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The breathtaking Franklyn Stephenson was born on April 8, 1959. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at arguably the greatest cricketer not to have played Test cricket.
He hurled them as fast as any; he could knock a batsman over and flatten the stumps with equal ease; and the sheer sight of him at the top of the bowling mark sent a chill down the batsmen. He swung the bat merrily, getting the hapless fielders run for cover and making the bowler’s shoulders drop, only to applaud when he reached a landmark.
He played his cricket in the 1980s — the decade when all-rounders (four of the all-time greats, no less) dominated the world of cricket; he was as destructive as any of them with the bat or the ball; and yet, despite his immense talent, scorching pace, scintillating strokeplay, and charismatic presence on the field, he never played a single Test.
He was Franklyn Dacosta Stephenson: possibly the greatest cricketer who never played at international level — for a fault that was almost entirely his. But we will come to that later.
Watching Stephenson bowl was a treat for the sore eye: he ran in with an easy action, his arms dangling randomly on either side in one of the clumsiest run-ups ever; if the batsman looked relaxed, Stephenson would size him up with a screaming bouncer or two; then, once the man’s psychology was shattered, he would bowl possibly the finest slow yorker the world has seen. The batsman would never have an answer. Michael Atherton called him “the master of the looping slower ball”.
His Nottinghamshire teammate Mick Newell added: “Franklyn (Stephenson) was genuinely quick with an unusual action, bowled from wide of the crease, generated bounce and bowled a great slower ball. That slower ball got him an awful lot of wickets. It was quite high and dropped on the batsman and there were a lot of bowleds and lbws. It was a very different weapon to have and a superb contrast between quick and slow.”
Many a time have a batsman been fooled by ducking into a Stephenson yorker, only to see the ball crash into the base of the stumps while passing inches under their noses. Old-timers would remember the dismissal of Derbyshire’s Allan Warner in 1988: Warner had ducked very low, the ball went at an absurdly slow pace above his head, and dipped, ever so leisurely, to bowl him. It was a one-of-a-kind dismissal.
Often, after a long, tiring spell Stephenson used to turn to off-breaks: he bowled innocuously, and then, suddenly, without the slightest change of action, he would hurl a bazooka, the batsman had no answer to. He could also do it the other way round: bowl slow off-breaks with the long run-up with — you’ve guessed it right — no change of action.
The finest display of his guile and deception came in 1989 against Essex. Poor John Hardle had ducked to what he thought was a scorching bouncer: instead, it was a slow, over-pitched ball that pitched about a-foot-and-a-half outside off-stump and spun back to hit the timber. How does one play that?
The batsmanship was of utmost joy, playing drives and pulls and cuts and what-not with equal panache and power; bowlers across the County Championship circuit were scared to bowl at him. You could probably get him out, but when he was on song, the last thing you could have done was to contain him. “I’ve never respected bowlers. If I’m beaten I try to smash the next ball out of the ground,” Stephenson used to say.
Nor was he ever scared of the bouncing ball. Gloucestershire’s Kevin Curran had broken his nose with a bouncer: Stephenson had blamed himself, since “it was a bad shot, not really a hook, more a reflex paddle”. When physiotherapist Sheila Ball inspected the injury, the Barbadian giant told her “fetch a plaster and my helmet”.
You would expect a man of Stephenson’s stature to be grumpy or rude or caustic: fast bowlers, after all, are supposed to be mean. Not him: his bearded face welcomed everyone with the broadest smile under the Sun. He laughed, he had fun, he bowled fast, he hit hard, and played the sport the way it should have been.
In a career spanning tenure for Barbados, Tasmania, Sussex, Gloucestershire, Orange Free State, and most significantly, Nottinghamshire, Stephenson had played 219 First-Class matches. He had scored 8,622 runs at 27.99 with 12 hundreds and had accounted for 792 wickets at 24.26 with 44 five-fors and ten ten-fors. He was the all-rounder West Indies never had.
Stephenson was born in St James, Barbados. He worked as a waiter, and played for the Hotels team. He made it to the Barbados Under-19 team, toured England with the West Indies Young Cricketers side at an age of 19, and in the same season earned a contract to play for Staffordshire in the Minor Counties Championship. That season he signed up a contract with East Lancashire in the Lancashire League. In subsequent years Stephenson went on to play the League for Burnley, Rawtensall, Colne, Ramsbottom, and Rishton.
Tales from his exploits in the Lancashire League are aplenty. In his book In a Different League: Cricket’s North-South Divide Jim Carnegie wrote about his bouncers: “It was facing a scud missile. There was no escape, not even if you were an accomplished limbo dancer like the South African, Eddie Barlow.” Carnegie also added that Stephenson was “one of the nicest cricketers” he had ever met, but mentioned the “off the field” part as well.
Despite his exploits in England that season, Stephenson was never a contender for the Barbados side, let alone the national side. With Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Ezra Moseley, and Collis King in their side, Barbados hardly needed a fifth paceman. Stephenson ended up making his First-Class debut for Tasmania in 1981-82 at MCG.
The match was a proof that Barbados had the firepower to take on any contemporary national side: batting at nine he smashed a 24-ball 26 in characteristic style; he followed that with a spell of four for 27; then, as Victoria were chasing 180, Stephenson demolished them single-handedly with figures of six for 19. He had arrived.
With 30 wickets at 16.63 Stephenson came joint-second in the wickets tally that Sheffield Shield, next to only Ian Callen’s 31 (which came at 25.45 apiece). Batting at ten he smashed a 108-ball 90 against Queensland at Devonport as well. Barbados could not ignore him any longer: he made his Shell Shield debut that summer at Basseterre in Marshall’s absence.
Bowling first-change after Garner and Moseley he managed three wickets in the match, but it was the outrageous innings that made him rise to the limelight. With Andy Roberts spewing venom he walked out as night-watchman and treated the great Antiguan with disdain; he scored 165 out of the 230 scored during his stay at the stumps: there was no doubt whatsoever who the Man of the Match would be.
Despite the explosive onslaught he got to play only two more matches for Barbados that season, though he earned a contract with Gloucestershire that summer. From eight matches he bagged a haul of 32 wickets at 19.75: it was evident that a new star had appeared on the horizon.
Writing for The Advertiser, Adelaide, Robert Craddock had called the team that left the West Indian shores “the most hated West Indian side of all time. There was Alvin Kallicharran, there was Colin Croft, there was Lawrence Rowe, there was Sylvester Clarke, there was Bernard Julien, and among others, there was Stephenson.
The men were dished out a lifetime ban. Stephenson failed on both tours (1982-83 and 1983-84), but that was the least of his concerns. Much, much later, in an interview to The Advertiser, Stephenson maintained that he had “no regrets” for being a part of the tour. In fact, he felt that it was these tours that had changed the mindset of the South Africans.
He said in an interview to The Advertiser: “People were breaking into houses to steal tickets for our matches and I felt we started the change of thinking (in South Africa) that we (black sportsmen) were a lower form of animal. I still feel officials should apologise for banning us and I don’t believe West Indies cricket has ever recovered from it. They have been crap ever since.”
In another interview to CNN Stephenson said: “I knew the tour was more important than being just cricket. I believe that cricket can make a difference, and I’m going to be a part of that team.” His international career was over. He was 23.
The tours, however, made Stephenson emerge as person: life taught him several lessons; towards the beginning of the tour the tourists were scared to stand in the deep and even fielded with nine slips; then Stephenson braved it, a white child ran up and offered him a bottle of Coca-Cola, and the entire mood of the team changed. Later on the tour Stephenson was invited to a whites-only supermarket and was swamped for autographs.
Nottinghamshire and 1988
In the mid-1980s Nottinghamshire had signed up two of the finest all-rounders of the era in the form of Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee. Since the number of Championship games had been reduced in 1969 Hadlee had been the only other person to have achieved the 1,000 run-100 wicket double — in 1984. It was generally assumed that the feat will not be emulated anytime soon.
Quite a few eyebrows were raised when Stephenson — a banned West Indian playing in the Lancashire League — was handed out the Nottinghamshire cap in 1988. “One or two of the more vocal of the club’s supporters, in fact, were questioning the general manager’s sanity,” wrote Matt Halfpenny for the Trent Bridge official website.
Surprisingly, Stephenson was focused on the “double” before the season. In an interview to Halfpenny he said: “I’d assessed a full county season as 22 matches, and if I could count on doing well in 20, taking three wickets in the first innings and two in the second, I knew could get 100 wickets. If I showed the right discipline, I believed I could, perhaps should, average 25 runs per innings as well. Luckily, after two weeks out with that busted nose, I was able to locate the surgeon on his holiday, and get permission to remove the gauze. I was down to my 20 games.” The injury has been discussed above.
He had three ten-fors against his name that season — six for 44 and six for 59 against Derbyshire at Derby; three for 39 and seven for 56 (bowling unchanged) against Northamptonshire at Trent Bridge, bowling them out for 105 and 122; and four for 105 and seven for 117 against Yorkshire, also at Trent Bridge.
Stephenson went past the 100-wicket mark against Surrey at Trent Bridge in end-August. There were still three matches left in the season, and when he reached Trent Bridge to play the last match of the season against Yorkshire he was on 114 wickets — but still needed 210 for what seemed to be a near-impossible “double”.
Unfortunately for Yorkshire, Stephenson decided to have the match of his lifetime.
Yorkshire had started well, but a late surge from Stephenson restricted them to a formidable 380. Batting at six he amassed 111 as the hosts reached 296; then he tore through the Yorkshire batting line-up, picking up all seven wickets before Phil Carrick set Nottinghamshire a near-impossible 425 with a day and a half to bat out; Stephenson walked out at 83 for four.
Only Derek Randall stood with him as Stephenson batted with no respect whatsoever for the Yorkshire attack. He recollected when he eventually reached the “double”: “On 99 there was a huge cheer from the committee balcony and the members and it took me a few moments to figure out why. I was focused on winning a game – the rest was a lesson in acceptance of reality.”
He eventually scored his second hundred of the match, becoming the third (and the last till date) since Bernard Bosanquet and Geoff Hirst to score two hundreds and take ten wickets in a First-Class match. Surprisingly, these were his first hundreds since the 165 on his first match for Barbados.
Stephenson also remains the last person to achieve the coveted English season “double”. The 125 wickets he claimed for Nottinghamshire that season remain the second-best for the county after Bruce Dooland’s 136. Not only was he named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year that season, he also won The Cricket Society Wetherall Award for the Leading All-Rounder in English First-Class Cricket.
Though Stephenson did not reach the heights he had scaled in 1988 he continued to torment the players in the Championship for several years. He followed his 1988 haul of 125 wickets at 18.31 with 92 more at 18.77 in 1989; this included seven for 59 and a career-best eight for 47 against Essex at Trent Bridge. They remained his best innings and match performances.
He played a handful of matches at the Shell Shield the next summer, but failed in the summer of 1990. He did better in 1991, but it was nowhere close to his stupendous form in 1988 and 1989. He transferred to Sussex next season, and went on to play for Orange Free State in the South African summers, forming a dangerous opening pair with Allan Donald.
He had another excellent summer (752 runs at 27.85, 67 wickets at 20.07) in 1994, winning The Cricket Society Wetherall Award for the Leading All-Rounder in English First-Class Cricket yet again. He was also named the Sussex Cricket Society Player of the Year that Season.
Towards the end of his career Stephenson slammed a career-best 166 against Eastern Province at St George’s Park. He did not play in England that summer, but played for another season for in South Africa. In his last match, against Natal at Kingsmead, he scored three and one, and picked up a solitary wicket.
Stephenson took to golf after retirement, and keeping true to his reputation as a quality all-rounder, he became a professional at Sandy Lane Golf Club. In 2009 Stephenson became the first golfer to become the Extreme 19th Birdie (it has been done only once subsequently).
He currently runs and coaches at the Franklyn Stephenson Cricket Academy in Bennetts, St Thomas, Barbados.
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