Two recent cricketing deaths have turned my thoughts down memory lane. First there was Bob Willis, England’s heroic fast bowler, ever memorable for that 8 for 43 to win that extraordinary Headingley Test in 1981, and now Basil Butcher, the mid-order rock of the great West Indian sides of the 1960s.
Butcher was a very fine batsman indeed. In any other Test side he might have been judged outstanding, but he was overshadowed by Gary Sobers and Rohan Kanhai. No shame in that. Pretty well anybody would have been. Even young players and young fans know about Sobers, the greatest all-round cricketer I have seen, perhaps – no, probably – the greatest of all time.
Kanhai is less often sung about these days, and if you judge players only by their figures, this is not difficult to understand. His figures are very good of course: more than 6,000 Test runs, 15 Test centuries, a Test average of just under 48. But these are not exceptional. A good many batsmen can match them, while Sobers, with the same career span, scored 2,000 more Test runs, with 26 centuries and an average of 58.
Now of course it is reasonable to judge a batsman by the runs he scores. After all, matches are won by the side that scores more runs, but it should be said that Sobers was not a mere run machine. He was a beautiful and exciting, as well as masterful, batsman.
It isn’t only by runs that we remember a batsman. I’ll give two examples before I turn to Rohan Kanhai. Anyone who has enjoyed Neville Cardus’s cricket writing will surely recall how he wrote about Nottinghamshire’s George Gunn. If you consider only statistics you might wonder at it. The figures aren’t remarkable. He played only 15 Tests, spread over more than twenty years, with a couple of hundreds at the respectable average of 40. Over his very long first-class career, he averaged 35, with 62 hundreds. Yet Cardus waxed lyrical about him. Gunn, he said, batted as if for his own private pleasure. I had first-hand confirmation of this. Our school pro, Frank Matthews, was a fine fast bowler for Notts in the 1920s, good enough to be in Wisden for once taking 17 wickets in a County Championship match. For Frank there was no one like George Gunn. “He was a contrary devil, George was,” he told me, “but when he was in the mood, bowlers didn’t know where to put the ball.”
Then there was Neil Harvey, the Australian left-hander who was one of my boyhood heroes. His Ashes record isn’t great – an average of 38 in a career that ran from 1948, when aged 19 he made a hundred at Leeds, to 1963. Overall he scored 21 Test hundreds, 6 against England, but figures say nothing about the beauty and audacity of his batting. I doubt if anyone who watched him ever forgot it.
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So, back to Rohan Kanhai. The Indian batsman, Sunil Gavaskar, said that Kanhai was the greatest batsman he had ever seen, and he was so impressed, even besotted, by Kanhai that he called his own son Rohan. The England opener Dennis Amiss agreed. He played for years with Kanhai for Warwickshire. So he knew what he was talking about. Kanhai was marvellous on bad pitches – and these were still the days of uncovered wickets. Amiss recalled two centuries in particular: one against Derek Underwood on a viciously turning wicket, the kind of pitch on which Underwood bowling left-arm spin at near medium pace could be all but unplayable, the other at Derby on a bumping pitch against two England fast bowlers, Alan Ward and Harold Rhodes. In both these matches, everyone else was at a loss; Kanhai was in command. “I stood at the other end many times, completely in awe of him,” Amiss said – this from a man who himself scored a hundred first-class centuries and had a Test average of 46.
He first came to England, aged only 20, as a wicketkeeper-batsman in 1957. It was an unhappy tour for the West Indies, first because the determination and cynical pad-play of the English amateurs Peter May and Colin Cowdrey broke the spirit of Sonny Ramadhin in the first Test at Edgbaston, and then because the West Indian batsmen repeatedly failed against what was perhaps the finest attack England have ever had. Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Peter Loader, Trevor Bailey, Johnny Wardle, Jim Laker and Tony Lock were all available and at the height of their powers that summer. Of the three Ws – Worrell, Weekes and Walcott – only Frank Worrell made a century that series. Kanhai, the inexperienced boy, didn’t make many runs, but sparkled even in brief innings, scoring 30s or 40s.
He would spend the next few summers here, learning how to bat on wickets such as he had never known in Guyana, playing League cricket, first in Scotland for Aberdeenshire, then in Lancashire. I was lucky enough to watch him in Aberdeen. It was extraordinary; he seemed to have a choice of two or three shots for any ball. Of course, his value as a club pro was limited to his run-scoring. Nobody could learn from him. Nobody else could cut a good length ball on middle stump to the third man boundary, or flick the same ball for four to square-leg.
His genius blossomed in Australia on that famous tour when Worrell was the West Indian captain and the Brisbane Test ended in a tie. At Adelaide he scored a century in each innings. The first one took only 126 minutes; the second was slower, 150 minutes. And so it went on for another dozen years. Fittingly his last Test century was at Lord’s, 157 in 1973, when he was West Indies’ captain and his hair was prematurely greying.
Statistically, as I say, there have been greater batsmen, but sport isn’t only about statistics or even results. There are other intangible qualities, and Rohan Kanhai , like David Gower, exemplified them. He dazzled, delighted and amazed those who watched him. He was technically correct but also capable of astonishing improvisation.
Nobody admired him more than the famous West Indian cricket writer C. L. R. James. “Kanhai,” he wrote, “discovered, created, a new dimension in batting. He had found his way into regions Bradman never knew.”
Hyperbole? Of course. But that was the thing about Kanhai. He seemed to invent batting as he went along. Of all the magicians I have seen at the crease, there has been none more magical.