Easton McMorris remembers the great players


Easton McMorris remembers the great players

Editor at Large, South Central Bureau

Sunday, June 28, 2020

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

Easton McMorris occasionally talks about facing the legendary English off-spinner Jim Laker, who was part of a touring team from England to Jamaica in 1964.

Laker had left the cover and extra cover area open, inviting the right-handed McMorris, who was on his way to a century, to drive against his big-spinning off break.

McMorris, with left boot to the pitch of the ball, top hand in total control, stroked the ball on the bounce, against the spin, along the ground, to the extra cover boundary.

Laker and his teammates applauded what they considered perfect execution of a difficult stroke. “They stood and clapped,” McMorris said.

He chuckles when he tells the story, because according to him, what the visitors didn't know was that once the ball was the right length that cover drive against the spin was his “pet” shot.

Furthermore, McMorris was a rarity among opening batsmen. He was blessed with the capacity to play spin bowling even better than he did pace.

He was particularly good against finger spin, though the most successful spinners in the game at that time were of that genre, including West Indians, Guyanese Lance Gibbs (off-spin), Trinidadian Sonny Ramadhin (off-spin) and the Jamaican left-arm orthodox bowler Alf Valentine.

McMorris fondly remembers that Valentine spun the ball so much that those fielding close to the bat could hear it whirring through the air “like a motor”.

McMorris's dominance of spin is underlined by his consistent success against touring India in 1962, scoring 349 runs in six innings; and against Guyana, including Gibbs, in a period spanning the late 1950s to retirement in 1972 — scoring 1032 for an average of 79.46.

The most successful of all West Indies Test-match spinners, Gibbs was the first Caribbean bowler to go past 300 Test wickets, ending with 309.

“Gibbs was an excellent off-spinner,” recalls McMorris, but like other finger spinners “he [Gibbs] never gave me trouble”.

Leg spinners or wrist spinners troubled him — those who twisted the wrist to deliver the ball from the back of the hand. For McMorris, the best of that lot was the left-arm 'chinaman' and googly exponent Inshan Ali from Trinidad and Tobago.

“He not only got the ball to turn, he got it to hang and dip and he spun it a lot,” said McMorris, adding that Inshan used considerable variety and was difficult to read.

Inshan was at his very best at Queen's Park Oval, often confusing the top batsmen of his day.

Yet, he faltered in Test cricket. In 90 first-class matches, Inshan Ali took 328 wickets at 28.93 each. In 12 Tests for the West Indies his 34 wickets came at a prohibitively expensive 47.67 each.

McMorris blames the failure of West Indies captains of the day to adequately handle the spinner and to set a “proper” field. Trinidad and Tobago captains Joey Carew and Willy Rodriquez understood Inshan much better, McMorris said.

“I wish I had him on my side I would have got the maximum out of him,” McMorris reflected.

He unapologetically insists that the great West Indies fast bowlers of the latter 70s and 80s were at a higher level than his contemporaries of the 1960s.

“Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose and Michael Holding were the best fast bowlers that I saw,” said McMorris, “I didn't face them but they were the best.”

He rates Holding's 14-149 at Kennington Oval in 1976 to carry West Indies to a 231-run win over England to be the “the most outstanding performance” by a fast bowler in Test cricket. McMorris recalls that the pitch was a 'featherbed' on which the West Indies champion Viv Richards and the Englishman Dennis Amiss made double centuries. Holding got his wickets by bowling consistently fast, full and straight. Ten of his 14 wickets were either bowled or LBW.

Among fast bowlers of his era in the late 50s and 60s, McMorris unhesitatingly picks Wes Hall as the best bowler with the purest action that he came up against, or played alongside. “Wes was the greatest of the lot,” he said, even while conceding that Roy Gilchrist and Charlie Griffith were very quick.

He remains puzzled that Jamaican Chester Watson, “who was quick”, didn't achieve more, playing just seven Tests and taking 19 wickets. Another Jamaican, the outstanding seamer Lester King, wasn't given his due by the selectors, McMorris felt. King took nine wickets in two Tests.

One reason King found it difficult to to tie down a place in the Test side was the presence of the multitalented Garfield Sobers who backed up his superlative batting with high-quality swing bowling as well as left-arm finger spin and back-of-the-hand stuff. Sobers finished his Test career with 235 wickets — hailed as cricket's greatest all-rounder.

Like everyone else, it is for his batting that McMorris most admires Sobers. Simply put, McMorris believes that between the late 50s and early 1970s when Sobers's career ended, the left-handed Barbadian was unrivalled as a batsman.

Sobers's batting statistics showing 8,032 runs in 93 Tests at 57.78 speak for themselves. But beyond that, McMorris says Sobers's ultra-flexible wrists allowed him to play shots that no one else could. He remembers one day in the late 1950s, fielding at slip as Sobers faced off-spin bowling. McMorris kept looking for the edged catch because the left hander was working the ball against the spin through midwicket. But the ball kept whistling to the midwicket boundary and the catch never came.

“He was playing the ball with a straight bat, but on making contact his wrists would take over and flick the ball away,” McMorris marvelled, “I hadn't seen that before”.

Then there was the delightful Guyanese right-hand stroke maker, Rohan Kanhai, whom McMorris first saw during a Colts' tournament in Antigua in 1956. His lasting memory is of the quick-footed Kanhai taking the short leg fielders “out of the cricket” by consistently dancing down to meet the spinners.

Kanhai, ranked just behind Sobers as the leading West Indies batsman of the late 50s, 60s and early 70s, amassed 6227 Test runs for an average of 47.53. Yet there were those who felt he underachieved, such was his immense talent.

McMorris is among those who felt Kanhai at times tried to compete with Sobers in stroke play.

“You can't do that with Sobers, I don't think you could outmatch Sobers with strokeplay. He (Kanhai) suffered as a result. I thought Kanhai was as complete a player as I had ever seen (but) Sobers was a totally different level. Sobers was a genius,” said McMorris.

He had special praise for other outstanding contemporaries of the 60s era, Seymour Nurse, Basil Butcher and the opener Conrad Hunte — the latter often considered alongside Gordon Greenidge as the best of the West Indies openers.

“Conrad was probably our best opener,” said McMorris, “he was an onside player, beautiful hooker… don't bowl him a short ball. He would get into position early and put it away…”

As a young man McMorris rubbed shoulders with the famous 'Three Ws' from Barbados — Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott — the dominant West Indian batsmen of the 1950s. All three averaged close to 50 or better in Test cricket.

Worrell, considered among the great leaders of West Indies cricket, was elegance personified. Weekes, short and compact, destroyed bowlers without hitting the ball in the air while the tall, strongly-built Walcott — predominantly a back foot player — hit the ball with great power.

“What I realised was that Everton was as good and as elegant as Frank Worrell on occasions,” said McMorris, “not that Frank was any less, but that Everton was as elegant on occasions...”

He considered Walcott, often named as the third among equals, to be as good as the other two. “Obviously people would prefer to go and see Frank and Everton bat (because of their more classical approach). You taking your son to watch cricket, you prefer to have them watch Frank and Everton bat. But Clyde was as good as they were,” said McMorris.

For him though, none was superior to George Headley. McMorris remembers as a 12 year-old in 1947 watching the great man, dubbed by his followers as “The World” making a double century against Barbados at Melbourne Park. And six years later, as a teenager, he remembers being watched by his father, as he partnered with his hero for Lucas Cricket Club.

“George walked in and wristed the ball past gully and said, 'Come' and I said, 'No' and a man [in the crowd] said 'Yute when God call yu, yu mus' run yu know',” McMorris said.

He laughingly related another story told to him by Jackie Hendriks: Of how Headley in a club game hit a catching opportunity, in and out of the grasp of Franz Alexander, fielding close to the bat.

As a mortified Alexander wrung his hands in pain and consternation, a spectator shouted “young bwoy don't worry 'bout it, all yu jus' do is drop 'The World' “.

McMorris still struggles to explain the miraculous things Headley would do with a cricket bat, from his front-on, two-eyed stance — finding gaps at will especially through the onside, in the process seeming to defy accepted practice.

“Headley was a genius. If you are brought up to play in the 'V' like me, you build your batting defense and you play the ball with a straight bat, but George played the ball in there so, and you can't play in there so,” said McMorris, twisting and turning arms and wrists, to demonstrate.

“JK Holt used to play with his wrists a lot, but not to that extent and range … George used to play from mid-on to fine leg with his wrists, like him driving the ball with his wrists all the way round. People used to glide or push the ball, George used to drive the ball with his wrists through the onside… You never dreamed that you could bat like that…, you would be crazy to try,” he said.

The first of the truly great West Indies batsmen, Headley was at his peak when the Second World War broke out in 1939. That brought an end to international cricket until 1946. Indeed, in 39, Headley became the first player to score a century in each innings of a Test match at Lord's.

Headley's career ended in 1954, when he was long past his best, having played 22 Tests, scoring 2,190 runs for an average of 60.83.

Looking back, McMorris rates Headley and Sobers alongside Vivian Richards, the champion of the latter 1970s and 80s, and Brian Lara, dominant in the 1990s and early 2000s as “our (West Indies) greatest players”.

Says he: “I can't rate any above the other, they were all great. It was a joy to watch them bat”.

But for all that, McMorris has a special place for Lawrence Rowe, the “most beautiful” player he has ever seen — an artist, who seemed to caress, rather than hit the ball.

“There couldn't be a better illustration of batting than Lawrence Rowe. Why? Because Lawrence never hit the ball ... Every stroke was a stroke,” said McMorris.

He recalled the 1974 England tour of the West Indies when Rowe followed up a magnificent, stroke-filled triple century in Barbados, with 123 in a losing effort on a difficult, turning Queen's Park Oval pitch in Trinidad.

“The 123 runs that Lawrence made, he never made an extra cover drive because the wicket was of that nature, you couldn't go against the spin,” said McMorris.

“He (Rowe) stroked the ball through midwicket and would find the gap. (Geoffrey) Boycott at midwicket, before he chased the ball would stand up and clap,” he recalled.

On McMorris's return to Kingston, then Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley wanted a report. “I said 'Prime Minister it is nothing like the 302, you can't imagine this' and I told him about the on-driving through midwicket. That type of batting is so beautiful you can't do it every day. It's like the (classic, high-end motor car), it can't last very long. That was Lawrence. That is how you have to understand him... You would see Lawrence coming out the pavilion and you know he is not going to make runs ... shoulders drooped and thing.

“I used to judge Lawrence Rowe. If Lawrence beat mid on to its right, you know he is in tune. You know immediately that you will have to run him out, or you not going to get him out. That is what I used to take and mark him, when he beat mid-on to the right with that beautiful stroke…”

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