“When we played cricket it was about pride. Money was secondary,” Rohan Kanhai said in an exclusive interview. He continued, ‘ our players today don’t seem to realize the importance of playing for the West Indies.’ In a region where role models fall short Kanhai remains the original, real and authentic hero of the Caribbean. He carried the destiny of his country on his shoulders with class and dignity and brought the people together in a spontaneous celebration that no politician could muster. As we look at the state of West Indies cricket we begin to realize that Kanhai was more than a cricketer. He is a thinker and a philosopher and the values he upholds are timeless.
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Imagine a time when there was pace like fire, when there were no helmets and when players took to the field just for the joy of playing the game. These were the glory years, the golden age of world cricket. It was also the period of the greatest transformation in West Indian cricket, from a territorial and insular game, to becoming the best team in the world under Frank Worrell. While there were great cricketers there was one name that stood out above the rest. He is Rohan Kanhai, the master of the willow, the magician in the middle whose bat was akin to a painter producing a masterpiece on canvas.
When Kanhai walked to the wicket it was the start of an adventure, an excursion into self-belief and improvisations. There are cricketers that would bat all day and that is no mean feat but when Kanhai took guard the hush, expectancy and excitement knew no bounds. He was true entertainment value. But Kanhai was more. He gave Caribbean historian CLR James lots to write about and some sleepless nights too. According to James the master batsman went into regions that Bradman never knew. One of the most famous pieces that James wrote was ‘Kanhai: A Study in Confidence.’
According to James, Kanhai embodied the West Indian quest for identity bursting forth from the bondage of slavery and indentureship. James says, “ If, like Kanhai, he is one of the most remarkable and individual of contemporary batsmen, then that should not make him less but more West Indian. You see what you are looking for, and in Kanhai’s batting what I have found is a unique pointer for the West Indian quest for identity, for ways of expressing our potential bursting at every seam.”
Rohan Kanhai was born in Port Mourant, a sugar plantation in Berbice, Guyana and he learned his cricket there. Those that grew up with him speak of Kanhai’s love for batting at an early age. In his autobiography ‘Blasting for Runs’ Kanhai described the art of batsmanship.
He said, “ A batsman needs three things to succeed-guts, timing and concentration. I am not saying that the attacking flair wasn’t there…but it was harnessed into a controlled and deadly weapon.” Kanhai showed that he had the weapons in his arsenal when he tamed Subash Gupti and Fazal Mahmood on the 1958-59 India and Pakistan tour. It was England’s turn to tour West Indies in 1960 and Kanhai proved that he had all the attributes and determination to match. He batted in Port-of-Spain for more than six hours tempering his natural instincts and played most responsibly to score a century. The innings lasted more than six hours.
The iconic pictures from the 1960-61 Australian tour showed Kanhai jumping in the air as Joe Solomon secured cricket’s first Tied Test. There are many remarkable feats on that tour, including Kanhai’s topping the averages in Australia, and scoring a century in each innings of the Adelaide Test. By the time West Indies toured England in 1963 Kanhai was a superstar. He played with outstanding dedication and in the true spirit of the game. He never waited for the umpire’s decision if he knew that he was out. This is the hallmark of a gentleman.
Kanhai’s exploits continued but by the end of the sixties West Indies cricket had entered the doldrums. It needed direction and leadership. The West Indies Cricket Board appointed Kanhai as captain for the Australian tour in 1973 and under his leadership the turn-around began. Kanhai was able to instill a sense of purpose in the team. He followed in the footsteps of Frank Worrell, one of the greatest captains. Kanhai says that Worrell was not only a great captain but also a great West Indian.
West Indies won the three match series in England (2-0) with Kanhai scoring a magnificent century at Lords and there were wonderful performances from other players as well. West Indies knew how to win again. The revival had begun. By the time Lloyd took over as captain Kanhai had shaped a professional team that could excel in every aspect of the game. This became evident in the 1975 World Cup when Kanhai teamed up with Lloyd at Lords to ensure a victory parade in the West Indies.
Kanhai served West Indies, Warwickshire, and his other clubs with pride and distinction. He scored 6,227 Test runs with 15 centuries from only 79 Tests and his first class average is over 49 with 86 centuries. But for Kanhai it was not about numbers. It was playing the game in its true spirit and with pride. Kanhai points out that discipline comes from within the individual. When he retired he became coach of the West Indies team and it was under his management that Brain Lara scored 375 runs in Antigua with Shivnarine Chanderpaul at the other end. How does he view the current state of cricket? Kanhai says that, ‘ cricket has taken a different turn, especially with the IPL. Money has played a great part in it. This is a different era and people love to watch the shorter version. The crowds in India are fantastic and the support is there. It brings a different dimension to the game.’
Cricket fans would recall that Kanhai came out with a congratulatory message when Chanderpaul played in his 150th Test. Kanhai said, ‘ One has to give credit to Chanderpaul. His concentration and his power to stay at the wicket are remarkable and not many people in the cricketing world would bat as long as he can.’
As we ended our interview Kanhai said, ‘ Write your article, let the readers enjoy it. I will hear about it.’ These words of trust reflect the philosophy of a happy thinker, a contented sportsman that played the game in its true spirit and allowed posterity to judge his achievements. Well, posterity says that there is only one Rohan Kanhai. He brought sunshine to our lives and we are lucky that he came our way.