Everton Weekes is still sprightly at 92. When John McKenzie informs him that he is in Barbados and would like to come down to his place, the legend dismisses the idea. He gets in his car and drives all the way to the hotel where the specialist cricket publisher and bookseller has checked in.
McKenzie has just published Everton Weekes: An Appreciation, the last ever book penned by the voice of West Indian cricket Tony Cozier. And when Weekes gets out of his car and walks into the hotel, and follows it up with characteristic sparkling conversation, he cannot help but wonder about the life force in the man.
But Weekes is no stranger to a long innings. His five centuries in five consecutive Test innings is one of the most enduring records in the highest form of the game. Yet, the man himself is too modest to attach much importance to the feat. He attributes his selection into the West Indian Test side, ahead of a clutch of talented batsmen, to pure luck. “You have got to be lucky in everything you do,” is his simple belief.
Indeed, luck is important. We are fortunate enough that Tony Cozier teamed up with Weekes, a friend for a long time, to write this book. Given that the ace cricket writer and commentator struggled with illness for most of his last days, we are lucky that the wonderful treatise on the career of Weekes has seen the light of the day.
Yet, luck can carry one only this far. After that, it is up to character. A Test average of 58.61 for 4455 runs cannot be eked out by the hand of fate. Nor can five consecutive hundreds in as many Test innings.
Let us talk character.
There is only one six that Weekes ever struck in Test cricket. That was cracked over long on at Port of Spain, off a no-ball sent down by Bill Johnston in April 1955. Otherwise, he seldom lifted the ball off the turf.
But modesty has an explanation for that as well. “I suppose it was a lot to do with upbringing. When we were playing between the houses and you hit the ball into a house or through someone’s window, the game would stop. The resident would hold on to the ball and you wouldn’t see it again, all because it was hit in the air.”
The sole surviving member of the Great W triumvirate is the soul of self-effacement.
But, indeed, when the flame of brilliance was sparked, chance did play a defining role. As did drama.
The first of five hundreds
It is January 1948. Britain is slowly recovering from the bruises, welts, and calluses of War. Burma has gained independence. The first episode of the radio serial drama Mrs. Dale’s Diary has just been broadcast on the BBC Light Programme.
A 45-year-old Gubby Allen takes a motley group of Englishmen on a Test tour to the Caribbean Islands. MCC play their first match against Barbados at Bridgetown.
Everton Weekes, a promising 22-year-old with a gamut of runs in the previous season, hits 118 not out in a total of 514 for 4. His Test place is assured.
It is a landmark Test for West Indies. They are led by the great George Headley, the first time a black man has captained the islands. But, the pioneer’s halcyon days are behind him. He plays a scratchy innings before being bowled by a debutant in the England side. A spinner named Jim Laker.
Legend has it that when asked about his unusual first name, Weekes had answered that his father had been a fan of the football club Everton. And with his droll Yorkshire humour, Laker had remarked, “Good thing he did not support West Bromwich Albion.” One debutant ribbing the other.
Years later, has the record been set straight? Or has the keen memory of Weekes been playing him tricks?
In Cozier’s book, Weekes makes the same remark but does not credit Laker with the quip.
In the Test, Weekes gets 35 before snicking Maurice Tremlett to Godfrey Evans. In the second innings, his woodwork is disturbed by Laker at the score of 25.
But, the mechanisms of chance are already in action. Headley pulls a muscle and bats at No 11 in the second innings. The match ends in a draw.
The next Test sees Joe Stollemeyer named captain and promptly he is laid out by an injury of his own. Gerry Gomez, the Trinidad all-rounder, leads West Indies. The reins back with a white man and it will take a more than a decade and some serious lobbying by CLR James before Frank Worrell becomes the first regular black captain of the islands.
The Test at Queen’s Park is strange. The four openers score maiden Test hundreds, two on their debut. Of them Barbadian George Carew and the reserve wicketkeeper Billy Griffith will never score another; while Trinidadian Andy Ganteaume will gain permanence as the answer to a popular quiz question by never playing another Test. Jack Robertson does score another ton, just one more —against the 1949 New Zealanders at Lord’s.
Weekes gets starts again and squanders two more opportunities. His scores read 36 and 20. Other young batsmen are staking their claims. The most notable being the classy Jamaican John Holt.
It is March 1948. Riots have just taken place in Accra, capital of the British Colony of Gold Coast.
The tour moves to British Guiana. The injury-plagued England side sends an SOS to Len Hutton.
West Indies have a new captain. John Goddard is at the helm. He wins the toss, opens the batting and claims five wickets in the first innings. Worrell hits 131. West Indies win by seven wickets. Weekes scores 36, another start which he cannot convert into a big one.
George Headley seems to have recovered. He is expected to play. And thus, Weekes, with his series of starts and not a single big score, is dropped from the team.
So, the young man returns to Barbados as, the rest of the party proceed to Kingston, Jamaica. And then it turns out that Headley has not recovered from his injuries after all. Weekes has to play. He is summoned. The hand of fate.
The youthful batsman rushes to the Seawell Airport, only to be informed that the flight is overbooked. He is told that he cannot board the flight to get to the match in time.
But, again fate intervenes. On board is Jack Kidney, the manager of the West Indies team on the tours to England in 1933 and 1939. He is a representative of Barbados in the West Indies Cricket Board of Control, on his way to Jamaica for a board meeting. He gives his seat up, and Weekes hops in.
The drama is not over yet. En route, the aircraft develops engine trouble. A forced landing is made in the Dominican Republic. The nervous cricketer has no idea what is going on. In the island, men speak Spanish, and hence Weekes can neither ask questions nor answer them. “Coming from Westbury Road to speak Spanish overnight would be a bit tricky,” he recalls now.
The engine is repaired. By the time his flight takes off again and reaches Kingston, play is already underway. West Indies are fielding.
“Am I still in the team?” Weekes blurts out on arrival.
The answer, to his surprise, is affirmative. He will have to change into his whites and take the field. The man substituting for him is John Holt.
The relief is short-lived. Tension gives way to hostility. Holt is the local lad, and as Weekes walks out after lunch he has plenty of antagonists among the Kingston crowd. The people want Holt to play in Headley’s place, not Weekes. But the Jamaican has to walk out and will have to wait six years before making his Test debut, on the same ground. The opponents will be England and he will score 94 classy runs before Brian Statham will trap him leg before.
But here, Weekes is greeted by a chorus of catcalls. His work in the field is booed. When he walks out to bat on the second afternoon with the score reading 39 for 1, there is no cheering crowd egging him on.
Luck. Dick Howorth has the ball, and has just dismissed Goddard with his left arm spin. And now, Weekes tentatively chops him outside the off-stump. The ball goes quickly to wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans, hits his pads, and goes down to roll on the pitch. The great stumper cannot get his gloves around it. Had it stuck, Weekes would have returned for a duck, and his career would have been waylaid, if not over.
Weekes survives. He continues to struggle against Howorth. The turn the Worcestershire spinner gets from the wicket is making batting difficult for the Barbadian.
It is the lack of spin that does Stollemeyer in. Howorth traps him leg before with a ball that straightens. It brings Worrell to the crease.
A brief session ensues, and soon Worrell has guided Weekes out of the dilemma. The feet are nimble and the bat is now there ‘on arrival’ of the ball, and the turn is thus rendered irrelevant. Worrell scores just 38, but starts off a tale of extraordinary success in his partner. Weekes settles and his blade flashes class. By the end of the day, he is 68 not out. West Indies, in reply to 227, are firmly placed on 168 for 3.
It is March 1948, and the Treaty of Brussels has been signed by Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
The following day Weekes arrives with instructions from Goddard to punish the bowling. He drives magnificently all through his majestic innings of 141. Fifteen boundaries stud the knock. A great career is now truly underway.
That day West Indies score 75 runs per hour. With contributions down the order, the lead stretches to 263.
In the second innings, veteran pace bowler Hines Johnson hobbles with a leg injury but still takes five. Stollemeyer is now used as a leg spinner and scalps three. The target is just 74. Goddard hits eight fours and a six as the hosts triumph by 10 wickets. The series is won 2-0.
And Weekes is established in the order.
Luck, chance, drama … all of these have played their roles. Weekes has benefitted from some, overcome others, and has scored his first hundred.
The remaining four
1948 wears on. Ralph Asher Alpher and George Gamow publish the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper about the Big Bang. Laurence Olivier’s film version of Hamlet makes its world premiere in London. The Cold War takes a definitive turn as the Berlin Blockade begins. Don Bradman tours England with his Invincibles.
Towards the end of the year, West Indies visit India.
The next Test is across the world, in New Delhi, and Weekes slams 128. At Bombay, he does even better with 194. At Calcutta, Lala Amarnath warns the West Indians about seam and swing on a green wicket. Weekes responds by scoring 162 in four hours, levelling with Jack Fingleton and Allan Melville for four consecutive centuries. In the second innings he goes past them with 101. He is garlanded by the crowd.
It could have been six. At Madras, he gets to 90 and then cuts to backward point. Non-striker Gomez calls him for a quick run and sends him back. Nirode Chowdhury picks the ball up and sends it laser-like to Probir Sen. Weekes dives to regain his ground, but according to the umpire at square leg he is out.
“The umpire might have thought he had seen enough of me for the series but the decision is rather doubtful,” Weekes confides to Cozier.
Cozier’s last book is full of such exquisite details of one of the most remarkable careers in cricket. It sparkles with anecdotes and insights supplied by Weekes himself.
Sparing and taut in style, academic in rigour and never falling prey to idolising, it is a valuable addition to the shelves of cricket literature.
(The book is available only from JW McKenzie Ltd.)