Sir Wesley Winfield HallMartin Chandler |
When an 18 year old Wesley Hall made his First Class debut, in March 1956 for Barbados against a side raised by journalist EW “Jim” Swanton, he had only recently taken to pace bowling after his initial efforts on a cricket field were as a batsman/wicketkeeper. His failure to take even a single wicket in the match, while conceding over 100 runs, including as many as 34 in just three overs in the tourists’ second innings as they made a brave attempt to get to 129 in 16 overs for victory, suggests he was in no way ready for the step up.
In 1957 West Indies had to pick a side to tour England. Their fast bowling stocks were at an all time low and Hall was one of those called up for two trial matches that were arranged to help the selectors choose the party. The games were five days each, but 12 a side thus not First Class. In the first Hall had the ignominy of being dismissed for a pair, and his bowling produced the undistinguished figures of 2-97. In the second he batted with some authority to score 29 and 77 but his bowling was little better, with match figures of 3-105 and, as in the first game, he did not trouble the major batsmen very much.
The selectors did not however have many options so, bearing in mind no doubt the remarkable success of their predecessors in selecting Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine for the 1950 tour on the back of a combined total of four First Class matches, they did so now with Hall and Roy Gilchrist, who had just two between them. It would be wrong to call Hall’s tour an unmitigated disaster, but he got nowhere near the Test side and was barely noticed by most observers, Wisden included, although the beauty of his action was present even then, and was noted by England captain Peter May. His bowling was economical enough, but a haul of just 27 First Class wickets at 33, with never more than three in an innings tells its own story, and over what was a very disappointing summer for the tourists he was the least successful bowler in the party.
It was not all doom and gloom however. The England captain’s early impressions have already been noted, and his county colleague Mickey Stewart was just as impressed. In the second innings of the tourists match against Surrey in June Stewart blasted an unbeaten 147 which included some harsh treatment of the young fast bowler, but he still felt able to say it was “obvious” that he was going to become a world class bowler. The Cricketer said little more than Wisden, but there was a telling sentence when the tour was summarised; Possessing a good approach to the wicket and nice action Hall has the makings of a good fast bowler and in two or three years may be an outstanding one.
Between his return from England and the selection of the West Indies party for their tour of India and Pakistan in 1958/59 Hall played in just three First Class matches, and did not figure in the home series against Pakistan in 1957/58, and was left out of the original selection. He did however end up making the trip as a late replacement and did enough in the early matches to book a place in the side for the first Test. He never looked back and for six years was by common consensus the finest fast bowler in the game.
Perhaps the most frequently quoted description of Hall the bowler comes from writer David Frith; a magnificent bounding approach, eyes bulging, teeth glinting, crucifix flying, climaxing in a classical cartwheel action and intimidating followthrough, though the man himself might prefer that of his great English rival, Fred Trueman, who wrote in 2004 Wes was one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time, with a superbly fluid and flowing action. His lightning-fast bowling was a fire that illuminated cricket, not one that destroyed its beauty.
Hall believed that Aussie Colin MacDonald was the bravest batsman that he ever bowled to, and the admiration was clearly mutual MacDonald commenting To me Wes Hall will always be the fastest and up there with the greatest bowlers of all time. Both MacDonald and Neil Harvey considered Hall to be noticeably faster than Ray Lindwall had been at his peak.
The Australians got their first look at Hall in the famous 1960/61 series that was notable for the first tied Test, and Frank Worrell’s inspiring leadership. Home wicketkeeper Wally Grout wrote later 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.
There was more to Hall than sheer pace though, as he was one of the few express bowlers to possess the ability to bowl a genuine outswinger to the right hander. He also possessed a feared and regularly employed bouncer that got many batsman into all sorts of trouble, although Garry Sobers for one had it worked out, noticing that whenever it was on its way Hall’s last few strides before releasing the ball would be just a little shorter than normal. He also had great stamina, veteran Aussie pressman “Johnny” Moyes writing of his bowling in the tied Test Hall was superb and I can picture him now bowling that final over, finding somewhere the strength and vitality to rise to his best in the closing stages after being in the field all day. The Lord’s Test of 1963, when Colin Cowdrey came back out to bat in the final over with a broken arm in order to save England, was another famous example as Hall bowled as many as 40 of the 91 overs that England had to face in their second innings.
But perhaps 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. England stalwart Tom Graveney wrote that 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. Another frequent opponent was the Pakistani great Hanif Mohammad, whose 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.
Such was Hall’s popularity in Australia in 1960/61 he was signed by Queensland to play for them for the following two seasons. The presence of overseas stars in domestic teams has long been the norm, but it wasn’t in those days, least of all in Australia. It would be more than 30 years before Queensland finally won the Sheffield Shield for the first time but in each of Hall’s two seasons, as he finished as the state’s leading wicket taker, they were runners-up, their overseas star inspiring them to punch some way above their weight. It is inevitably less surprising that Hall was regarded with great affection by his teammates and countrymen, particularly the batsmen who did not have to face him in the middle, but he was also greatly respected by those that he stalked opponents with. In his 1963 autobiography Roy Gilchrist who, prior to his being sent home for deliberately bowling beamers, had combined with Hall to devastating effect on that 1958/59 visit to India, had nothing but praise for his younger colleague, both as a cricketer and as a man. Hall’s more famous partner, the taciturn Charlie Griffith, nastier if not quite as quick than him, wrote at the end of his career, For me to have the honour to bowl at the other end to Wes – even though I could never match his unforgettably rhythmic and poetic approach to the wicket – was a great privilege
It was not too long before the strain of cricket all the year round began to take it’s toll on Hall and after the first Test against Australia in 1964/65, despite still being only 27, he was never quite the same bowler again, although he soldiered on as his country’s strike bowler for a few more years, until he realised in Australia and New Zealand in 1968/69 that he had lost forever what had once set him apart from other quicks, and after a few more games back home in the Caribbean that was it for Hall as a top flight cricketer.
By the time his career finished Hall was playing his domestic cricket for Trinidad rather than his native Barbados and it was there, immediately after his playing days ended, that he embarked on the chapters of his life that, realistically, were rather more the catalyst for his recieving his Knighthood than his playing career. Hall did not stay in Trinidad for very long after his cricket career finished, but it was long enough for him to be involved in establishing a still flourishing humanitarian program in one of the most under-privileged areas of Port of Spain.
From Trinidad Hall returned to Barbados, after spending some time studying industrial relations and HR management in London, where he held a number of high profile positions with major companies like Cable and Wireless, Banks Breweries in Barbados, the West Indian Tobacco Company in Trinidad and Sandals Resorts. 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 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.
Despite all the above Hall was not lost to cricket. He was a West Indies selector for many years and was the manager of a number of overseas tours. In 2001 he was elected as President of the West Indies Cricket Board and in that capacity worked hard to help bring the 2007 World Cup to the region. The one blot on his copybook was becoming involved with the now disgraced Allen Stanford and accepting an invitation to become one of his “legends”, but then many who had more reason to see through the crooked Texan than Hall were completely taken in by the ebullient financier.
In 2007 another cricketing knight of the Caribbean, Sir Garfield Sobers said of Hall I have always admired the man and today I still admire the man ……. I hold him in very high esteem and we should all be very proud of him. It was to be another five years before, at the age of 74, he finally received similar recognition in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours list, for services to sport and the community, in keeping with the man a rather understated description of a lifetime’s achievements.