Tall, muscular, massive and oozing with power, Charlie Griffith was the meanest of the West Indies fast bowlers © Getty Images
Charlie Griffith, born on December 14, 1938, was one of the most feared fast bowlers of all time. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at one of the “bad boys” of the sport.
The small island of Barbados has produced more quality fast bowlers than the entire nation of India: there was Wes Hall, with his long run-up, running in the sunshine, his crucifix dangling, to hurl deliveries at unbelievable speed; there was Joel Garner, tall and accurate, miserly in approach and lethal in effect and there was Malcolm Marshall, stocky and fast, who could run through any batting line-up and generally accepted as one of the greatest in history.
And then, there was Charlie Griffith: tall, muscular, massive and oozing power – the meanest of them all. A career of 94 wickets from 28 Tests at 28.54 is impressive enough, but it does not tell the complete story. It does not tell the way how Griffith, in unison with fellow Barbadian Hall, had intimidated batsmen all over the world with pace. Neither does it tell how lethal Griffith’s toe-crushing yorkers were, or how ruthless his bouncers were.
Surprisingly, Griffith had started his career as a wicketkeeper-batsman. He later switched to off-breaks, and it was only in his late teens that Griffith took to fast bowling after he had a spell of seven for one during an experimental attempt to change style. However, he burst into prominence on his First-Class debut: he removed Colin Cowdrey, Mike Smith, Peter May, Ken Barrington and Ted Dexter in the match, and became an instant star.
He made a rather indifferent Test debut the same season, but everyone knew he was destined for bigger things. He was given the opportunity to open the bowling with Hall, but ended the Test with the solitary wicket of Geoff Pullar. The next season Griffith did something that has been etched permanently in the history of the sport in black.
India were touring the West Indies. Griffith was picked to play them in their tour match against Barbados. Griffith was bowling faster than ever, and at the beginning of the fateful over, Rusi Surti, the non-striker, had warned the Indian captain Nari Contractor that Griffith was probably chucking. Contractor did not pay attention.
The infamous delivery rose awkwardly and almost at an unplayable pace. Contractor’s original intent was probably to play it towards square-leg; he did not judge the bounce early enough, and arched back in a last-moment effort to move out from the line. The ball hit him just above his left ear. Contractor had to be rushed to the hospital; he remained unconscious for six days; he had to undergo back-to-back brain operations to remove the clots; and he could never play another Test. Umpire Cortez Jordan added fuel to the fire in the second innings of the match by calling Griffith for throwing.
Griffith did not get a chance to redeem himself till the England tour of 1963: he partnered Hall throughout the series, and outshone his illustrious partner on the tour. Lester King was originally picked as Hall’s partner, but Griffith bowled so well on the tour that the West Indies selection committee had no option but to pick him. He took 119 wickets at an incredible 12.83; against Gloucestershire he took 13 for 58, including his career-best haul of 8 for 23. He followed it with another five-for against Yorkshire, and leapfrogged ahead of King in the race to partner Hall.
He took just one wicket at Old Trafford, but the selectors showed faith in him, retaining him for the next Test at Lord’s. He impressed all and sundry with spells of five for 91 and three for 59 in a Test that is still remembered for its epic last-ball finish. Hall had finally found his partner to match the English duo of Fred Trueman and Brian Statham.
Griffith took five more wickets at Edgbaston as Trueman bowled England to a win, thereby leveling the series. As the teams moved to Headingley, a lot depended on Hall and Griffith. The entire nation counted on them to jolt the English line-up the way Trueman had done in the previous Test.
Griffith took six for 36 and three for 45 at Headingley and six for 71 and three for 66 at The Oval. The others supported him well, and West Indies won both Tests to take the series 3-1. Griffith ended the series with 32 wickets from five Tests at a whopping 16.21: West Indies’ quest for Hall’s bowling partner had ended, as a new star seemed to have appeared on the horizon. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1964.
However, the chucking controversy had come back to mar Griffith’s career: the Australians, touring West Indies next season, lodged a formal complaint against Griffith’s action, taking photographs to prove their point. The English – Barrington and Dexter in particular – joined in the protest, and Griffith became cautious of his action.
Nevertheless, Griffith went on to take 15 wickets at 32.00 against the Australians and 14 wickets at 31.28 against the English. It was on the latter tour that he was called for chucking again – this time by Arthur Fagg in the tour match against Lancashire. Despite the fact that he had bowled on despite the allegation, this second no-ball affected Griffith’s confidence greatly, and he was never the same bowler again.
Despite the fact that he did a decent job on the India tour and the England series at home, Griffith had possibly become too cautious of his action, and his bowling had lost the sting. He went on one final tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1968-69, and that was it: Griffith’s career ended after 28 Tests and a paltry 96 First-Class matches (in which he took 332 wickets at 21.60).
Griffith’s legacy carries on, though, years after his career was over. A stand at Kensington Oval, Bridgetown has been named after Hall and him, the first great pair of fast bowlers to win Tests for West Indies. After all these years, whenever the history of fast bowling is discussed, Griffith’s name invariably comes up.
(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in)