Published on September 12th, 2018 | by Anindya Dutta0
Pace Like Fire: A Giant among Fast Bowlers – Sir Wesley Hall🕓 Reading time: 10 minutes
I didn’t know it then, but it was a moment that was to ignite my lifelong passion for the sport.
Sitting beside my father at the CAB Members’ Stand on a late winters day in December 1974 on the first morning of my very first Test match, I watched Andy Roberts take his long run up and deliver what appeared to be an impossibly fast ball on the off stump. I didn’t see it move away from the right hander from 90-yards away, and neither did Sudhir Nayak the batsman, from an even more challenging 22. Deryck Murray took the catch, and India was a wicket down on the first ball of the match. I turned wide eyed to my father and said: “that was fast!” He smiled and said: “That was nothing, you should have seen Wes Hall.” And he had.
A Debut for the Ages
Sitting at the very same spot exactly 16-years before in December 1958, my father, then 22-years old, had watched the 6 feet 2 inches tall, 21-year old fast bowler in his debut series, running in almost from the boundary of the impossibly large Eden Gardens, broad shoulders swinging rhythmically from side to side, right hand curled by his hip, moving in sympathy with each stride, a smooth transition to a classical fast bowler’s leap, and the ball screaming down at over 90-miles per hour, headed straight at the mesmerised Indian opener. The menacing follow through and the flying crucifix around the neck completed the larger than life imagery. That morning, local boy and the vastly experienced Pankaj Roy had gone the same way as Naik, unable to avoid the edge to the out swinger on his off stump, wicketkeeper Alexander taking the ball in his gloves. Like Naik, he too had failed to trouble the scorers. India had collapsed around him for 154 in that second innings and lost the match by an innings and 336 runs.
Hall had 6 victims, and his final haul would be 30-wickets, an incredible haul for a debut series, by the time the fifth Test at Delhi was played out. He would take another 16-wickets on the tour of Pakistan that followed immediately afterwards. With 46-wickets in his first eight Tests on the less than pace friendly pitches of the sub-continent, one of the greatest fast bowlers in Test cricket had arrived.
The Tied Test
In the classic Tied Test in 1961 at the Gabba in Brisbane, Australia needed 233 runs to win in the last innings, and the final day to do it. It was not a big target, and having scored over 500 in the first innings, captain Richie Benaud was not too worried. That happy state of affairs was however not destined to last. From one end, the man with the big heart, Wesley Hall kept hurling them in, and in what seemed like no time at all, Australia were reduced to 92 for 6. Alan Davidson (80) and Benaud (52) put on a record 134 runs for the seventh wicket to steady the ship.
Davidson remembers: “Wes Hall bowled magnificently when you consider that he had new boots that he hadn’t been wearing, and he had these giant blisters on the bottom of his feet. He ended up putting this great slab of sticking plaster across the soles of his feet after he’d cut the blisters off. Really, it was just raw flesh, and he kept pouring in and bowling his heart out. That was one of the most sensational things I’ve ever seen on a cricket field. He must have been going through agony.” Hall continued bowling, uncomplainingly.
Then the match entered its final and most crucial over.
Wes Hall ran in for the last over with six runs needed for victory and three Australian wickets left. Skipper Frank Worrell walked up to Hall and told him, ‘whatever you do now, do not bowl a bouncer to Richie Benaud.’ Hall himself talks about what happened next. “As I walked back I said myself, ‘eh eh, let’s go Benaud, forgetting all that the Captain had said, I’m bowling the fastest bouncer that I’d ever bowled in my life.”
Richie Benaud recalls: “Surely no one in his right mind would bowl a bumper at that stage of the match… but it was a bumper delivered with every bit of speed and power the big fella could muster. I tried to hook… trying for the four runs that would have all but won the game. The only result was a sharp touch on the gloves and Gerry Alexander’s victory shout as he caught me.”
Hall continues: “I swung round, my arms raised, going towards my captain, hoping he will embrace me, but all I got was a stony silence and a wicked stare. So I said, ‘He’s out skipper, he’s out!’. He says, ‘What did I tell you?’ I said, ‘He’s out, he’s out.’ And then the joke was no more. He said ‘Do you really understand what would have happened had that ball had taken the top edge and gone for four runs?’ For the first time in twelve minutes, I remembered that Australia needed four to win.”
The new man Meckiff came in. He played the third ball then missed an attempted slog from the fourth. Grout took a daring bye, and Hall missed the stumps with a throw that would have run Meckiff out. Next ball, Grout was dropped when he scooped it up high to square leg. Rohan Kanhai and Hall converged and the bowler dropped the catch.
Hall was in the thick of the action in the last over and he had already missed a runout and a catch. Three to win with three balls left.
Suitably chastened by his captain’s admonition, Hall bowled an innocuous delivery at Meckiff who hit him through mid-wicket. A yard from the boundary, the ball stopped in the grass. The batsmen had just set off for their fourth run. Conrad Hunte threw the ball in from 80 yards straight into Alexander’s gloves who whipped off the bail with Grout a foot outside his crease.
Scores level with two balls remaining and No. 11 Kline at the crease.
Frank Worrell walked up to Wes Hall again. “Well listen. If you bowl a no ball … you will never be able to land in Barbados again.” As Hall was walking back to his mark contemplating this, Worrell ran up to him again and said: “I have nothing to tell you. But the problem is that batsman doesn’t know that I have nothing to tell you. So if I move the man at backward square leg two feet to the right, and then two feet to the left, he wouldn’t know that I had nothing to tell you.”
So it was said and so it was done. Worrell asked Joe Solomon to move two feet to the right and then two feet to the left. It is perhaps fair to say that gamesmanship and psychological mind play on the cricket field has seldom had a more immediate effect, for with only one thing on his mind – put bat on the ball and run – Lindsay Kline played it to Solomon behind square. And he ran.
Brydon Coverdale in a lovely piece titled The Man in the Photo describes what happened next: “Solomon is ready. He sees the ball coming his way; he has no time to think. He acts on instinct, runs to the ball, picks it up, aims at the one and only stump he can see…he hits. His team-mates leap in joy. Kline’s partner, Ian Meckiff, is run out. History has been made, and Joe Solomon made it.”
83-years after the first Test match was played, the statistically improbable event had happened. The cricketing world had a Tied Test, and while Joe Solomon had made the final throw, with nine wickets in the match and bowling that crucial final over in acute physical discomfort (he had sent down 17 eight-ball overs with the raw and bleeding soles of his foot) and under tremendous psychological pressure, 23-year old Wesley Hall had made it all possible.
A Legend in his own Time
In the late 1950s, at the Accrington Cricket Club in Lancashire began the extraordinary story of West Indian Test players at the very top of the world game ending up in small former mill towns to play Lancashire League cricket. Accrington’s population was only about 30,000 at the time: in modern football terms, this was akin to Cristiano Ronaldo showing up to play for a Fifth Division club in rural England. But in an age when professional opportunities were limited for players of colour, this was an important avenue for earning a living when there was no Test cricket being played.
Learie Constantine and Frank Worrell preceded Hall. Charlie Griffith, Michael Holding and Vivian Richards followed him, with Rishton paying Holding £5,000 a summer and Richards double that sum. The financial scale of today’s elite sport means we will never again see the world’s best pitching up in a village like that. In time, Hall negotiated his own package to £1,000 from the £500 that he had been originally offered.
Accrington is important in the Wes Hall story for it was at this club, that he doubled his run-up, having concluded that bowling off about 18 yards never provided the rhythm which fast bowlers obsess about. At a visit to the club after many decades, taking a walk up to the turf in late 2017, he told a journalist: “Even though I can’t walk well now, I think in my spirit I could take off on my run-up and get a few wickets like I used to do.”
Back from his first tour of the subcontinent, Hall and Gilchrist were ready when England came to play the West Indies in early 1960. His haul would be 22-wickets. In the Australian summer that followed, he bagged 21 victims, followed by 27 in the series against India that followed a couple of months later. Hall’s first three years in Test cricket had yielded 116-wickets from 23 Test matches, a phenomenal haul.
Hall would be on tour with the West Indies for the next six years visiting England and Australia twice, and New Zealand and India once each. He would get only one home series against the visiting Englishmen in early 1968. Wherever he bowled, he would be menacing and relentless, and largely successful.
But the wear and tear on his body from the years of fast bowling and the pounding of his body on the turf were not helped by a couple of accidents while driving as fast as he bowled. At the age of 32, Hall played his last Test match against the Kiwis at Auckland, unable to take the physical punishment any more, literally limping off the field in his last innings. In an impressive 48 match Test career stretching over a decade, Hall’s haul of wickets had been an impressive 192 at 26.38 apiece.
Any batsman who ever played him in that decade, and the tens of thousands who watched him, heart thumping with every one of the long strides over the 32-yards, at cricket grounds across the world, would testify to the appropriateness of the title of his autobiography that talks about his playing days – Pace with Fire.
Wesley Hall – The Bowler and the Man
Hall’s story began at Barbados. Son of a light-heavyweight boxer, Hall had inherited the chiselled physique, and with his imposing height, was born to be a fast bowler. Noted West Indian commentator and writer Tony Cozier describe facing up to Hall as a schoolboy cricketer:
“When I first laid eyes on Wes Hall he was in the next parish. As I scratched my guard the bowler in the far distance at the end of a run that would become as identifiable as any in the game was the latest West Indies tearaway. I was the 17-year-old opening batsman for the Lodge School at a time when the three top secondary schools in Barbados were part of the highest division of domestic cricket, along with clubs that routinely included Test and first-class players (presumably it was supposed to be character building). He was 20. He was said to be erratic and prone to no-balls. Neither claim lifted our confidence, for whatever else, he was decidedly quick. If he was not sure where the next ball would go, we certainly were not, and since the back-foot law was still in operation, he was pretty much stepping on the batsman’s toes every time he dragged. Somehow, through youthful eyesight, reflexes, bravado, luck, whatever, I clipped a boundary through square leg in the opening over on the way to a scintillating 24. The image has justifiably remained with me, as sharp as if on a high-definition TV screen. When, by now old friends, I felt comfortable enough to mention it to Wes a few months back, he quickly pricked my pride: “You lucky you still living!”
Many batsmen over the years felt the same way. When CLR James in Beyond a Boundary said: “Hall merely puts his head down and lets you have it, and it’s pretty hot!”, he was not exaggerating. Hall put everything he had into his bowling, and when he had the cherry in his hand, nothing else mattered. Clayton Goodwin sympathised with the men at the receiving end: “The picture of Wesley Hall in full flow, as he ran towards the wicket, is still treasured in the memories of all but the opposing batsman—and maybe in theirs as well.”
Australian wicketkeeper Wally Grout wrote about his first impression: “I watched Hall’s first ball to [Colin] McDonald. I didn’t watch another. It pitched on a perfect length and fairly screamed past the tip of Col’s nose. That was enough I thought …. the less I see of Hall the better.”
But Hall was a different person without a ball in his hand, and sometimes, even with it. The oft-used cliche of a ‘gentle giant’ fits him well. CLR James wrote: “Hall simply exudes good nature at every pore.” Australian commentator Johnnie Moyes described Hall as “a rare box-office attraction, a man who caught and held the affections of the paying public.”
Martin Chandler in a tribute to Hall put it aptly: “the most unexpected aspect of Hall’s career, given that his job description involved scaring the living daylights out of batsmen, was the extent of his popularity with both opponents and their supporters.”
Tom Graveney said about him: “[Hall was] an outstanding athlete, a hostile bowler, and one of the nicest people ever to have played the game. He might have been trying to knock your head off, but he was always able to appreciate what you, as a batsman, were trying to do. Play a good stroke off his bowling and he would applaud you and mean it. He was a fierce competitor on the field, but a generous one.”
Pakistani great Hanif Mohammad’s view was: “Wes was one of the most fearsome fast bowlers I ever faced, though he possessed a temperament, unlike other quickies, for he was a very gentle and generous cricketer, the reason why he was extremely popular with crowds.”
The tribute paid to him by his English rival Freddie Trueman perhaps best summed up Hall the bowler: “[Wesley Hall’s] lightning-fast bowling was a fire that illuminated cricket, not one that destroyed its beauty.”
Life after Cricket
It was thus perhaps inevitable that when the strain of cricket all-year round and the merciless pounding he gave his body forced him to hang up those boots at the age of 32, he would move on to pursuits gentler than knocking off the heads of opposition batsmen.
Playing his last bit of domestic cricket in Trinidad, Hall got involved in establishing a still flourishing humanitarian program in one of the most underprivileged areas of Port of Spain. And although he held a few high profile positions with major companies on his return to his native Barbados, it was not much later that he chose to follow a different path. His desire to serve his fellow man took him into politics with the Democratic Labour Party, initially as a senator and subsequently as an elected member of the House of Assembly. In 1987 he found himself a member of the Government as Minister of Tourism and Sport.
In the interim years, he kept his contact with cricket as an administrator and a national selector.
But life had another twist in store for Wes Hall. In 1990, inspired by a Christian preacher that he saw whilst visiting Florida, Hall decided to commit himself to Christianity as well and after a period at Bible School, he was ordained as a minister in the Pentecostal Church.
In 2012, the son of a light-heavyweight boxer from Barbados, perhaps belatedly found his name in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
As Sir Wesley Hall celebrates his 81st birthday today, he may have slowed down, but his wit and humour is not diminished. With the sledging controversy raging once again, he was asked about his views on the topic a few months ago. Pat came to his reply: “I tell you what – it depends how fast the bowler bowls. I’ve never been sledged by an Australian.”