Headley was born in Panama of Jamaican and Barbadian parents, but learned his cricket in Jamaica where he grew up. Some called Headley the Black Bradman. But for West Indians of his generation, Headley was 'Atlas'. He carried the batting of a weak West Indies teams in the early years of the region's involvement in Test cricket.
Headley played 22 Tests, batting in 40 innings, scored 2,190 runs at an average of 60.83. Over his longer first class career of 103 matches, Headley scored 9,991 runs at a phenomenal average of 69.86.
The Jamaican politician and former legislator, Arnold Bertram, is writing a book on Headley, to be published this year. The following is the first of a two-part excerpt from that book. In next week's instalment, Bertram analyses Headley and his great Australian contemporary, Donald Bradman
George Alphonso Headley was the first Jamaican to be acclaimed the "best in the world", in any field of international endeavour. He achieved this distinction as a batsman in cricket, a game that the English invented, elevated to a national institution, and exported to every corner of its empire. His achievement is even more phenomenal when we reflect that it was after his arrival in Jamaica from Panama, where he was born, that the nine-year-old Headley taught himself cricket. He had not played the game before, yet in less than a decade he combined application and talent to achieve unprecedented mastery of this artform.
Nature endowed him with tremendous physical assets, which he in turn built on. He competed in athletics as a sprinter, swam regularly the three-mile distance across the Kingston Harbour and played cricket in every spare moment. His remarkable powers of concentration became obvious from age 13. Headley played regularly a popular community version of cricket known as 'catch-and-bowl'. There was no limit on the number of boys who could play and the rules were very simple. Whoever caught the ball bowled, and you only got to bat if you took a wicket. George started batting one Monday afternoon and continued to bat every afternoon of the week. However, on Friday when he turned up, he found himself alone. The bowlers had had enough.
He saw the ball out of the bowler's hand perhaps quicker than any other batsman, played it as late as Worrell, and was as quick on his feet as Bradman. For him cricket was not only an art, but also a science requiring the continuous application of intelligence and creativity. He prepared for each day's play with the thoroughness of a general taking every measure to ensure success on the battlefield. The night before his second century at Lords in 1939, he never slept. He spent the entire night anticipating every ball that could be conceivably bowled at him and rehearsed the appropriate stroke to be executed. There is a documentary on Winston Churchill showing the inordinate time he invested in rehearsing the speeches that made him so famous during the Second World War. He would have understood Headley.
The thoroughness of Headley's preparation provided the basis for the confidence with which he approached the game.
"From early youth I welcomed a challenge in any phase of the game of cricket. I regarded a wicket that was as wet or impaired as a challenge to my capabilities and skill. I wanted to see whether I could still dictate to the bowler, as I could on a perfect wicket. I was obliged to exercise more careful judgment ... and to improvise strokes ..."
He was just 19 when he played his first match for Jamaica in 1928, against an English team led by Lord Tennyson. While this was not a test team, there can be no doubt about its quality. Tennyson himself had played test cricket for England and was a former captain of Hampshire. Facing a bowling attack, which included Allom, Clark, Lee, Hilder and Arnott, Headley made 409 runs in five innings for an average of 81.8. The following year, playing in his first Test series for the West Indies against England, he made 705 runs in eight innings, scoring three centuries and a double century averaging 88.1. The first West Indian cricket genius had arrived.
In 1931, he travelled to Australia where he scored a thousand runs in the season, and made two of the three centuries recorded by the West Indies in the test matches. When he arrived in Australia, it was his strength on the off-side that bowlers feared. So much so, that Grimmett, the legendary Australian leg-spinner successfully exploited Headley's weakness on the on-side in the early matches. By the end of the tour, Headley had so reorganised his technique that Grimmett, who had bowled to both Hobbs and Bradman, declared Headley as "the greatest master of on-side play to whom he had ever bowled".
Headley was back in Jamaica in 1932 to play against the last English team Lord Tennyson would bring to the West Indies. The bowlers on this occasion were Nichols, Geary, Stevens and Astill; and against this attack Headley scored 344 not out, 84, 155 not out and 140 for an extraordinary average of 361.5. Tennyson, was overwhelmed, "Headley is a super batsman, he's now better than Bradman." he flatly declared.
The following year, Headley was off for his first tour of England, and in six test innings he scored 277 runs, topping the averages again with 55.2. In all the first class matches, his aggregate was 2,230 and his average, 66. The English cricket writer, E. W. Swanton attributed the impressive showing by the West Indies in the series, to the fact that "This time a new batting star had arisen worthy to be numbered among the greatest in the game". When the English Test team returned to the Caribbean in 1934, his aggregate was 485 from six innings and his average 88.4. In the final test match at Sabina Park, he scored a memorable 270 not out. One is tempted to speculate that Edna Manley saw this inning, which provided added inspiration for the prophetic carving, "Negro Aroused", which was completed that year. This is how HC Collier described this seminal work of art.
"Here is epitomized the awakening of the Negro from the long lethargy into which he has been sunken by the subduing influence of the slavers' whip......his soul is awakened to a vision of a "New Jerusalem", a bright and sunny "Glory Road".
After just five years of international cricket, George Headley had confirmed his genius, earned the respect of the international cricketing fraternity, and established an imperishable claim to greatness.
Of the ten test centuries made by West Indian batsmen during this period, Headley accounted for seven, while scoring one-third of the runs made by the team. Such batting, the world had only seen from one other player in the history of the game, Donald George Bradman of Australia.
In 1935 Headley was certainly at the top of his game, but would not have the opportunity to play international Test cricket for another four years. This opportunity came with the West Indian tour of England in 1939, during which Headley became the first batsman to record centuries in both innings of a Test at Lords, the headquarters of international cricket. His aggregate of 334 in five innings showed that his prowess remained undiminished. Then came the Second World War and with it the suspension of international cricket for nearly a decade.
When Test cricket returned for the West Indies after the war, "the master" was just not the same. Injury had reduced his physical capacity and his differences with the Jamaican and West Indian cricket authorities had made him less than certain of his future in cricket. His batting clearly showed the extent to which these pressures even more so than age had taken their toll. Gone was the total concentration on batting which characterised his early years. In the first Test match against the 1948 English team played in Barbados, he made 27 and 7, and suffered an injury which kept him out of the rest of the series. Later that year he travelled to India, but here again injury prevented him from playing more than the first inning of the first Test, in which he made only two. He played his final Test match six years later at age 45, when he was recalled to the West Indies team for the first Test match against England and made 16 and one. In his last five innings, Headley scored a mere 55 runs.
1939 was indeed a watershed year. With the outbreak of the war and the suspension of cricket in England, Headley's contract in the English league came to an end, depriving him of an annual income of over £500. His most urgent concern was finding new employment to support a growing family. In addition to the four children he had already fathered, his marriage to Rena Saunders in 1939 would bring him four more. On his return to Jamaica, he found employment with the Department of Labour, but in a job that paid him far less than he had earned as a professional cricketer in England. In an effort to increase his earnings he left the security of the government service and became an insurance salesman. This meant that whenever he went on tour, he no longer earned, and the Jamaica Cricket Board's offer of a touring fee of £5 per week was certainly unrealistic.
This is the context in which he now insisted that he be treated as a professional, having earned his living as a professional cricketer since 1934. As a matter of principle, he was adamant in the view that the players were entitled to a just portion of the gate receipts from the game. He had raised this issue before and now it was a matter of life and death since the welfare of his family was at stake, and, as his letters home to his dear Rena indicated, he took his responsibilities for his family seriously.
In all of this, he returned to his old club Lucas to provide the leadership and inspiration that made them a force in Senior Cup Cricket. He also captained Jamaica and in the 1948 inter-colonial matches we saw for the last time a glimpse of "the master" in all his majesty. His scores of 203 not out, 57 not out and 79 retired hurt, tells that story.
Few masters of the game had Headley's humility or generosity of spirit. Dennis Thorbourn, a former Jamaica representative recounts an experience playing a senior cup match for Wembly against Headley's club, Lucas. "I was batting very badly and could not get the ball away. At the end of the over George came to me and said, 'Youngster, you're trying to hit the ball too hard. Take the singles; your timing is not so good now but it will come.' I did not know how to regard this advice from the opposing captain, but I was doing so badly that I decided to accept it. I made a century that day."
On another occasion, Headley joined Alan Rae at the wicket, who was then 24 short of his century, with the total score 15 short of 200, at which time the new ball could be taken. At this stage Rae noticed that Headley's batting became defensive and he even appeared to be in trouble against the bowling. It was then that Headley explained that he deliberately chose not to dominate the bowling in order to allow Rae to complete his century before the new ball was taken.
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George Headley - JAMAICAOBSERVER.COM