Easton McMorris: Leader, mentor and much more

Easton McMorris: Leader, mentor and much more

Editor at Large, South Central Bureau

Sunday, June 21, 2020

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This is the third segment of a four-part series on Easton McMorris, the former Jamaica and West Indies opening batsman

HIS total dominance of the Shell Shield tournament in 1966, scoring 553 runs for an average of 92.16, assured Easton McMorris, now 31 years old, of his place in the Garfield Sobers-led West Indies touring team to England in 1966.

Sobers was at his imperious best with bat and ball as the West Indies won the five-Test series 3-1.

But, as was the case in 1963, McMorris struggled to come to grips with Test cricket in England.

It didn't help that the tour selectors showed little or no patience, shifting between McMorris, Trinidadian Joey Carew and the Barbadian Peter Lashley, as opening partners for the outstanding Conrad Hunte.

McMorris played in the first Test at Old Trafford, making 11 in his only knock as the West Indies won by an innings.

He would not get more playing time in the Test series until the final match at Kennington Oval in London, making 14 and 1, falling both times to champion fast bowler John Snow.

Carew got just one Test, falling for 2 and 0 in the drawn second Test at Lord's while Lashley made 49, 23, and 9 in the third and fourth Tests at Trent Bridge and Leeds.

Perhaps the strength of West Indies teams in those days influenced behaviour. But with the advantage of hindsight, the tendency by selectors of decades ago to chop and change, after just a single failure in some cases, seems downright cruel.

Be that as it may, the records show that in four Tests (seven innings) in England in 1963 and again in '66, McMorris had a highest score of 16.

Beyond obviously harsh tour selectors, it's not easy to explain why a batsman with such an admired technique found Test cricket so difficult in England.

Analysts at the time suggested, he, like many others, struggled to adapt to the swing and seam movement on offer.

It's a view McMorris dismisses, pointing out that in games against English County sides with strong bowling attacks he enjoyed a relatively good record for the West Indies, including a top score of 190 not out against Middlesex in 1963.

“There is no better place to bat than England when it is dry and the sun is shining,” McMorris said.

According to him, his problem in his four Tests on English soil was that he was “picking up the ball late” in cloudy conditions. “In England in '63 and '66 that was my biggest problem,” he said.

His close friend and former captain, the outstanding West Indies wicketkeeper Jackie Hendriks, argues that apart from limited opportunities in the Caribbean, the crux of the matter was that McMorris never got to play on the “hard wickets” of Australia and India.

“He [McMorris] was a very fine batsman and there is no doubt in my mind that he would have done very well in Australia and India, had the selectors seen fit to pick him for those tours,” said Hendriks.

As far as McMorris was concerned the '66 tour of England would mark the end of his career as a Test player.

But he continued to prosper in regional first class cricket.

After opening the innings against Trinidad and Tobago in Jamaica's opening game of the 1967 season, McMorris would drop down the batting order, providing opportunities for others, including Maurice Foster, to prove themselves at the top.

Batting at number five at Bourda in Georgetown, McMorris stroked his way to his highest first class score, 218, as Jamaica piled up 538 to gain first-innings points, in a drawn game against a full-strength Guyana.

His double-century underlined dominance against Guyanese bowling, dating back to his earliest days in first class cricket.

According to statistician Carl Bell, McMorris amassed 1033 runs against Guyana for an average of 79.46.

His double-century apart, McMorris also vividly remembers the '67 season for a 96-run loss to Barbados at Kensington in which he believes umpiring errors played a huge role.

The way he remembers it, he batted really well, making 74 and 35 against a varied Barbados attack, including Sobers with his back-of-the-hand spin. One shot sticks in his memory, a square drive, for which Barbadian Seymour Nurse “clapped”.

But he also remembers Renford Pinnock, who made 66 and 72, falling victim to umpiring error. And then came McMorris's turn in the second innings.

Sweeping at the left-arm spin of Rawle Brancker, McMorris recalls missing the shot and the ball hitting his thigh and lobbing to forward short leg.

Sobers appealed and McMorris said, “Remember you are the West Indies captain!” But Sobers said, “Look at the umpire!” McMorris turned to look and found, to his horror, the umpire's finger in the air.

There was no Shell Shield tournament in '68 when England toured, but in the absence of an injured Hendriks, McMorris was asked to lead the Jamaica team against the visitors at Sabina Park.

Then in '69, with leading West Indies players, including Hendriks, away on tour of Australia, McMorris would enjoy what he considers among his greatest triumphs, leading the Jamaica team to the regional first class title, despite being hampered by rain early in the season.

It was the first such accomplishment for a Jamaica senior men's team – powered by a good all-round effort. Maurice Foster and Renford Pinnock led with the bat, while the spinners Arthur Barrett and Othneil Miles were very effective at crucial times.

Ironically, McMorris had a lean time with the bat by his standards. His highest score was a second-innings 41 in an 81-run win over Guyana at Sabina Park.

Memories of that Shell Shield triumph are treasured by McMorris. But equally he values the role he played in the development of young players, not least Lyndel Wright and the classical right-hand batsman Lawrence Rowe.

In a Test-match career spanning the period 1972 to 1980 Rowe, as elegant a batsman as has ever lived, charmed cricket watchers in the Caribbean, England, Australia and New Zealand. Sadly, illness and injury hampered his career, and it ended with his unfortunate decision to lead rebel tours of apartheid-era South Africa in the early 1980s.

McMorris recalls that had he not stayed strong by his own convictions, Rowe may well have fallen by the wayside.

Scores of 7, 1, 4 and 3, in three away games in the eastern Caribbean, meant Rowe was under pressure. Calls came from leading Jamaican journalists for him to be replaced for the final Shell Shield game against Guyana at Sabina.

“We came home [from the eastern Caribbean tour] and the press was on me,” recalled McMorris.

“They were saying, 'Why you won't play Basil Williams [Rowe's teammate at Kensington Cricket Club]? Lawrence Rowe don't mek no runs', and I don't have anything to tell them…but I know I am not dropping Lawrence Rowe, so I say, 'Why don't you come and watch the match at Sabina Park,' “ McMorris said.

As it turned out Rowe made a typically classy second-innings 54. A chuckling McMorris recalled that the critics came back to say that now they “understand why I couldn't drop him [Rowe]”.

Among his favourite stories is of Rowe sitting beside him in the dressing room in Barbados and tentatively asking: “ 'Skip, what number I going to bat?' I said: 'Lawrence, as long as you playing for Jamaica and I am captain you are the number three batsman...' “

At which point Pinnock – described by McMorris as the perfect team man who kept the dressing room laughing – who was close by, exclaimed to Rowe: “Same ting a tell you, same ting a tell you…”

Looking back, McMorris told the Jamaica Observer: “I knew I couldn't do without him [Rowe]”.

Under McMorris's leadership, younger players continued to improve in the Shell Shield tournament of 1970, and for the most part he did well, scoring a century (105) against Barbados at Sabina. However, the season would end badly for him, with double ducks and heavy defeat to Trinidad and Tobago in that country.

A few months later, he led a young Jamaica team on a short development tour of England in 1970, with Foster and Pinnock making centuries and Rowe getting good starts without carrying on. McMorris proudly recalls that Jamaica did well, finishing undefeated in the first class leg of the tour.

But for McMorris, the end of his first class career was at hand.

He had modest to middling batting performances while continuing to lead in '71 and '72. But by '72, McMorris knew the time to walk away had come.

His final first class game was against Barbados and came at age 36. He made 40 and 15 as Jamaica went down by 10 wickets, having declared their second innings at 216-7 in a bid to gain a come-from-behind victory.

“We could have drawn the game but we wanted to win,” said McMorris.

Looking back at his long career, McMorris believes he could've done better if his shot selection and decision-making had been smarter at vital times, and if he had got the “breaks” (good fortune) on occasions. But says he: “That's cricket...it was a pleasure to play cricket at the highest level.”

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