by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 28th 2009)
A Rare Talent
The series was drawn, but Headley had already proved that he was a rare talent. The following series pitted two of the greatest batsmen of the pre-war era against each other – the White Headley and the Black Bradman. They took their time to settle into the matches, but both of them lived up to their reputations.
Bradman averaged a century per third innings and Headley wasn’t far behind. Headley hit two centuries on the West Indies’ first tour of Australia in1930-31, but Australia won easily. In the Third Test Match at Brisbane’s Exhibition Ground, a timeless Test was over in four days, as Australia scored 558 all out.
Bradman contributed 223 and Bill Ponsford hit a century as well. The West Indies compiled a meagre 191 all out, but the amazing thing about it was an unbeaten 102 by Headley. His team lost by an innings and 217 runs, but Australian fans had finally seen the best of Headley and he helped his team to a consolation win by 30 runs in the Fifth Test Match at the Sidney Cricket Ground with his sixth Test century, 105.
Headley enhanced his growing reputation on that tour, hitting 1066 runs throughout the tour, but it was remembered for an act of sportsmanship too that involved neither Headley, nor Bradman. Eddie Gilbert was the first Aborigine cricketer to play for Australia. He has two main claims to fame: the first is that he is the only bowler to have Bradman dropped for nought and still get the great batsman out without scoring.
The other occurred during the West Indies’ first tour of his country. While Herman Griffith developed his reputation as the West Indies’ first fast bowler of note, they had an all-rounder of rare ability in Learie [later Lord] Constantine. During that series Gilbert experienced being hit for six for the first time, but he reacted well, coming down the pitch to shake hands with Constantine.
Meanwhile, Headley had shown that he was an exceptional talent, shining in a frankly poor team. The West Indies returned to England in 1933 and Headley found Old Trafford to his liking as wicket-keeper Ivan Barrow’s 105 was eclipsed by Headley’s 169 not out.
An Historic Victory
The West Indies’ fifth series was Headley’s fourth; it was also the first time that they emerged victorious, thanks in part to the contribution of a fast bowler who proved a one series wonder, but developed a fearsome reputation, taking 13 wickets in four Tests, but Leslie Hylton is remembered for an unwanted piece of cricket history. On May 17th 1955 he was hanged in Jamaica – the only Test cricketer to meet that fate.
Twenty years earlier the burly fast bowler was good enough to tame England’s finest, which included one of the greatest batsmen they ever produced Sir Walter Hammond and contribute to his team’s first series win. Headley missed out on a century in the Third Test at Port of Spain, Trinidad by seven runs, but his team won easily by 217 runs. Both Hylton and Constantine took five wickets each in the match. They took 3 for 25 and 3 for 11 respectively in England’s second innings.
Headley waited until he returned home to Sabina Park for the Fourth Test to give his best. Having failed to score a century in the series up to that point Headley compiled his highest score in Test cricket, an unbeaten 270 in a total of 535 for 7 declared.
Despite a century by wicket-keeper batsman Les Ames England were dismissed for 271 and had to follow on. They reached 103 for 9 – Robert Wyatt was unable to bat. Hylton failed to claim a wicket, but his new ball partner Manny Martindale and Constantine polished off England to claim a famous victory by an innings and 161 runs and the series too.
Headley’s highest First Class score was 344 not out, which was made against Lord Tennyson’s tourists in 1932.1 He toured England in 1939 and as the world geared up for the outbreak of the Second World War, England won at Lords by eight wickets, but Headley scored 106 in the first innings and 107 in the second – the second time that he has achieved the feat of scoring hundreds in both innings of a Test Match.
They were the last centuries of his illustrious career. He had scored ten hundreds in just 22 Tests and retired with an average of 60.83 – the third best in the history of cricket behind Bradman and the South African Graeme Pollock. Headley was the first black man to captain the West Indies, which he did in his one match against India in 1948. Six year later he played his final Test Match against England, aged 44. Neither match was distinguished by his standards.
Like many other great players, Headley lost productive years to the World War and his average suffered by playing too long, but it should be remembered that unlike Hammond whose highest international score was 336 not out against New Zealand, Headley never got to play against the minnows of New Zealand and India while they were learning the needs of international cricket, or even the weakest of the established bowling attacks, South Africa.
He also did not get the easy runs that were on offer against the West Indies when they began their long journey to become the best in the world. His runs – over two-thousand of them – were made against the best bowlers on offer in Test Cricket. Despite playing in a then mediocre team and staying on too long George Headley remains one of the greatest cricketers ever to play the sport and with due respect to Brian Lara and others, perhaps the greatest batsman the Caribbean ever produced.
1 By then the grandson of former Poet Laureate Alfred, the Hon. Lionel Tennyson had become the third Baron Tennyson.