australia,Frank Worrell made West Indians and the world aware of what West Indians were capable of when their talents had full play. That is Worrell’s gift to the West Indian personality. We are much given to individualism (it would be a miracle if we were not). But the West Indians under Worrell could not let themselves go, be their own coruscating selves, knowing that the interest and needs, opportunities and perils of the side as a whole were being observed and calculated by one of the shrewdest minds that the game has known. They could have complete confidence in their captain, go their own way, yet respond immediately to any premonition or request. That the smiting of Victoria was not the kind of brilliant innings which all good batsmen play at some time or other was proved by the fact that Kanhai continued to play that way all through the season. When he made a century in each innings against Australia, he was within an ace of making the second century in even time. Hunte being run out in an effort to help Kanhai towards the century, Kanhai was so upset that it was long minutes before he could make the necessary runs.