Alvin Kallicharran: A great promise only partly fulfilled
Alvin Kallicharran in action against New Zealand in the 1975 World Cup © Getty Images
March 21, 1949. The birth of one of the most graceful left-handed batsmen of West Indies, who carried the team single-handedly during one of the most demanding phases. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the colourful career of Alvin Kallicharran.
It was a typical dank, cloudy, gloomy June day in London. Yet, the bleakness of the weather hardly had an effect on the soaring spirits of the thousands of West Indians who had assembled at The Oval. Impromptu steel bands filled the air with calypso rhythm from the moment the ebullient Keith Boyce had dismissed the Chappell brothers, Ian and Greg, within the space of six balls.
The 11th match of the first World Cup had been hugely anticipated, a showdown between the Australian fast bowlers and some of the most spectacular strikers of the cricket ball. But, it was the Australian batsmen who struggled against the West Indian fast men. As the ball darted about, only some sterling resistance by Ross Edwards and Rod Marsh enabled them to reach 192.
In response, Gordon Greenidge and Roy Fredericks saw off the opening spell of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson before Max Walker trapped the former leg before. In walked a small man, barely reaching 5’4’’, making his way to the wicket in short brisk steps, the ever-present smile on his face brightening up the dismal day.
In his characteristic way, Alvin Kallicharran was off in a flash, stroking the ball magnificently — all grace and class, quickly taking the match away from the Australians. He had a score to settle. When the Australians had toured the Caribbean in 1972-73, the diminutive Kallicharran, playing just his second series, had been singled out for rampant Aussie verbal abuse. It was payback time now as he drove, cut and pulled in vengeful response.
The climax of this innings has gone down as one of the most breathtaking assaults in the history of the game. Dennis Lillee steamed in from the Vauxhall End, as a last-ditch effort to put Australia back in the game. And Kallicharran launched into him. The faster Lillee bowled, the harder he was hit. The shorter he pitched the further the ball travelled. With his mop of dark hair luxuriantly showing on the bare head, Kallicharran hooked and pulled with a ferocity that belied his small frame. And when Lillee pitched on the off stump, he was creamed through the covers and cut through point. The fast bowler ultimately got his man with a top-edged pull spiralling high in the stratospheric realms before being gobbled up by Ashley Mallett at mid-wicket. But, the 10 previous balls the great fast bowler had sent down to the little left-hander had sealed the issue. They had gone for 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 1, 4, 6, 0, 4. West Indies won by seven wickets with 14 overs to spare.
Kallicharran drove and cut with all the elegance and artistry associated with little masters of the trade of batsmanship across generations. And additionally he could hook and pull with stunning power. In 1982, by which time West Indies had decided to dispense with his services, he was still all silken grace in his drives and pulverising with his pulls. He scored over 2000 runs in the county championships for Warwickshire, with three double hundreds, and was named the Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1983. The stroke of the season had come at Taunton in the NatWest Trophy quarter-final against Somerset. Former West Indian teammate Joel Garner had run in, 26 inches separating the two along the vertical axis. The ball had been short, rising and gearing for the skull. Kallicharran had unleashed a hook that saw the thunderbolt soar into the stands beyond square-leg. The Guyanese batsman had hit 141 that day, and captain Bob Willis had summed it up nicely: “Alvin’s Taunton knock contained a myriad of high-class shots.”
Kallicharran was born in Paidama, a rural settlement in Berbice, Guyana. Belonging to the Guyanese Indian stock, he perhaps got introduced to a fair approximation of a cricket team fairly early in his life. With four brothers and six sisters, he was one of 11 siblings.
His father Isaac was a coconut farmer who captained the Port Mourant side, the club from which hailed cricketers of the stature of Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Joe Solomon and the Christiani brothers, Cyril and Robert.
As a boy, Kallicharran would sneak off from the farm to play cricket — learning the game in the streets with sticks, branches or planks as bat. The technique that went on to charm so many around the world, including austere Englishmen of the old school, was largely self-taught.
High scores for the Port Mourant Club and at school level saw him making it to the Guyanese side at 16, the youngest-ever to represent the island in Shell Shield.
The first county which set sights on the young Kallicharran was Glamorgan, but a postal strike played havoc to their plans of signing him. Alan Smith, the Warwickshire captain, flew to Guyana and brought the young man to Warwickshire in 1971.
It was in the winter that followed that Kallicharran made his Test debut.
The start of the Test career
The 1971-72 series between the men from theisland of the long white cloud and the representatives of the sun soaked isles of the New Worldresulted in a long drawn out stalemate. The touring New Zealand side under Graham Dowling was not expected to put up a fight, but in the end held the hosts 0-0 over five Tests.
It was not without its moments, though. In the first Test at Kingston, local boy Lawrence Rowe made the greatest-ever debut in Test cricket, scoring 214 and 100 not out. In the fourth Test at Georgetown, it was the turn of another local lad to announce himself with a delightful hundred in his first Test match. The innings was delayed by rain and an incident of bottle throwing by the spectators unhappy at the run out of local hero Clive Lloyd. However, Kallicharran maintained his composure and struck the final 41 runs full of poise and purpose on the third morning, allowing captain Gary Sobers to make a quick declaration. The next nine hours were spent toiling in the field as Glenn Turner and Terry Jarvis put on 387 for the first wicket.
The fifth and final Test at Port-of-Spain saw Kallicharran, promoted to No 3, playing some exquisite strokes to score a scintillating 101 in just three hours. The little man became only the third batsman after Bill Ponsford and Doug Walters to score centuries in his first two Test matches. Thirteen years later, Rowe and Kallicharran would embark on their swansong tour together under a severe cloud of criticism. But, more about that later.
When Ian Chappell’s Australians visited the islands next year, Kallicharran was still raw on the international scene. However, he was already recognised as a rare talent and subjected to some targeted sledging by the hard men who played the game in their uncompromising way. The young man battled gamely, starting off with a half century and following it up with hard fought 53 and 91 in the cliff-hanger at Trinidad. Set 334 to win on a turning wicket, against the unorthodox spin of Terry Jenner and Kerry O’Keefe, West Indies were taken to the brink of victory by some superlative batting by the young left hander. At lunch on the last day, the hosts were poised on 268 for four, with just 66 more to get, Kallicharran going strong on 91. A slightly casual stroke off Max Walker immediately after the break cost him his wicket and the subsequent collapse resulted in a 44-run defeat.
Kallicharran did not really enjoy the soft wickets of England with the ball moving around, but nevertheless managed two fifties in three Tests on his first tour. It was, however, when the Englishmen came over to West Indies in 1973-74 that the fast maturing batsman played some of his best innings.
The 158 in Port-of-Spain is widely considered to have been one of the classiest knocks he ever played, but was unfortunately marred by controversy. After England had been bowled out for 131 in the first innings, the calm Kallicharran had scored a peerless 142 by the end of the second day, shepherding West Indies to 274 for six. Bernard Julien had patted the last ball of the day from Derek Underwood to Tony Greig at silly point and had turned to walk off the field. Wicketkeeper Allan Knott had flicked off the bails, and Kallicharran had started down the wicket towards the pavilion. At this juncture, Greig threw down the stumps at the striker’s end and appealed. There was some confusion before umpire Douglas Sang Hue raised his finger. The confused crowd became aware of the situation only when the figure under “wickets” on the scoreboard clicked to seven.
Greig ran to the dressing room in glee, and a bemused Kallicharran resignedly accepted the decision. But, the crowd got into the act, booing the English team and setting off a small fire in one of the stands. Greig was driven to the hotel by Garry Sobers, under the assumption that the angry crowd would not target him on the streets if he was with the legend.
After lengthy discussions during the evening and the subsequent rest day, Kallicharran was allowed to continue his innings by the England team management.The match resumed with the batsman shaking hands with Greig on the pitch. However, he could add only 16 to his overnight score, and was dropped thrice during that period, each time off the bowling of Pat Pocock.
Another hundred followed in the third Test, during which Lawrence Rowe plundered 302. The two young batsmen added 249 for the second wicket. Rowe failed in the final Test as England unexpectedly squared the series, but managed 397 runs averaging 56.71.
Kalicharran was an even bigger hit when West Indies toured India in 1974-75. The passionate cricket fans of the country identified with his origins, looks and last name all of which bore the Indian stamp. Of course, two huge stars were born for West Indian cricket during that closely fought tour, with Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards making their debuts. Yet, with 454 runs, Kallicharran emerged second on the batting list after Clive Lloyd, with a crucial 124 in the first Test. There is a school of thought which believes that the two early blockbusters of Subhash Ghai — Kalicharran and Vishwanath — were named after the immensely popular cricketers of those days, Alvin Kallicharran and Gundappa Viswanath.
The left-hander continued his story of success by amassing 92, 44 and 115 in the three innings he played in Pakistan.
After the successful World Cup campaign, the West Indian team embarked on that turbulent voyage of Australia. In that infamous series, the young talented team was devastated by the hostile pace of Lillee and Thomson and the level of ruthlessness demonstrated by the Australian cricketers. The West Indians were routed 5-1. However, Kallicharran managed a hundred and three fifties, cutting through the venom to score 421 runs.
As the tour converted West Indies into a thoroughly professional unit with the most fearsome pace attack in the world, Kallicharrran became established as one of the great batsmen whose top order runs served as fuel for the fast bowling machinery. Runs flowed at home against India before a shoulder dislocation and subsequent operation made him unavailable for a large part of the ‘grovel’ tour of England.
It was now that Kerry Packer cast his long shadow on the world of cricket.
The giants of West Indies made a synchronised beeline for the attractions of World Series, and Alvin Kallicharran set off to join the party. However, after he signed the dotted line it was discovered that he had breached a contract with a Queensland radio station The negotiations with Kerry Packer fell through. Kallicharran’s withdrawal was much publicised. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Normal Test cricket resumed in March 1978 with a second-string Australia under Bobby Simpson visiting West Indies. A full strength home side won the first two Tests, Kallicharran scoring 127 in the opening match. And after the second Test — in which Graham Yallop walked out with his head protected by the first modern helmet ever worn by a Test cricketer — the selectors dropped Desmond Haynes, Richard Austin and Deryck Murray, ostensibly to provide opportunity to other players. Captain Clive Lloyd, sensing a move against World Series players, stood down as captain, and the rest of the Packer brigade withdrew from the Test in support of their leader. A new team was hastily assembled and Kallicharran was named captain.
The inexperienced side lost the match as Australia chased down a steep target of 359 through a 251 run fourth wicket stand between Craig Serjeant and Graeme Wood. However they won the fourth Test at Port-of-Spain with the new skipper leading the way with a first innings 92.
In the final Test, Kalicharran scored a second innings hundred in an attempt to save the match on a turning pitch on the last day. He was eighth out with still nearly nine mandatory overs remaining, but the public completed the job for him. When Vanburn Holder departed 13 minutes later with 6.2 overs to go, the Jamaican crowd pelted the ground with stones, bottles and other objects, bringing the match to an end.
Kallicharran’s next assignment was an arduous six-Test tour of India with a very young side under his command. He started brilliantly, with 187 at Bombay, an innings full of grace and ease, rescuing the side from 13 for two. It was to remain his career best Test score. He scored heavily throughout the series, once again basking in the popularity among the Indian fans. He emerged from the series with 538 runs at an average of nearly 60, and his side full of greenhorns ran India close, eventually defeated by a slim 0-1 margin.
At this time, it looked as if the graceful left-hander would go down in history as one of the greatest batsmen of all time. In 51 Test matches, he had compiled 3869 runs at an average of 49.60. He stood out even when the top guns of West Indian batting powerhouse returnedin the fray. Greenidge, Haynes, Richards and Lloyd all joined back when the side toured Australia in 1979-80.
What perhaps stung Kallicharran was that Clive Lloyd was reinstated as captain when the Packer players were welcomed back in the fold. From the caretaker captain who had nurtured the side during this difficult phase, Kalicharran became relegated to being just another player in the side. He responded like a true champion, scoring 106 in the third Test at Adelaide as West Indies sealed the series 2-0, obtaining just revenge for the rout of 1975-76.
After this his form fell away.
West Indies crossed the Tasman Sea and met with unusual resistance from a limited New Zealand outfit. In an acrimonious first Test at Dunedin, made famous by Michael Holding uprooting the stumps with a fierce kick, New Zealand scampered to a win by one wicket. Kallicharran bagged a pair.
He got 75 in the first innings of the second Test, but another duck followed in the second essay.
When West Indies travelled to England in the summer of 1980, Kallicharran did not get a fifty in any of the five Tests, scoring just 102 runs in six outings.
Finally, after measly returns of just 80 runs at 16.00 with a highest of 27 in four Tests in Pakistan that winter, Kallicharran was dropped from the side.
He never made it back.
He went on piling runs for Warwickshire, but with Viv Richards, Larry Gomes and Clive Lloyd making up the West Indian middle-order, he knew his days as a Test cricketer were over. As the summer of 1981 drew to an end, and West Indies were striding the cricket world like giants, Kallicharran made his lonely way to the forbidden land of South Africa, turning out for Transvaal.
Alvin Kallicharran (sitting second from left) with the 1980 West Indies team © Getty Images
The final transgression
Finally, in January 1983, he joined a strong West Indian party led by Lawrence Rowe, his fellow debutant during the 1971-72 series against New Zealand. The team contained talented names like Collis King, Richard Austin, Sylvester Clarke, Franklyn Stephenson, Ezra Mosley, Derick Parry and David Murray. It was the destination that signed the death warrant for all these players in the domain of international cricket. On January 15, the first-ever West Indian cricket team played in South Africa, as the Table Mountain and the Devil’s Peak loomed above.
Kallicharran continued to play for Warwickshire for many more years. His magic was visible often enough in the English grounds through the eighties. In 1984, he hammered 206 in a limited-overs game against Oxfordshire, and followed it up by picking up six wickets with his little used off-spin. He continued to score heavily for Warwickshire, Transvaal and Orange Free State till the mid-eighties.
The final 12 Tests saw him score at 19.29, his career plummeting to a free fall during the last phase. Even then, his final figures make impressive reading. In 66 Tests, he managed 4399 runs at 44.43, with 12 hundreds. The last number could have been far more impressive if he had converted some of the eight scores in the nineties.
A player of his class perhaps deserved a longer run. The yeoman’s service to West Indian cricket during the Packer days could have been taken into consideration. Did he take the decision to go to South Africa too early? One wonders whether Kallicharran had already realised that he would not get back into the side for many different reasons.
We can wonder what might have been if he went on to play a full career. But, even with a promise that was perhaps only partly fulfilled, he stands right up there as one of the best batsmen produced by West Indies.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)