The Messiah who changed the face of West Indies cricket…..
Nelson Mandela in all probability was seeking inspiration from Sir Frank Worrell’s cricketing career when he went on to describe the importance of sports in eradicating and blurring the lines of racial divisions. “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.” While the revolution of apartheid in South Africa is more than well known, hardly many would even be aware that West Indies’ Worrell had to fight his own demons to claim his spot amongst the Test captains from his country.
If it was his meteoric rise as a seventeen-year-old that captured the selector’s attention, his classical technique and his stylish strokeplay catapulted him into stardom in his very first Test match against England. Soon, he was to make a name amongst the legendary Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott from Barbados to cement his place as one of the three Ws from the island. His batting genius can be gauged from his average of 50 from 51 games, with nine centuries – that at times even overshadowed the great Don Bradman’s feats.
He started his career in Port of Spain with a brisk 97 and followed it up with a magnificent hundred in the following Test in Guyana. By his seventh Test, he already notched up an average of 104.12, including a wonderful 261 in 1950 in Nottingham. Such was his craft that he hardly allowed his batting average to fall below 60 till his 17th Test and even then, despite a comparatively lean form from 1960 to 1963, when he did not score a single hundred, his career average was a highly impressive 49.48 – with 22 half-centuries.
He was at his mightiest best against England, scoring six of his nine hundreds against them at an average of 55, which was a major reason why his away average reads 45. He was a master architect in wins – averaging 74 whenever West Indies won a game and scoring at 18.01 when they lost. That not only implies how dependent the team remained on Worrell’s form, it also signifies how important the player remained to the team. His domestic records were staggering – scoring 15,025 runs at an average of 54.24 with 39 hundreds and 80 fifties. With the ball as well, he contributed significantly, picking up 349 wickets with an average of 29 and from his numbers alone, there remains no question that Tae was a phenomenon.
However, more than his on-field records and figures, it is his quiet fight for the revolution that stood out. In a day and age when racism and discrimination ran forth, Worrell emerged as a hero and along with a vociferous journalist managed to change cricket from a field that propagated racism to an arena where it refused to matter. CLR James, then-editor of Trinidad’s weekly paper “The Nation” orchestrated a movement that combined both political and social factors and in his demands for a black man Worrell to become the leader of West Indies, James was on the verge of starting a protest that had till then, been unheard of.
The West Indian Cricket Board of Control’s apprehensions in handing Worrell the reins due to his colour was well-known but James, arguing clearly from a cricketing point of view, stated why the move would be a great one indeed. The West Indies, who then was being captained by the only white man in the team Gerry Alexander had just lost a Test to Pakistan by 10 wickets. Not only was this loss generated out of the inexperience of Alexander, it was also due to the immature captaincy that was witnessed in Karachi. With MCC to visit the Caribbean in the winter and then a tour of Australia following, it was but imperative that the best playing eleven under the best possible captain should turn out in these games.
For almost a year, the battle was a lost one but as the adage goes, resilient legends hardly go home disappointed and so was the case in 1960, when the Board finally agreed to see the worth of Worrell beyond his colour and his skin. In April 1960, West Indies had their first black captain and James, who had been the main fulcrum behind this decision, solemnly wrote in his column, “we now have a fine captain who can exercise authority over his men and tell them what he wants done.”
Not one to waste James’ fight to ashes, Worrell produced his best for his nation after his promotion. Before Steven Waugh’s trend of intimidating the opponents with their aggression, Worrell preached the creed of attacking cricket – both with the bat and ball. His troops answered rather gloriously as well, winning the hearts of spectators in Australia and England – winning nine of the 15 Tests when Worrell led.
Before his ascension, the team were prone to inconsistencies but after he was promoted, the fortunes in West Indies cricket changed. He brought together players from different islands and districts and propagated a brand of cricket where passiveness remained absent. This fearlessness started an aggressive brand of cricket in West Indies that continued for the next thirty years.
The 1950s saw a number of dull draws but all so suddenly, Worrell transformed the levels of excellence that were on display since the tour of Australia. Very few had given the West Indies much of a chance against Richie Benaud’s team, but the show of spirited fightback genuinely made the Windies a potent threat in the coming years. Even though Worrell’s team lost the series, it paved the way for plenty of praise – both towards West Indies and Worrell’s captaincy. He led India to a 5-0 whitewash and a 3-1 series win against England at home and it started an unprecedented growth of West Indies cricket, which hardly would have been possible without the passion that Worrell brought on board.
As a batsman, he was strong and wristy with quick footwork and as a leader, he was non-violent yet aggressive. After his retirement at the age of 39, he served at various positions in the many Universities in his country and his unfortunate death four years later sent shock waves all over. Though he did have a lot more to contribute, not only in the world of cricket but also in the sphere of education, politics and as a humanitarian, the world can take peace from the fact that even in his short stay, Worrell changed the face of West Indies from where there was no looking back.