Conrad Hunte, born on May 9, 1932, was one of the greatest West Indian openers. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at an unsung hero of the calypso nation.
Let us do some number-crunching first.
Only five West Indian openers have gone past the 3,000-run barrier, and Conrad Hunte averages the second-highest among them — a formidable 45.06, marginally less than Gordon Greeindge’s 45.10. During the period he played, Hunte scored more Test runs than any opening batsman in the world.
Of all openers with 500 Test runs in the fourth innings, Hunte averages a stunning 61.00 with the bat, a number that is next to only Bruce Mitchell, Jeffrey Stollmeyer, and Keith Stackpole. In his debut series, Hunte had scored 622 runs at 77.75 — a number bettered by only Sunil Gavaskar (774) and George Headley (703), and nobody other than ‘Tip’ Foster (287) had played a bigger innings than Hunte’s 260 in his maiden series.
In all, Hunte scored 3,245 Test runs at 45.06 with 10 hundreds. In First-Class matches, he had scored 8,916 runs at 43.92 with 16 hundreds — which meant that he batted better at the highest level. All this was achieved despite the fact that Hunte had 13 different opening partners — which meant he did not find a capable performer at the other end.
Hunte was a destructive batsman by nature who plundered runs at domestic level, mostly for Barbados. The upright stance, the classical defence, the compact nature, and the explosive strokeplay when it came to smashing the ball to the leg-side set him apart from his contemporaries. He mixed physical power with wristy elegance, and was often compared to George Challenor for his style.
However, when batting at the international level, he realised that with destructive batsmen of the stature of Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, and Seymour Nurse in the side, he needed to provide some assurance at the top, which made him curb his natural instincts and emerge as one of the leading West Indian openers of all time. He eliminated strokes like the square-cut, the square cover-drive, and other cross-batted strokes, though he brought them out on occasions when acceleration was required. His trademark strokes — the classical on-drive and bludgeoning hook — remained throughout his career.
Coming from a modest background with eight siblings (with only one room in the house), Hunte had to walk three miles each way — barefoot — to Belleplaine School. He started playing cricket at six in his village. When he was 12, Hunte was admitted to Alleyne Secondary School. The school was reputed for its high quality of cricket, but Hunte still made it to the school team at the age of 12, along with boys in their late teens, with a shilling being offered whenever he reached 25 in any of the school matches.
He led the school side since an age of 15, and soon made it to the Belleplaine Sports and Social Club in the Barbados Cricket League, and later graduated to Empire Club, where he got an opportunity to rub shoulders with his idol Everton Weekes. Hunte went from strength to strength, and was selected to play for Barbados Cricket League XI in the prestigious annual game against Barbados Cricket Association. He scored a furious 137, and was the first Barbados League cricketer ever to score a hundred in the annual match.
The innings propelled Hunte to a very strong Barbados side (along with Freank Worrell, Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Roy Marshall, and Eric and Denis Atkinson) while still in school. He scored 63 on debut against Trinidad, and followed it with 66 against British Guiana and 80 against Jamaica. Meanwhile, forced to seek employment, Hunte took up a job as a teacher, and later joined the Civil Service as an Accounts Clerk before shifting to life insurance — and finally deciding to become a full-time professional cricketer.
The strength of the West Indian side in the 1950s meant that it was very difficult for Hunte to break through. However, after a domestic season average of 88.00 in 1955-56 (including innings of 151 and 95 against a strong EW Swanton’s XI), Hunte was a definite contender for the national squad. His financial conditions, though, made him take up a job in a cotton mill in Lancashire, and tried to break it through to the Lancashire League. As a result he was not even considered for a national call-up, and ended up playing for Enfield Cricket Club instead. He also contemplated playing for Kent, but then decided against it – to give himself a better chance to play Test cricket.
Despite playing for West Indies for several years later on, Hunte had an excellent relationship with Enfield, turning out for them for six consecutive seasons when most professional cricketers typically switch clubs for better financial opportunities. Hunte’s record number of runs in the 1959 season for Enfield still stands.
The incredible start
He missed the entire 1956-57 domestic season. However, with a superb 70.60 in 1957-58, he could not be kept out for much longer: indeed, he had to be called up to the Test side in 1958-59 – to play against Pakistan.
Making his debut in front of his home crowd at Kensington Oval, Hunte opened batting with Kanhai. He hit the first two balls of the Test (from Fazal Mahmood) for fours, and easily outscored the Guyanese, who scored 27 in an opening stand of 122. He added 87 more with Sobers and 57 more with Everton Weekes, and he eventually scored 142 in 300 minutes with 17 fours out of a team score of 266. The Test, however, was immortalised by Hanif Mohammad’s marathon 337, and Pakistan managed to pull off an incredible draw.
After an indifferent Test at Queen’s Park Oval, the teams moved to Sabina Park. After Pakistan scored 328 and Kanhai fell for 25, Sobers joined Hunte with the score on 87 for one. What followed next can only be classified as carnage. After Nasim-ul-Ghani and Mahmood Hussain were virtually ruled out midway through the Test, Sobers and Hunte plundered runs at the expense of the only three fit bowlers.
They butchered the Pakistan attack mercilessly, and the fifty-run partnership segments kept coming. Hunte had scored a single Test century till then, and Sobers — none. They easily bettered their personal bests, and raced each other to the various milestones.
Then, with 446 runs of the partnership up, and the world record 451 (for any wicket) between Don Bradman and Bill Ponsford in sight, Hunte was run out. He had scored 260 with 28 fours and a six. In Hunte’s own words, “The fielders were tired, but I did not remember that Ijaz Butt was the substitute. He was fresher than the others and I was run out by a direct hit.”
Sobers carried on, though — setting a new world record score of 365 not out, and Clyde Walcott joined in the fun with a powerful 88 not out. West Indies declared at a ridiculous 790 for 3, and won by an innings and 174 runs. The 446-run stand still remains the highest partnership for any wicket for West Indies.
Hunte, by now, was unstoppable, when Pakistan set West Indies a target of 317 for victory at Bourda, Hunte scored 114, adding 125 with Kanhai and 135 with Sobers, setting up West Indies for an eight-wicket victory and a series win. Pakistan fought back in the final Test at Queen’s Park Oval, with Fazal Mahmood dismissing Hunte in the first ball of the Test, but Hunte scored a dour 45 in the second innings. As mentioned above, his career took off with 622 runs at 77.75 and three hundreds.
The middle years
Though Hunte kept on scoring runs, he did not score another hundred for three more years. He was not at his best in a series in India that West Indies dominated, and played only a single Test in the Pakistan series that followed. He did a decent job in the home series against England with 291 runs at 41.57, but the form of his debut series still evaded him.
Things changed after that, though. As Frank Worrell assumed the role of captain, Hunte was appointed his deputy – and the first series turned out to be the Australia tour of 1960-61, considered by many as the greatest series of all time.
Hunte scored 24 and 39 in the tied Test at Brisbane, but became a part of cricket folklore for an entirely different reason. With three runs to score from three balls and two wickets in hand, Wes Hall steamed in. Ian Meckiff, with his eyes closed (by his own admission), had a wild swipe towards deep mid-wicket. As the ball slowed down in the long blades of the untrimmed grass, Hunte swooped down and threw the ball so accurately that Gerry Alexander did not have to move at all. The eighty-yard throw did the trick, and Wally Grout was run out. The rest, of course, is history.
Hunte came good in the next Test at Melbourne, finally scoring his fourth Test hundred. While following on, he kept on losing partners, and scored a 249-ball 110 out of a team score of 233, though he could not save a seven-wicket defeat.
He scored two more fifties in the series, and ended the series with 377 runs at 37.70. However, being a deputy under Worrell and certain other personal experiences made him find a new perspective in his general attitude towards life, and changed him as a person forever.
There was a hilarious incident in the Adelaide Test, though: Kanhai called wrongly for a single, and Hunte was run out by Frank Misson. When Hunte saw Kanhai dejected by his own error, he went to comfort him, and then walked back to the dressing-room in a rather pensive mood. Suddenly brought back into his senses by a loud outburst of laughter, Hunte realised that he had actually walked into the crowd through a gate that was located a long way from the pavilion.
After yet another indifferent home series against India (once again, no three-figure score), Hunte was selected for the England tour in 1963.
The second peak
In his first innings on English soil, Hunte held out against an attack comprising of Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, and Fred Titmus. He scored a 485-ball 182 with 27 fours, and helped West Indies amass 501 for six and eventually win by 10 wickets (fittingly, Hunte hit the winning runs).
After a 42 in the historic Lord’s Test (where Colin Cowdrey walked out to bat with a broken hand), Hunte did not score a lot of runs in the series till the sides reached The Oval for the final Test with West Indies leading the series 2-1, and requiring a draw to win the Test.
After England scored 275, Hunte counterattacked from the very beginning against Trueman, Statham, Tony Lock, and Derek Shackleton, and scored a rapid 80 out of a team score of 152 during his stay. West Indies folded for 246 (with Hunte top-scoring) — and England eventually set them 253 for a victory with over two days to spare. On a turning pitch, Hunte added 78 with Willie Rodriguez, 113 with Kanhai, and an unbeaten 64 with Basil Butcher — and guided West Indies to a comfortable eight-wicket victory to seal the series.
Hunte finished the series with 471 runs at 58.87 with two hundreds. His tour statistics read a more than impressive 1,307 at 44.09 with three hundreds, and as a result he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1964. However, after Worrell retired at the end of the series, Sobers was chosen captain ahead of Hunte, which greatly disappointed the latter. He even contemplated a resignation from his post, but eventually decided against it.
Back home, Hunte continued his fine form, this time against Australia: though he did not manage a single hundred, he scored 41 and 81 at Sabina Park, 89 and 53 at Queen’s Park Oval, 31 and 38 at Bourda, 75 and 81 at Kensington Oval, and one and 60 once again at Queen’s Park Oval. In all, he scored 550 runs with six fifties, and averaged 61.11 with the bat, and was easily the best batsman — both in terms of runs and average — from either side.
Picked for the 1966 tour of England, Hunte scored only 243 runs at 30.37 (though he still played a sparkling innings of 135 at Old Trafford), and eventually visited India for what would turn out to be his last tour.
The Calcutta Test
Hunte began the series by scoring 101 and 40 at Bombay, and followed it up with 43 at Calcutta, and 49 and 26 at Madras. He finished the series with 259 runs 51.80 — a fitting end to an otherwise excellent Test career. However, an incident from this series –— in the Calcutta Test — has etched Hunte’s name in the annals of cricket forever.
On New Year’s Day 1967, the authorities sold a lot of forged tickets in the black-market – as a result of which 80,000 spectators were allowed entrance to the stadium instead of the capacity of 59,000. The spectators spilled on to the ground, and made their way to just outside the boundary lines.
So far, so good. The spectators, despite the corrupt mismanagement of the organisers and the primitive facilities at the ground, had behaved themselves in a very well-disciplined manner, holding themselves back. However, when the police attacked the spectators who had stepped inside the arena and began a lathi-charge, things began to take a really murky look.
When a veteran called Sitesh Roy was severely injured, the crowd erupted. They hit back at the police, and set fire to whatever they could find. The players ran out of the stadium, and the West Indians, playing in an alien land, ran in all possible directions around Eden Gardens.
What followed next has two different versions, but both bear testimony to Hunte’s character. Hunte, renowned as a man of great morals, saw the fire approaching the West Indian flag. He risked his life, climbed the terrace of the pavilion, and rescued the flag. Hunte’s autobiography, Playing to Win, mentions something else, though.
Hunte mentions that he had tried to climb the flagpoles to rescue both flags (yes, no Indian cricketer had attempted to rescue the Indian flag), a local policeman stopped Hunte and retrieved both flags himself. What the public saw was a dark-skinned man in all-whites (which was also the uniform of Calcutta Police) rescuing the flags from the fierce fire, and decided to believe in the more romantic version. The policeman still remains unnamed. However, it is a tribute to Hunte’s character that he had decided to admit the truth in his autobiography.
He retired from all forms of cricket later that season despite being in a very good form and with no proper replacement in the horizon.
Life beyond cricket: MRA
There was more to Hunte, though, than the cricketer. As mentioned above, the 1960-61 tour of Australia was a turning point in Hunte’s life. When Worrell asked his teammates to build up good relationships with the locals, Hunte impressed all and sundry by his oratorical skills, which would turn out to be a major influence in the West Indian dressing-room.
It was on this tour that James Coulter, a local journalist, took Hunte to watch The Crowning Experience — a movie based on the life of the coloured American teacher Mary McLeod Bethune. The movie was promoted by Moral Re-Armament (MRA) — an organisation created with the sole purpose of building up ethical values in the society, and influenced Hunte deeply.
On his way back home, Hunte met Dickie Dodds, an Essex cricketer and an MRA member. Dodds would turn out to be a mentor who would change Hunte’s philosophy towards life. He vowed to return the £10 he had stolen on an earlier trip, and led a life of absolute honesty, purity, sanctity, and love. It was due to his newly-acquired philosophy that Hunte came to peace with Sobers’ appointment as West Indian captain. Peter Short, Manager of the West Indies side, told “Many people talk about Christianity. Conrad Hunte lives it.”
He tried to spread his philosophy inside the dressing-room, often by leaving notes around, but though it worked in the beginning, it gradually bored the team, as per Sobers. The players often pulled his leg and made fun of him. However, despite all this, it could not be denied that Hunte was the conscience of the side, and represented the morality of the team as well as the island nations they represented.
Whenever Hunte was not busy playing cricket, he volunteered on behalf of MRA. He eventually gave up cricket to devote his entire life to MRA (the fans wanted him to play on, and interpreted the acronym as ‘More Runs Available’, but Hunte was not to budge).
He had settled down in London, but left for Atlanta in the late 1970s, and spent 12 years there — not only as an MRA missionary, but also as the Honorary Consul for Barbados. He also met his wife Patricia here.
Mission to Africa
As the walls of apartheid began to disappear in South Africa with the release of Nelson Mandela, Hunte approached Ali Bacher and offered to serve South African cricket in general. He helped spread cricket in the townships with indigenous African residents, and promoted inter-racial bonding. He also became the manager of the South Africa women’s team that toured England in 1997.
He was funded by both the International Cricket Council (ICC) and Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), and worked as a National Development Coach for seven years, and extended his mission to several other countries in Africa. The plan was originally meant for ten countries located to the south of the Sahara Desert, but it soon increased to six more. This included even the volatile Uganda in the mid-1990s. Hunte accepted the extra burden with a smile, with the words “We always need to light a candle for the world, in times of darkness there is a need for a friendly light.”
If the standards of African teams — which also includes South Africa — have developed through the 1990s and the new millennium (both in terms of cricket standards and harmony), a lot of it can be attributed to Hunte. Bacher, in his praise, commented “I’ve never met a better person. I have never heard him speak ill of anyone.”
Return to West Indies
Hunte was recalled to his homeland in 1998 by the Barbadian Prime Minister Owen Arthur to work as a Consultant in the Ministry of Youth and Culture. In the same year he was made a Knight of St Andrew (KA) of the Order of Barbados — the highest honour.
He was persuaded to — and elected as — the President of Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) in 1999. A month later, when Malcolm Marshall had passed away, he acted as one of the pall-bearers. Less than a month later, Sir Conrad Hunte passed away after a heart-attack on December 3, 1999 while playing tennis in Sydney — when he was due to speak at an Australian MRA conference.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)