The case for a new national hero

Lance
Neita

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

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The Order of National Hero is again in the public eye as the names of Edward Seaga and Michael Manley are put forward as prime candidates for such status. The conversation has also resurrected calls for a Bob Marley; Louise Bennett-Coverley; and Tacky, the slave freedom fighter of 1760, to be so considered.

Each stands on his or her own merit, and are all beloved icons who have woven their names into the history and legends of Jamaica. There are several others who will come to mind, but I would like to bring forward, once again, the case for arguably the world's greatest cricketer — George Headley — to be named a national hero.

What a delight it would be! What a role model for emulation, in terms of dedication, hard work, humility, selflessness, courage, and accomplishment!

No, I don't go overboard. Out of all the names likely to be shortlisted, Headley is the one who was accepted as a true hero of the people in his lifetime. He was accorded the classical treatment of songs, poetry, and prose that garlands the names of those who have been created icons by their own people.

Make no mistake about it, Headley was loved in his time. He was revered for his discipline and application, as much as his mastery of the game. Crowds flocked to get a glimpse of him wherever the West Indies team docked while playing a series; be it Bridgetown, Port of Spain, Georgetown, or Kingston's No 3 pier. The masses saw him as representing their struggles to gain a foothold in society on the basis of a commitment to excellence, rather than through wealth, privilege, or colour.

Indeed, Headley represented the hopes and aspirations of thousands of his countrymen whose dreams of independence and nationhood in the 1930s and 1940s were slowly being defined by his exploits and incredible achievements

In his time he was a treasured national icon, one to whom songs and sonnets were written and published in the newspapers and sold as pamphlets on street corners and at public functions.

West Indians followed his batting around the world on the radio, or were kept updated by telegraph, or would hear his scores from the village spokesmen who would read the newspaper reports aloud each night in the village square.

We are in danger of this generation, and others to come, losing sight of Headley's phenomenal contribution to the national psyche.

For those who may, unfortunately, be asking George Who? This was the man who was nicknamed Atlas, because he bore the brunt of the West Indies batting on his shoulders during the 1930s.

As a mere boy of 19, he astonished the cricket 'establishment' when he made his first double century (211) in his first international series against Lord Tennyson's XI at Melbourne Park in 1928.

The “chocolate baby”, as he was dubbed, went on to make 176 in the first Test against England in 1929 in Barbados, followed by two centuries of 114 and 112 in the third at Bourda.

He continued to make century after century against the best of Australia and England, recording an average of 60.83, with his Test career unfortunately interrupted by World War II.

In an earlier article published in The Gleaner, on June 7, 2009, I suggested that it could be studied “how the emergence of the West Indies as a Test-playing region in the late 1920s and 1930s coincided with the political and cultural movement that marked the early stirrings for independence across the British Caribbean.

“For example, Headley's centuries in his first international series in 1928 resonated well with Marcus Garvey's call for dominion status (political independence) for Jamaica in 1929.

“The political movement on the one hand, and the advancement of cricket on the other, continued to grow in the 1930s with the Progressive League spearheaded by W G McFarlane, Wilfred Domingo, Adolphe Roberts, Norman Manley, and Richard Hart proposing national self-government for Jamaica in 1937, and Alexander Bustamante giving a powerful voice to the labour movement in 1938.

“Fittingly, it was an epochal moment in cricket history that capped that eventful decade with Headley's unmatched and immortal 106 and 107 at Lord's in that famous Test in 1939.”

In achieving this landmark he opened the eyes of West Indians to opportunities and achievements hitherto only dreamed of, and at levels thought to be reserved for the wealthier class.

Heroism is usually celebrated or acknowledged after a person has died or enough time has been allowed for a period of reflection on the merits of making such an award. Headley, however, was a living legend in his time.

Headley's elevation to the order would be a mighty shot in the arm for reviving interest and support for cricket. It would also provide an enduring example to our nationals as a reference model for sustained application, discipline, and the ability of the human will to triumph over challenges.

Cricket is one such game on which Jamaicans and West Indians have continued to place their hopes and aspirations for world leadership at levels which would command respect and recognition for our citizens at home or across the respective diasporas.

Our present poor and humiliating performance in this arena is not only a letdown from the perspective of sports, but continues to punch a huge hole in our sense of national pride when we continue to bow to teams that once provided fodder for the West Indies.

The West Indies performance at the World Cup is a case in point. What a complete letdown. Their presence in England for the rest of the series have given rise to a number of classic jokes. For example, what is the most proficient form of footwork provided by the West Indies batsmen? The answer: Their walk back to the pavilion.

And what, my friends, do you call a world-class West Indies cricketer? Retired.

It's true. Whenever I try to come up with a list of the best West Indies cricketers there is simply no one on the contemporary teams that can fit the bill.

The best West Indies team of all time, selected by a panel of international cricket writers in July 2010, still stands.

In commenting on the selection, the late Tony Becca had this to say:

“In selecting this side, the selectors came up with only one player, the immortal George Headley, who was on the scene before 1950. As good as they were, there was no place for all-rounder Learie Constantine or for fast bowler Manny Martindale.

“The team is dominated by the great players who represented West Indies during their glory days — in the 1960s when they were arguably the best in the world, and from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when they were the undisputed champions. And, even so, some great names have been omitted.

“Gordon Greenidge and Conrad Hunte have been selected as the opening batsmen, but it must have been tough leaving out the dashing left-hander Roy Fredericks, just as it must have been difficult to go for the specialist wicketkeeper Jackie Hendriks instead of Jeffrey Dujon - who was a batsman in his own right.

“With Gary Sobers around, a man who could get into any Test team as a batsman, a left-arm fast bowler, an orthodox left-arm spin bowler, or a back-of-the-hand spin bowler, the all-rounders' position was a cinch.

“Not so, however, the selection of the spin bowler. Not when the decision was to select only one among Sonny Ramadhin, Alfred Valentine and Lance Gibbs. In the final analysis it was Gibbs, the tall, clever off spinner, the man who took 8 for 6 off 15.3 overs in an amazing spell during a Test against India.

“From the beginning, great and exciting middle-order batting and hostile fast bowling have been the hallmark of West Indies cricket, and although to many the selection of Headley, Vivian Richards, Brian Lara, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Curtly Ambrose may have seemed easy, it probably was not.

“It would be a heartless man who would not feel a tinge of regret leaving out batsmen the quality of Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, and Rohan Kanhai, an all-rounder like Constantine, spin bowlers like Ramadhin and Valentine, and fast bowlers like Wes Hall, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, and Courtney Walsh.”

This is the XI, and I challenge any reader to find a place for even one single one of the present lot of cricketers representing the West Indies over the past 15 years: Gordon Greenidge, Conrad Hunte, George Headley, Vivian Richards, Gary Sobers, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Curtly Ambrose, Brian Lara, Lance Gibbs, Jackie Hendricks.

Not necessarily my humble opinion, but what do you think?

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant, historian, and writer. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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