by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 28th 2009)
It’s over-used and almost devoid of meaning, but George Headley really was special. Had he lived Jamaica would be celebrating the centenary of the greatest batsman the Caribbean island produced today [May 30th], but Headley was unlikely cricketing hero. He was born in Panama and was sent to the West Indies as a ten-year-old to learn English, but he also learned how to wield the willow.
He was competent on both sides of the wicket and was thought to be on a par, or even superior to the great Sir Donald Bradman on a wet wicket. Headley was known by some as ‘The Black Bradman,’ and was by far the greatest batsman the Caribbean produced in the 1930s – so great that Headley’s team-mates called Bradman, ‘The White Headley.’
The comparisons insulted neither player. The great Australian spin-bowler Clarrie Grimmett gave him high praise indeed, labelling him the best leg-side player he had ever seen and the great English opening batsman Sir Leonard Hutton rated his eye highly, believing nobody could play the cut later than Headley.
Steep Learning Curve
The West Indies played their first Test Matches in 1928 and were treated to a harsh lesson in the rigours of international cricket, losing all three matches by an innings. Headley was omitted from the tour, as the man who would carry the hopes of his compatriots throughout the thirties was still a teenager. It is generally accepted that the selectors made a huge mistake as Headley already had a double century against the Hon. Lionel Tennyson’s tourists before his countrymen departed for England.
Joe Small has only one claim to fame in an obscure career of just three Tests; he was the first West Indian to hit a half-century in Test Cricket. The far superior Trinidadian batsman Clifford Roach hit the next two, but if Headley is under-appreciated in the era of Brian Lara: Sir Vivian Richards, Clive Lloyd, Rohan Kanhai, or the 3Ws – Sir Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes – Roach is virtually unheard of.
His records have long been surpassed, but Roach, not Headley, was the first West Indian to post a three-figure score, 122, which he achieved in the First Test at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados in January 1930 – an important year in cricket’s history, as both the White Headley and Black Bradman shone in separate series against English bowling. Roach’s West Indian record high-score lasted just one innings as while Roach’s 77 gave him the higher aggregate in the match Headley set a new individual record for his team with 176.
Roach and Headley continued to exchange records. In the Third Test at the Bourda in Georgetown, Guyana, Roach not only reclaimed the record for the highest score by a West Indian batsman, but beat Headley to the double century mark too, scoring 209.
However, while Roach’s records fell quickly, Headley set a record in the same match that lasted until March 2009. He scored 114 in the first innings and 112 in the second at the end of February to become the youngest player to hit centuries in both innings of a Test Match until Australian opening batsman Philip Hughes broke his record seventy-nine years later.
Headley did not give the Trinidadian much time to savour regaining the record. In the last Test at Sabina Park – Headley’s home ground in Kingston, Jamaica – a timeless Test that proved to be a batsman’s dream, Headley shone. Roach never hit another Test hundred, but he managed more half centuries.
Headley had a few more big innings left in him. Just before he turned 40, Surrey and England’s Andrew Sandham broke free of his shackles to hit the first triple century in Test Matches, 325. His highest score record didn’t last England’s summer, as Bradman made 334 at Headingley, but he remains the oldest player ever to hit a triple century in Test Matches – a record that is unlikely to be broken, but Headley scored his fourth century of his first series to reclaim the West Indies’ record for the highest individual score.
Facing a daunting England total of 849 all out, which also included 149 by wicket-keeper Les Ames, the West Indies were dismissed for a paltry 286, but England batted again, rather than enforce the follow on and was all out for 272. The West Indies were set a victory target of a mere 836, but the match ended with them near half the required total, although Headley’s 223 set a national record on his home track. Headley announced his arrival in his first series with 703 runs at an average of 87.80 – quite a first impression.