May 1 has long held special meaning for people from Calcutta (though perhaps not for the more recent Kolkata).
Even people like us, who haven’t necessarily had to do much heavy lifting in our comfortable middle-class lives, feel a sort of warmth in our hearts as International Workers’ Day rolls around. It might mean nothing in real terms, but it’s there.
As it is, May 1 is also when Gordon Greenidge was born, 66 years ago in a place called Black Bess in Barbados. And he was once the greatest opening batsman I saw first-hand. Sure, there was Sunil Gavaskar – but I learnt to appreciate him over time. For little me, it was Gavaskar v Kapil Dev, and Kapil always won that one, along with 1983. And Greenidge beat Gavaskar.
The early days were all about Greenidge and Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and Malcolm Marshall, Desmond Haynes and Michael Holding – and West Indies. The magic of patience and batting time and attritional cricket are more appealing now, to be honest, than it was in the 1980s, when most Tests ended in draws. Those days, the flamboyance of the West Indians, of men like Greenidge, was electric. With Test days recording upwards of 350 runs nowadays and a result emerging within four, even three days, the art and craft of graft has assumed greater significance. Then, to my mind, the opposite was true.
Cuthbert Gordon Greenidge was the real deal when it came to taking on the fastest and canniest of fast bowlers (with the advantage of not having to face the ones in his corner) at their freshest.
The first time he came to play a Test in Calcutta, in 1974, was before I was born. The second time he turned up, in December 1983, I was kind of Sportstar– and Sportsworld-educated, and thus watching out for him. He scored just 25 the only time he batted as West Indies won easily, by an innings. All I remember from that Test, sitting on the concrete slabs that passed for seats at Eden Gardens, was Gavaskar getting out to Marshall, caught behind off the first ball of the first morning – a delivery no one but Jeff Dujon, standing more than 30 yards behind the stumps, could have seen. [For the record, Kapil scored 69, India’s best in an innings of 241, and then picked up four wickets – hero!]
The third time was the memorable one. I was older, getting into my teens, and he scored 141 in just 265 balls. Greenidge batted the whole first day. And then he scored 69 in the second. This was December 1987, and the game ended in a draw. It wasn’t quite the West Indies of old anymore anyway; they even had Clyde Butts in the XI. #justsaying
That innings, plus some others on TV, did it for me – never since, despite Virender Sehwag and Matthew Hayden, have I had any doubts about my opening partner for Gavaskar in a Dream Test XI (of players I had watched, not just heard or read about). All my reading since has only reinforced the opinion.
So, I was thinking about Greenidge, the square-cut mostly and the horizontal-bat stuff on the leg-side, soon after watching David Warner slam 126 in 59 balls against Kolkata Knight Riders on Sunday night. Oh, how far (one way or another) we have come in just a few years. Moody and brooding Greenidge, stats say, scored his 5134 runs from 128 One-Day Internationals at a strike rate of 64.92, while there isn’t any record of his Test strike rate. That immensely aggressive opening batsman would likely have scored his Test runs at around 45-50, at best. Not a patch on Warner (78.08 in Tests and 96.85 in ODIs), or even the slowest and most unglamorous of modern-day Test opening batsmen. [Alastair Cook has scored his 11,057 Test runs at a strike rate of 46.93, and they call him boring.]
But if there is a batsman I would have liked to see batting in Twenty20 cricket, in the Indian Premier League, Greenidge would have been right on top of that list. Along with many of his compatriots – Richards, Lloyd, Haynes, Roy Fredericks among them. And, of course, it would have been fun to see Marshall and Holding and Joel Garner, the Big Yorker Bird, and Andy Roberts too, trying to mix ’em up, slower bouncers and all.
These days, if there’s one format the West Indians are good at, it’s T20 cricket, and the IPL has hardly had any major contributions from that part of the world this time around. The only ones to have had any say in the goings-on are Sunil Narine and Samuel Badree, both spinners who would have been unlikely to fit into Lloyd’s plans. Andre Russell is out serving a ban, and Dwayne Bravo is out injured. Darren Sammy and Marlon Samuels have come in but not made it to their XIs yet, while Darren Bravo is hardly there for Kolkata Knight Riders – Rovman Powell not even that, so far. Carlos Brathwaite is there somewhere, Dwayne Smith is on the bench after scores of 0, 1, 5 and 4, while Mumbai Indians haven’t felt the need to field Lendl Simmons (wrongly, in my opinion) or Nicholas Pooran, and have kept their faith in Kieron Pollard, with decent returns. That leaves Chris Gayle, and the big man has done little of note apart from that one memorable, 10,000-milestone reaching outing against Gujarat Lions.
West Indian cricket’s inexorable slide to near ruination has been so written about, there’s little point revisiting it. But when it came to the IPL and such big T20 leagues, you could expect the beautiful men from the Caribbean to hit it big. This time, even that hasn’t happened. All this as the Test series between them and Pakistan stands at 1-0 against them with the second Test on – it’s happening in Barbados, by the way. I hope Greenidge isn’t watching. Whycliffe ‘Dave’ Cameron certainly is, not as a fan of the game but as president of the West Indies Cricket Board.
Once upon a time there was a tavern,
Where we used to raise a glass or two;
Remember how we laughed away the hours,
And dreamed of all the great things we could do …
And so although nothing, absolutely nothing, points to it, this blogger will just keep waiting for a turnaround. And raise a glass or two to probably the finest opening batsman ever.