The Greatest Selection Hunch of Them AllMartin Chandler |
Touring parties, in the days when itineraries used to contain a full complement of First Class fixtures, would often carry a promising youngster or two, but with tours in the 21st century generally limited to a couple of warm-ups followed by a succession of international matches there is less scope for selectors to be imaginative, and throughout the world they tend to play things pretty safe nowadays.
Cricket history is however littered with examples of “hunch” selections with, inevitably, varying degrees of success, but without doubt no group of selectors have ever taken as big a gamble as the West Indians did in 1950 with their bowlers, nor, before or since, did such a punt reap the rich and spectacular rewards that theirs did.
Before the war there had been three West Indian Test tours to England in 1928, 1933 and 1939. Against the full strength of England the men from the Caribbean had lost all three series, and despite being rather stronger in 1939, had never seriously threatened to defeat the home side. Back home in the West Indies it had been rather different. These were the days when England only sent full strength touring parties to Australia. In 1929/30 what was, realistically, an England third eleven was held 1-1 in the first ever Test series in the Caribbean. The next MCC party, Bob Wyatt’s in 1934/35, were certainly considerably stronger but still a little way off an England first eleven. Wyatt’s side lost 2-1, and the selectors still hadn’t learnt their lesson by 1947/48 when another understrength team, led by the 45 year old Gubby Allen who had last played a Test eleven years previously, went down 2-0.
The West Indies had a superb array of batting talent lined up for their 1950 return visit, their first in eleven years. Allan Rae and Jeff Stollmeyer were an established opening pair, and they were followed by the “Three W’s”, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes, each of whom had already gone a considerable way towards establishing the lofty reputation that, individually and as a triumverate, they were to enjoy through the 1950s. If the batting looked irresistibly strong the bowling was more problematic. The leading West Indian bowler in 1947/48 had been the 32 year old Trinidadian leg spinner Wilf Ferguson, who had taken more than twice as many wickets as anyone else, 23, at just 24 runs apiece. He had been less successful in India in 1948/49, but had still done reasonably well in a series where the bat generally dominated the ball and, so it seemed, he was the leading candidate for a spin bowling berth. Ferguson wasn’t exactly an all-rounder, but a batting average of more than 28 over his short Test career demonstrated that he knew how to wield the willow as well. There were no other obvious candidates in the islands, although another young player who did make the party, Cecil “Boogles” Williams, had created an excellent all round impression in his short career.
The fast bowling stocks in the islands were far from replete either. There was Hines Johnson, who had taken ten wickets on debut in 1947/48, but he celebrated his fortieth birthday during the 1950 tour and took just three expensive wickets in his two Tests in the series. Johnson’s fellow quick Prior Jones was younger, but at 32 still relatively long in the tooth for a pace bowler, and his two Tests in 1950 brought him just a solitary wicket. The third opening bowler in the party, Lance Pierre, was a rather more youthful 28 when the tour began but his summer was badly disrupted by injury and he did not figure in the Tests, and indeed after the tour was over he slipped quietly out of the First Class game altogether with just one wicketless Test match against Gubby Allen’s side to his name. It was always expected that a good deal of bowling would be entrusted to the three medium paced all-rounders, Worrell, Gerry Gomez and skipper John Goddard, but while all had in 1950, and indeed ended their careers with respectable records, none of them were ever likely to be match winners.
In the early weeks of 1950 four trial matches were arranged to assist the selectors in picking the party for England. Two matches took place between Jamaica and Trinidad, and two more between Barbados and British Guiana. As a result of the trial matches three spinners were selected for the touring party. Remarkably despite a seven wicket haul in one of the trials the experienced Ferguson was left behind and three young men with a total of ten First Class matches between them were included. The most experienced of the three, with six of those ten matches under his belt, was the leg spinning all-rounder Williams. Unfortunately for him however, despite the expectation he would lead the tourists spin attack, his tour was to be a bitter disappointment and he never did play in a Test match. The other two young men, aged 19 and 20 respectively, were Jamaica’s Alf Valentine and Trinidad’s Sonny Ramadhin. No one outside Jamaica had ever heard of Valentine. Ramadhin’s reputation had certainly reached Barbados, courtesy of his mentor and benefactor, the white Barbadian Clarence Skinner, but at the time of their selection both had played just the two trial matches. Despite this by the end of the northern hemisphere summer they had been immortalised as those two little pals of mine, in the famous calypso Cricket, Lovely Cricket.
On the face of matters Valentine’s selection was nothing short of absurd. He was a poor batsman, destined to become one of the select band of tailenders who took more wickets over his career than he scored runs, and while with experience his fielding became competent he was distinctly ordinary in the early part of his career. More significantly in those two trial matches he took just two wickets at a cost of 190 runs. Those games were however recognised as particularly difficult for the young orthodox slow left arm bowler, who had not played on a jute matting wicket before. Most significant was the input of two of the white Trinidadian batsmen. Gomez, Valentine’s first First Class victim, believed he had never seen a bowler turn the ball as much, and he and Stollmeyer both confirmed that they could hear the ball buzzing through the air as it left Valentine’s hand, such was the spin his fingers put on it – skipper Goddard and his fellow selectors were persuaded.
Valentine had been building a repuation on his home island over a few years, guided on his path by former West Indies Test player George Mudie and English County stalwart Jack Mercer. Ramadhin’s rise was much more meteoric. He was “discovered” by Skinner and introduced to the top flight of Trinidadian club cricket just two years before the trials and almost immediately, with his ability to spin the ball from leg to off without any perceptible change in his off spinner’s action, he became one of the best known cricketers on the island. Local batsmen had little chance of resisting his wiles – turning the ball both ways was bad enough but coupling to that almost unerring accuracy, and the ability to produce subtle variations of flight and trajectory, meant Ramadhin was all but unplayable save by the very best.
There were four Tests scheduled for the 1950 series, following the conclusion of which England were due to visit Australia to try and regain the Ashes that had so convincingly been retained by the 1948 “Invincibles”. After the defeat suffered at the hands of the West Indies in 1947/48 the tourists might have felt they deserved some respect from the English press. In that they were to be disappointed the following words from Reuters being typical of the attitude of many The fact that the Tests against West Indies will last five days each will provide the England players with good practice for Australia – 1950’s “Grovel” moment perhaps?
This complacency was doubtless fuelled by the relatively slow start that Ramadhin and Valentine had to the tour. It was of course inevitable that it would take the young men time to get used to the unfamiliar conditions, and to bowling day in and day out to professional batsmen, but they were never collared and in the lead up to the first Test both had their days as did “Boogles” Williams who had a seven wicket haul at Lord’s against a near Test standard MCC batting line-up.
The first Test was played at Old Trafford. Valentine announced himself to the wider English cricketing public with a match return of 11 for 204. Ramadhin was less effective but still took four wickets. Between them the two young spinners bowled more than two thirds of the overs sent down by West Indies. Sadly however the batsmen could not match their resolve and England ran out comfortable winners by 202 runs – the idea that the Tests were just practice matches for a hard winter’s work ahead must have been cemented in the public’s perception.
In between the first and second Tests the tourists built on their good performances in the lead up to Old Trafford and the Lord’s Test proved to be the rudest of rude awakenings for England as they were humbled by the small matter of 326 runs. West Indies batted first and while their major batsmen could still not make a really big score several got a start and they were held together by a fine 106 from opener Rae as their first innings yielded a useful, if by no means matchwinning total of 326. At this point Ramadhin and Valentine put the England batsmen well and truly under the cosh. The home side limped to 151 all out. Ramadhin’s figures were 43-27-66-5 and Valentine’s 45-28-48-4. The other bowlers delivered less than 19 overs between them, Jones dismissing last man Bob Berry to put England out of their misery.
In the West Indies second innings there were contributions all the way down the order and a big century, 168*, from Walcott that allowed Goddard to declare on 425-6. England made a better fist of their second dig, and Lancashire’s Cyril Washbrook ground out a century, but for Ramadhin and Valentine it was 72-43-86-6 and 71-47-79-3 respectively. There were just 38 overs from the other four West Indian bowlers, although again they (Worrell this time) managed to take the last wicket to fall.
England now knew they had problems. They had of course found Ramadhin and Valentine extremely difficult to handle at Lords. The Nottinghamshire club had promised that the pitch at Trent Bridge for the third Test would be “perfect”, and when the first day dawned with good weather but a greenish tinge to the wicket England skipper Norman Yardley had a difficult decision to make on winning the toss. Did he let Alec Bedser and Derek Shackleton have the benefit of the green wicket and hope to make early inroads into the West Indies top order? or did he bat first and avoid the prospect of facing the West Indian spinners in the fourth innings? He had to factor into his decision the fact that his three best and most experienced batsmen, Len Hutton, Denis Compton and Bill Edrich, were all missing with injuries. He chose to bat, but would have regretted it almost immediately as England slumped to 25-4, and were all out for 225. There were a couple of wickets each for Ramadhin and Valentine but for once it was the West Indian seamers who did the most damage Worrell and Johnson taking three wickets each.
As the West Indies began their innings the wicket had lost its greenish hue and was indeed “perfect”. Weekes and Worrell, with 129 and 261 respectively, put on 283 for the fourth wicket as the tourists took a first innings lead of 333. England batted much better second time round, Washbrook again recording a century, and they totalled 436. In fact they got to 326-2 but after that Ramadhin and Valentine were not to be denied. Their figures this time were 81.2-25-135-5 and 92-49-140-3 – again they had bowled more than two thirds of the overs bowled in the innings. Rae and Stollmeyer got to 103-0 without difficulty and the visitors had another crushing victory with which to take an unassailable 2-1 lead in the series. All England had left to aim for was to level the rubber, which would need a victory at the Oval in the fourth and final Test. The home team might have hoped for a little complacency from the visitors, and indeed there was some, but unfortunately for England it came at Edgbaston and not the Oval, as Warwickshire became the only county to lower West Indian colours in 1950. They did not make the same mistakes again.
Hutton and Compton were back for the Oval but they had a long wait to get to the crease as Goddard won the toss and chose to bat. Once again West Indies got past 500 with centuries from Rae and Worrell, and fifties from Goddard and Gomez. For England Hutton recorded a superb 202 and the second top score was Compton’s 44. England’s plight, had they had to play an unchanged side, would have been dire as notwithstanding those two contributions they still failed to avoid the follow on. It was Ramadhin and Valentine who again made the early breakthroughs, but without four late wickets from skipper Goddard England would almost certainly have got the extra ten runs they needed to force West Indies to bat again. Following on England lasted 69 overs, but were all out for 103 to lose by an innings. Ramadhin’s figures were 26-11- 38-3 and Valentine’s 26.3-10-39-6. Not only had West Indies won, they had done so in wonderful style, and in the end very easily.
On their return to the Caribbean the whole West Indies party were, quite properly, feted wherever they went, and no one lost sight of the fact that Ramadhin and Valentine, by then aged 21 and 20 respectively, were the major reason why the victory was as comprehensive as it was. The pair must have been looking forward to long and successful careers. In those days there was nothing unusual in a spin bowler playing on into his early 40s. At the end of the series in the Caribbean with India in 1970/71 Ramadhin would still have been just 40, and Valentine a few days shy of his fortieth birthday. Of the 102 Tests that took place over that period Ramadhin played in but 43, less than half of them. Valentine played even fewer, just 36, and both men played their last Tests when only 32 years of age.
For West Indies the next series was a hastily arranged one in Australia in 1951/52 that was billed as the game’s World Championship. The tourists played badly and the series ended in a disappointing 4-1 reverse. They batted poorly against Lindwall and Miller and the fielding was no better, many catches going down. Ramadhin and Valentine were overbowled and for the former the series was a disaster. For Valentine however there were 24 wickets at 28. Had he enjoyed better support from his teammates, by way of example in one twenty minute period in the first Test as many as five catches were dropped from his bowling alone, then his results might well have been as good as in 1950. His figures against India in the Caribbean in 1952/53 were also impressive but from then on, a series in New Zealand in 1955/56 apart, his form deteriorated markedly. Frank Worrell showed his faith by restoring him to the Test side in the famous 1960/61 series in Australia but a year later just two wickets in two Tests against India were his last. The emergence of the young Garry Sobers in the mid 50s, initially as a left arm spinner, restricted Valentine’s opportunities, and by the end of the decade off spinner Lance Gibbs had made the place of the first specialist spinner his own.
Ramadhin’s decline was a little different. He too suffered from dropped catches in Australia in 1951/52 but, unlike his partner, he looked jaded and his series haul was 14 wickets at nearly 50 runs each. He performed a little better against India at home but was still much less effective than Valentine but, in the nick of time, he had a second coming against Hutton’s England tourists in 1953/54 when, despite the handicap of bowling on some featherbed pitches, he took 23 wickets at 24 over the course of the series to restore his reputation. Like Valentine he had a torrid time against Australia in 1954/55, and a successful if gentle work out against New Zealand the following year, which took him up to the 1957 tour of England.
Ramadhin and Valentine were both included in the 1957 party and, against the counties, Ramadhin looked as good as ever his tour figures being 119 wickets at less than 14. Valentine was not quite the man he had been in 1950, but he paid less than 20 runs apiece for the 60 wickets he took over the summer. The Tests were a different story however. England won the five Test series 3-0 and were in strong positions in the two drawn games, although it might have been different. In the first innings of the first Test at Edgbaston Ramadhin evoked memories of past glories with 7-49 as England were shot out for 186 after winning the toss. West Indies gained a first innings lead of 288 but just as another overwhelming win looked on the cards the historic partnership of 411 between England skipper Peter May and Colin Cowdrey occurred. Ramadhin’s second innings figures will raise eyebrows for as long as the game is played; 98-35-179-2. The tactics were cynical as both batsmen simply made sure that they played every delivery as an off break and got their pads outside the line with their bats tucked behind them. Ramdhin played in the remaining four Tests but only took five more wickets. Valentine played in the second and third Tests without taking a single wicket – at Lord’s they got just a single wicket between them – what a difference seven years had made.
Although Ramadhin played another ten Tests after returning from England in 1957 that at Edgbaston was his last five wicket haul. He had one more reasonably successful series against England, at home in the 1959/60 series when England finally won a series in the Caribbean at the fifth attempt. Valentine did not play in that series but as noted he did play with some success in Australia in 1960/61. The two little pals played together for the last time in the second Test of that series. They took just one wicket each, and for Ramadhin it was his last Test appearance.
The “mystery” spinner is one of cricket’s most fascinating creatures and Ramadhin was most definately one of that rare breed but ultimately, as is generally the case, batsmen worked out how to play him. He has been followed by Australians Jack Iverson and Johnny Gleeson and, much more recently, Sri Lankan Ajantha Mendis. Iverson was remarkably successful against England in 1950/51, but never played another Test. Gleeson promised much but had only one very good series and Mendis seems to have lost for good the aura of invincibility he had in his early Tests.
With Ramadhin there was confusion for some time about just what sort of bowler he was. He was a finger spinner, but his habit of always having his shirtsleeves buttoned at the wrist caused many English batsmen to believe he was a wrist spinner, and that his fashion choice was to prevent them seeing which way his wrist turned. The result was that through 1950 in particular, but also for the rest of his career, his action was closely scrutinised.
The game’s folklore has it that it was that Cowdrey/May stand that destroyed the magic of Ramadhin and, as noted, he never enjoyed great success again, but in truth the mystery was not solved. What May and Cowdrey realised was what the Australians had already worked out, that the way to play Ramadhin was just to play everything as if it were an off break and not worry about the one that in fact turned the other way. Peter May was always happy to accept that even after his big innings he could not begin to pick the Ramadhin leg break – but having worked out the correct way to play him he didn’t need to.
In recent years Ramadhin’s reputation has lost something as a result of his admission, in 1999, that throughout his career he had thrown his quicker delivery. It was, so he said, impossible for him to have delivered it as fast as he did without straightening his elbow. At the time, because Ramadhin said it himself, his statement was accepted without demur but I have to say I have my doubts. Point one is that while subtle changes of pace were certainly part of the Ramadhin armoury a “quicker one” was an occasional variation and not a noted speciality. More importantly how on earth could such a heavily scrutinised action possibly have escaped for all those years without a significant accusation ever being made? Let us not forget that a justified degree of paranoia existed about throwing during Ramadhin’s time. At one time or another during the span of his career Test match bowlers Cuan McCarthy, Tony Lock, Ian Meckiff, Charlie Stayers, Harold Rhodes, Butch White, Keith Slater and Geoff Griffin were all called in First Class cricket and others, most notably Meckiff’s fellow Australian and sometime opening partner Gordon Rorke, were the subject of considerable criticism – yet a man who claimed to have thrown throughout his career was never called!
It is also worth looking at the context in which the admission was made. As I understand it Ramadhin had just finished a round of golf and, as a man of 70 was entitled to be, was ready for a rest, when he was approached by a journalist asking for his reaction to Lancashire’s signing of Muttiah Muralitharan – Ramadhin had lived in the county for years. Now of course the first “Murali throws” allegations were at their height then, which was why the reporter was interested, and it is obvious from reading what little biographical writing that there is about Ramadhin that he had a tendency to be mischievous. Looking at all the circumstances I have to say that it is therefore my considered opinion that in his chosen answer to the question “Did you ever throw Sonny?”, Ramadhin was simply pulling his interrogator’s chain. But I digress, in reality whether or not Ramadhin’s action was entirely fair is of no real importance to the story. The point is that selectors always seem to make such conservative selections in the modern era. It is inevitable of course, given the way the game is played and run in the 21st century, that this should be the case, but it is still a shame that the romance of the story of “Ram and Val” will almost certainly never be repeated.