by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 17th 2009)
As West Indies captain Chris Gayle contemplates his third failure in a row amid accusations of disrespecting both this tour and Test Match cricket as a whole and the media storm that it has caused, he may spare a thought for his countryman and fellow West Indies international Leslie Hylton. On this very day (54 years ago Hylton secured an unwanted piece of cricket history at the cost of his life.
Hylton was a fearsome fast-bowler in his prime and not a complete mug with the bat. His first class record for Jamaica was not bad – in 40 matches he scored five half centuries with a best of 80, took 31 catches and 120 wickets at a reasonable strike rate and average. He never took ten wickets in a match, but claimed five victims in an innings thrice in first class cricket, but never in Tests.
Hylton made his début in 1927, aged 21 and called time on his career as the world descended into the chaos of the Second World War. His first Test Match was in Bridgetown, Barbados, in January 1935 against England – all six were against the same opposition. After the West Indies had been dismissed for a paltry 102 that would have been considerably worse without George Headley’s 44, Hylton took his chance.
Although the Bridgetown wicket was clearly a bowling track, his first innings figures were sensational – 7.2 overs, 3 maidens 3 wickets for 8 runs. Wily England skipper, Bob Wyatt declared on 81 for 7. The West Indies also declared and England won by four wickets. Hylton took one wicket in the second innings.
In the second Test in Port of Spain, Trinidad, he took 2 for 55 and 3 for 25 as the West Indies won by 217 runs to level the series. The great Learie Constantine, who was later knighted and then ennobled took 3 for 11 in the second innings as England collapsed to 107 all out.
The third Test in Georgetown, Guyana was drawn, but Hylton produced his best analysis in Test Matches 4 for 27 from 13.2 overs, but that was bettered by Eric Hollies – the man who denied the great Don Bradman an average of 100 in Test Matches – who took 7 for 50 in 26 overs, which was his best too.
Hylton was wicketless in his eight overs in the second innings – the first time he experienced that sensation in international cricket. It happened again in both innings of the fourth Test Match at Kingston’s Sabina Park ground – the one and only appearance that he made at his home ground.
However, he had the consolation of the West Indies winning by an innings and 161 runs to take the series – their first series win, which was secured at the fifth attempt. Hylton’s only meaningful contribution in the match was to catch Walter Hammond for 11 – one of Constantine’s 3 wickets for 55 in England’s first innings – the only catch he took in international cricket.
After his explosive start to Test cricket, in which he troubled an impressive England line-up that included one of the finest batsmen England ever produced – Hammond – Hylton faded towards the end of the series and was not selected again until the 1939 tour of England. He played in the first Test Match at cricket’s headquarters and took a wicket in each innings, but England won easily by eight wickets.
Opener Arthur Fagg was Hylton’s final victim in Test cricket in the first innings of the Old Trafford Test Match, bowled for 7. The brief international career of Leslie Hylton ended with 0 for 18 from 6 overs in the second innings. His final figures in Test cricket was 16 wickets for 418 runs from 965 balls. He made 70 runs from 8 innings, twice being undefeated. But the figures didn’t tell the whole story. He was an intimidating prospect to face in his prime.
A Marriage made in Hell
Leslie Hylton will never be forgotten, but unfortunately for him not for his cricket. He retired aged 34, having maintained his bachelor status – something both he and his wife Lurline would have good reason to wish he had preserved. Three years after he hung up his boots they married, but his spouse fell for the charms of notorious womaniser Roy Francis. Lurline had gone to the USA to learn dress-making and while there fell for Francis, but Hylton was told of the affair and on her return confronted her about it.
Eventually, she not only admitted it, but flouted it. “I’m in love with Roy,” she was alleged to have said. “My body belongs to him.”
She then pulled up her nightdress to expose herself to her husband and emphasise that she had cuckolded him. Hylton grabbed the gun from the window-sill and shot her seven times, killing the 40 year-old, before calling the police. This is Hylton’s version of the fatal events, yet he undermined his own defence in his trial.
Loss of Control
His trial counsel Vivian Blake presented a credible defence that the former fast-bowler had been provoked, even presenting a letter to Francis from the deceased to the jury. “My beloved, I’m realising even more than I did before how much I love you,” she wrote. “I am going to force my man’s hand as soon as I can.”
Blake argued that Lurline’s actions were sufficient to cause any reasonable man to lose his self control. There was a strong case of provocation, but Hylton absurd claims that he meant to kill himself returned to haunt him – he had shot her seven times, meaning that he had to reload and shoot her again.
The law eventually moved on. such circumstances would almost certainly result in a lesser degree of guilt, possibly resulting in a manslaughter conviction. Back in the 1950s it was murder and that meant only one sentence – it was two years before the Homicide Act introduced stricter guidelines to the use of the death penalty.
Even without that the jury found Hylton guilty of murder with a strong recommendation for mercy. That could only have been due to the provocation – powerful mitigation, but not an excuse. However, the jury’s recommendation was ignored by the judge who sentenced Hylton to death and mercy was not forthcoming from the colonial authorities either.
On May 17th 1955, the 50-year-old Leslie George Hylton made history. He was hanged at St. Catherine’s in Kingston, Jamaica. He has the unwanted distinction of being the only Test Match cricketer ever to be executed. Keen to avoid scandal Wisden – the cricket almanac – published an obituary that failed to mention this fact. It has subsequently been corrected.