Lawrence Rowe: Batting stylist turned pariah
IN his heyday, fans flocked Sabina Park to watch Lawrence Rowe play for Jamaica in the Shell Shield. For purists, he was the perfect batsman; to bowlers he was a nightmare in white.
Considering his achievements for Jamaica and the West Indies, the Jamaica Cricket Association (JCA) announced it would name a stand at Sabina Park in his honour in June last year — a controversial decision, considering Rowe led two rebel West Indian tours to racist South Africa in the early 1980s.
But 40 years ago, the man called 'Yagga' was king of Sabina Park and the toast of international cricket. In February, 1972 he scored 214 and 100 not out on Test debut for the West Indies against New Zealand, the first batsman to accomplish such a feat.
The record still stands and will be difficult to break.
The anniversary of Rowe's remarkable accomplishment went largely un-noticed in Jamaica. He may still have thousands of admirers, but the JCA fiasco was a reminder that Rowe remains a polarising figure.
Back in 1972, Rowe was being compared to George Headley, a fellow Jamaican who scored heavily for the West Indies in the 1930s and 1940s. Others likened him to the great Australian, Donald Bradman.
For those who saw his prodigious talent, like the former Jamaica and West Indies opening batsman Everton McMorris, Rowe was one of a kind.
"He was a classical player. Certainly, a lot of us still believe Lawrence is the most classical player we have seen," McMorris told the Jamaica Observer.
McMorris was Jamaica's captain when he watched Rowe play for the country at Under-19 level against Trinidad and Tobago at Up Park Camp in 1968. He made only 20 but McMorris saw enough to invite him to practice with the senior team.
It was a fast move up the ranks for Rowe, who was born in the tough Kingston community of Whitfield Town. He did not attend a traditional high school and never played in the Sunlight Cup, the competition that had produced many of Jamaica's top cricketers.
He played for Kensington in the Senior Cup and made his first-class debut at age 20 in the 1969 Shell Shield, getting a topscore of 54 against Guyana, in four matches. The next year, Rowe notched his first first-class century against the Cavaliers, a British team that included top England players like Fred Titmus, Derrick Underwood and John Snow.
Rowe was in peak form at the start of the 1972 season. He cracked 127 against Guyana and nudged the West Indies selectors with a majestic 227 against the Kiwis who were touring the region for the first time.
He was duly selected for the first Test at Sabina.
The West Indies, captained by Garfield Sobers, were in transition. It still had veteran Guyana off-spinner Lance Gibbs in its ranks but his compatriot, the dashing left-handed opening batsman Roy Fredericks, like Rowe, was an exciting prospect.
New Zealand, led by opening batsman Graham Dowling, were at the bottom of the Test ladder. Their team included the all-rounder Bevan Congdon, batsmen Glenn Turner and Mark Burgess, the all-rounder Bruce Taylor and wicketkeeper/batsman Ken Wadsworth.
Sobers won the toss and batted first on what McMorris remembers was an easy-paced track. Fredericks and Trinidadian Joey Carew put on 78 for the first wicket before the latter was dismissed.
Rowe strolled to the crease and he and Fredericks savaged the bowling to carry the hosts to 274 for one at the close, Fredericks on 123, his maiden Test ton, and Rowe unbeaten with 94.
Rowe completed his century early on the second day and thrilled the full house with his repertoire of shots. He added 269 for the second wicket with Fredericks who made 163, and was third out, caught off left-arm spinner Hedley Howarth.
He batted for 427 minutes, struck 18 fours and one six. Sobers declared the West Indies first innings at 508 for four declared.
It was only the second time that a batsman had scored a double-century on debut, the first being England's R E Foster against Australia in the 1903-04 series.
McMorris recalls Rowe's historic knock.
"He took a little time to get going but eventually he got into the bowling and played a fabulous innings."
At the close of the second day, New Zealand were struggling at 49 for three, but found heroes in the patient Turner who made 223 and Wadsworth (78) to score 386, giving the Windies an impressive 122-run lead.
A stroke-filled 67 by Rowe carried the West Indies to 168 for three at the end of day four. His even 100, which included 13 fours, allowed Sobers to declare at 218 for three, setting the visitors a victory target of 341. Solid batting from Burgess (101) saw them to 236 for six and a draw.
Rowe's sensational double gave statisticians from London to Sydney much to talk about. At home, he was hailed from the bars in Rollington Town to the halls of parliament.
Yet, he was not as successful in the remaining three Tests. His best score in five innings was 51, which came in the third Test at Kensington Oval in Barbados.
It was inconsistence, Morris believes, that sullied Rowe's Test record which reads 2,047 runs in 30 matches (average 43.55).
"Lawrence was pleasing to the eye, but it was not everyday that you would see the great Lawrence Rowe," he said.
Rowe's debut Test heroics may be matched only by his epic 302 against England at Kensington Oval in 1974. He became a pariah when he led a renegade West Indian team to South Africa in 1983 and 1984, where they played a series of four-day 'Tests' and one-day matches.
After rumours of the initial tour surfaced, Rowe denied he was part of it. McMorris, who was living in the United States at the time, says he made a mistake.
"I was disappointed he did not tell the truth from the onset. That's my only disappointment."
There was widespread anger when the JCA announced plans to re-name the Players' Pavilion in Rowe's honour last year. Rowe travelled from his home in South Florida for what was to be a momentous occasion, but after public pressure the JCA relented.
It was another sad chapter in the indifferent relationship between Jamaica and one of its greatest sportsmen.