Joe Solomon and the Spirit of Port MourantMartin Chandler |
Author: Seecharan, Clem
Rating: 4.5 stars
Joe Solomon is the oldest living West Indian Test cricketer, having celebrated his 92nd birthday earlier this year. He was capped 27 times in the late fifties and early sixties. A specialist batsman, Solomon generally batted at six or seven. His record, like his batting, is unspectacular, just a single century and an average of exactly 34, but those numbers fail to reflect his real value to the teams he was part of. A part time leg spinner who picked up just four Test wickets Solomon’s greatest personal contribution to the history of cricket was undoubtedly the superb throw which beat Ian Meckiff and tied the Brisbane Test in 1960/61. Despite that iconic moment I can’t however say that I ever really expected to see a biography of Solomon, let alone one running to 462 pages.
Solomon’s name appears, of course, writ large in the book’s title, and indeed his story is central to it, but it would nonetheless be fair to say that there is rather more to Joe Solomon and the Spirit of Port Mourant than a biography. Written by the eminent academic historian, Clem Seecharan, with assistance from Ian McDonald, the book taught me much about the history and geography of Guyana, and more particularly the region of Berbice and its Port Mourant sugar plantation, from where three of the famous West Indies team of the early 1960s hailed; Solomon, Rohan Kanhai and Basil Butcher.
Seecharan himself comes from Berbice, and he has written a number of previous books, amongst them a few on cricket. MacDonald, in addition to a business career, authored The Hummingbird Tree, a classic of Caribbean literature, and in his youth was an international lawn tennis player, and has always been a cricket enthusiast. As importantly he is also a long standing friend of Solomon.
As well as Kanhai and Butcher, whose names are intertwined with Solomon’s through their numerous appearances together, the lives of two other Berbician Test cricketers also feature at some length. John Trim was a pace bowler whose 18 wickets at 16.16 suggest he was worth rather more than four Test appearances, and leg spinner Ivan Madray. A contemporary of Solomon Madray’s two Tests brought him no wickets, and his unhappy story is told in some detail.
In fact the whole book is a remarkably detailed and thoroughly researched history of West Indies cricket over Solomon’s active years. Thus there are some fascinating characters who come into the story, not least of them being the mercurial Roy Gilchrist, whose travails in India and Pakistan in 1958/59 are thoroughly examined. As a corollary of that much is learned also of the skipper who ultimately had to send Gilchrist home, Gerry Alexander.
Another man who had a role in the Gilchrist story was Sir Frank Worrell, who it is sometimes said would have been the one man able to handle the often errant speedster. The jury will never return on that particular question, but the decision as to the importance of Worrell in the history of Caribbean cricket was made years ago, and the great man looms large in Joe Solomon and the Spirit of Port Mourant, as does another controversial figure, Charlie Griffith.
We have recently had a biography of Wesley Hall, and early next year will see a life of Gilchrist published. The early years of the third decade of the twenty first century are therefore good ones for those with an interest in West Indian cricket, and with what promises to be the definitive biography of Worrell surely now ready for publication things are only going to get better. That one is being written by Vaneisa Baksh, a Trinidad based writer and historian and will doubtless shed further light on a fascinating era.
Excellent as the Hall biography is, and I expect nothing less from Gilchrist’s and Worrell’s biographers, I would be surprised if anything were to surpass the work here of Clem Seecharan and Ian McDonald. Their narrative manages to embrace both the authority of the unbiased academic with the wordsmithery of the gifted writer and whilst the size of the book may be a little daunting, it proves to be the easiest of reads.
Like all academic books Joe Solomon and the Spirit of Port Mourant has the benefit of an excellent index, bibliography and cover design and might well have persuaded me to part with another five star rating were it not for a couple of niggles. The omission of a statistical appendix was a little disappointing, as were the photographs. In that latter respect Seecharan apologises for the absence of photographs of Solomon, blaming the prohibitive fees wanted by the agencies that own them. Personally that bothered me not one jot, and the selection the authors did find is very good indeed, but the reproduction of a number of them is disappointingly small. That is but a minor complaint however and does not in any way alter the fact that this one is highly recommended, and a credit to all involved in its publication.