Sylvester Clarke: The meanest of the West Indian quicks
Sylvester Clarke’s career statistics don’t do justice to his ability © Getty Images
The mean, snarling Sylvester Clarke was born on December 11, 1954. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a Surrey legend who was one of the most intimidating bowlers in history.
Andy Roberts was the shrewdest of them; Michael Holding, the fastest; Joel Garner, the most accurate; Colin Croft, the most unorthodox; Malcolm Marshall, the most versatile and greatest of the pack. They were all greats of the era, combining to take West Indies to heights they had never known.
But the meanest of them all? That had to be Sylvester Theophilus Clarke.
Clarke was your archetypal Bajan: there were no holds barred, whether on the field or off it. He lived life the way everyone dreams of doing; and he bowled fast the way everyone wanted to. Tall, strong, muscular, Clarke hit the deck hard, generating bounce; fierce enough to trouble the greatest of batsmen.
Few fast bowlers could bowl bouncers as lethal as Clarke did. It was not the normal short-pitched ball that sailed past your head, no. It often rose steeply off a good length at an unreal pace, often with the intention to hit the batsman; and even if the batsman somehow managed to evade the monster, his confidence would have been shattered by the time Clarke was on his way back to the bowling mark.
That was just one of his bouncers. The other, the more unorthodox one, pitched well outside the off-stump and came in at a screaming pace towards the batsman’s face. It was the ‘unleavable’ (for lack of a better word) delivery; the more the batsman tried to move away from the ball the more steeply it came back into him. Dennis Amiss referred to it as the “trapdoor ball”.
It was not that he relied on only pace and bounce. Once the batsman was shaped up, the next ball would often be a screaming yorker aimed at the toes, or a pitched up delivery that moved away at the last moment to take the edge or jag back to crash into the timber. Even the greatest of batsmen feared him. Lesser batsmen did not stand with a chance.
There were accolades from all greats. In the mid-1980s, Garry Sobers had called Clarke the fastest contemporary bowler; David Gower had made it quite clear that he had not faced anybody faster than Clarke; and Viv Richards had admitted that Clarke was the only bowler he had felt uncomfortable batting against.
The brutal bouncers bowled with an unusual action – especially in the County Championship – meant that Clarke’s action came under question with several countries questioning his faster ball. However, on a close inspection of the tapes, Dickie Bird gave Clarke a clean-chit; he was never called in a match either.
The Cricketer wrote that the batsmen who had faced the monster bowler “speak in similar awe of his ability to generate frightening pace and steep lift from a relatively short, ambling approach and an ungainly, front-on delivery.” Wisden called Clarke “as clinically fearsome as any of his contemporary colleagues.”
“Like the Jamaican Roy Gilchrist in the 1950s and his fellow Bajan, Charlie Griffith in the 1960s, [Sylvester] Clarke’s weaponry was based more on sheer menace than technical accomplishment. This was an old-fashioned, skull-cracking, batsman-loathing fast bowler, one who threatened not only a batsman’s wicket but his very life,” wrote The Guardian.
In one way, he was the exact antitheses of Holding: he was never really the ‘Whispering Death’ that the Jamaican was. Every footstep was audible as he thumped closer to the stumps, intimidating even the batsman at the other end. “As soon as you heard his foot banging down, you knew it was going to be really quick,” said a teammate later.
He also had an unusual habit of targeting the tail-enders when they frustrated him. Always generous at dishing out bouncers, Clarke got a bit too incensed when the tail hung around. Even if the poor batsmen backed away towards square-leg leaving the stumps exposed, Clarke targeted them with brutal hostility, more keen on getting them physically out of the way than anything else.
Bouncers were quite acceptable in Sylvester Clarke’s world. On one occasion when he was warned by the umpire for bowling an excess of short-pitched deliveries, he simply turned back to the umpire and said in his deep voice: “Dis no ladies’ game, maan.”
Despite Clarke’s on-field hostilities, Alec Stewart – one of his Surrey teammates towards the fag end of his career – said that Clarke “was one of the nicest blokes I had ever met”.
Despite his talent, Clarke missed out on a long career – mostly because his days coincided with the giants of West Indian fast bowling. He finished with only 42 wickets at 27.85 from 11 Tests (nine of which were played in the subcontinent) and 13 wickets from ten ODIs at 18.84 with an economy rate of 2.80. One can only imagine how many wickets he would have finished with had he got a proper run.
In an illustrious First-Class career spread over 238 matches, mostly for Surrey, Clarke had picked up 942 wickets at 19.52; he had 59 five-fors and ten ten-fors. He had also scored 3,269 runs with a hundred and five fifties. Just like his contemporary, the Middlesex legend Wayne Daniel, he had to remain content with his achievement at the next-best level.
Sylvester was born to Ashton and Marjorie Clarke in Lead Vale, Christ Church (in Barbados; not to be confused with Christchurch in New Zealand). He had a half-brother, the Bajan fast bowler Roderick Estwick, who was six years younger to him. The unusual middle-name, Theophilus, “is the name or honorary title of the person to whom the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are addressed,” as per Wikipedia.
Clarke attended St Bartholomew Boys’ School, got trained as a carpenter, and started his career with Kent, a club in Bridgetown. Breaking into the Barbados side in that era was difficult. However, Clarke soon attained a reputation as a hostile fast bowler and made his First-Class debut in a Shell Shield match against Combined Leeward and Windward Islands at St Lucia at an age of 23. Vanburn Holder entrusted him with the first over, and he finished with a solitary wicket.
In only his third match – against Trinidad and Tobago (T & T) at Kensington Oval – Clarke picked up six for 39 and four for 86. In the first innings, a furious spell saw T & T being skittled out for 158 from 97 for one. He also took a hat-trick with the wickets of Randall Lyon, Inshan Ali, and Desmond Baptiste.
Clarke did not do well in the tour match the Australians played against Barbados. Opening the bowling with Daniel, he finished with one for 89 as Craig Serjeant and Bobby Simpson thwarted the hosts. However, with the big guns all having signed up for Kerry Packer, West Indies had six debutants for the third Test at Bourda in the form of Alvin Greenidge, Basil Williams, David Murray, Sew Shivnarine, Norbert Phillip, and Clarke. He had only five First-Class matches under his belt at that point.
There was not much pressure on the debutants: West Indies had won the first two Tests by convincing margin; all the youngsters needed to do was to keep up with the momentum. They did not have a good start when Jeff Thomson and Wayne Clark bowled them out for 205, but they struck back.
Alvin Kallicharran, the new captain, brought Clarke on first-change after Phillip and Holder. In a short burst, he trapped Gary Cosier leg-before and followed by clean bowling Serjeant for a duck. He eventually finished with three for 58, Phillip had four more, and Australia were restricted to a 153-run lead.
Hundreds from Williams and Larry Gomes meant that Australia had to chase an unlikely 362 for victory. Clarke, once again coming on first-change, removed Rick Darling, David Ogilvie, and Simpson in a short burst, reducing the tourists to 22 for three; Graeme Wood and Serjeant then added 251, and Australia chased down the target against all odds with three wickets in hand.
Clarke also made his ODI debut against the Australians that season at St Lucia. He was fast and accurate and finished with one for 15 from seven overs, but Australia scampered home in the very last ball. Unfortunately, an injury forced Clarke out of the last two Tests, but he made it to the tour of India later that year.
A lost battle in India
Seldom had the Indians faced pace and bounce of Clarke’s quality, and they were certainly not happy to be at the receiving end. Central Zone were blown away in the opening tour match at Indore: they had at least managed to reach 130 in the first innings; in the second innings Phillip (five for 34) and Clarke (five for 16) bowled unchanged to bowl the hosts out for 51 in 16.3 overs.
The Indians, however, were ready with dead pitches for the Tests. Despite the unfavourable conditions, Clarke bowled his heart out in the first Test at Bombay with figures of four for 98, but Sunil Gavaskar’s 205 (in his first innings as full-time captain) saw the hosts to 424. Kallicharran’s 187 gave the tourists a 69-run lead, and the Test petered out to a draw.
Things were not a lot different on the flat track at Bangalore. Entrusted with the first over, Clarke had Gavaskar caught by Shivnarine off the very first ball of the Indian innings. However, dogged performances from most other batsmen helped India to a safe place. Bowling his heart out, Clarke picked up five for 126 – the only five-for of his career. Bowling first-change on debut, a 20-year old – still raw and in the making – picked up a wicket as well. He went by the name of Malcolm Marshall.
Clarke did not have much of an impact in the third Test at Calcutta, but was back to his best in the fourth Test at Madras. After the tourists were bowled out for 228, Clarke and Phillip ran through the Indian line-up. Clarke removed Dilip Vengsarkar for a duck and picked up three more wickets – including Gundappa Viswanath for 124 – to restrict the hosts to a 27-run lead.
West Indies failed again; this times only Gomes putting up some resistance as they were bowled out for 155. Clarke provided the initial breakthroughs once again, dismissing Gavaskar and Vengsarkar (again for a duck) with only 17 runs on the board. Despite the valiant efforts of Clarke, Phillip, and Holder, India reached home with three wickets in hand.
The last two Tests were drawn. Clarke did not create much of an impact at Delhi, and missed out on the final one at Kanpur. Despite playing a Test less, Clarke finished with 21 wickets at 33.85 – a decent return on dead surfaces. He finished only next to Karsan Ghavri in terms of wickets. On the entire tour, he returned a haul of 33 wickets at 26.54.
Back for Pakistan
Despite his success, Clarke was dropped when Roberts, Holding, Garner, and Croft made their way back into the side. With Marshall also on the rise, Clarke, just like Daniel and a few other promising speedsters of the era, fought hard to make their way back to the side, but could not. It took him close to two years to make a comeback, that too when Roberts was rested and Holding injured.
Clarke had a decent series in Pakistan on the second leg of the tour. After West Indies were bowled out for 235 at Faisalabad, Clarke provided the initial burst once again, removing Taslim Arif and Zaheer Abbas with only two runs on the board, and later accounted for Javed Miandad. Pakistan never recovered, conceded a 59-run lead, and lost by 156 runs.
By now the big guns had returned, but Clarke was still retained as the first-over bowler, ahead of Croft, Garner, and Marshall. Clarke finished with a match haul of 26-10-41-6 in the next Test in the rain-affected third Test at Karachi. Clarke finished the series with 14 wickets at 17.28, leading the averages table from either side.
The fourth Test at Multan was generally an eventless draw, but Clarke managed to make the headlines for the wrong reasons. There were already several umpiring decisions that had gone against the tourists, and a fuming Clarke (he had finished with two for 42) was cooling his heels at deep fine-leg.
Under the influence of what they must have thought as good humour, the spectators had been throwing small stones, among other objects, at Clarke, mostly missing him. The outburst came when an orange actually hit Clarke: he picked up a brick used to mark the boundary and hurled it at the spectators.
The brick hit a 22-year old student called Shafiq Ahmed (Phil Edmonds later wrote that the brick “probably swung in late and viciously before hitting him on the head”); the crowd retaliated, pelting Clarke with more ‘objects’. Play was held up for 20 minutes. It took a prayer (Kallicharran actually knelt down at the spot in front of the crowd) to get the Test going.
Shafiq had to be rushed to the hospital with a severe head injury and had to undergo an emergency surgery. Clarke visited him along with the tour manager Jackie Hendriks and apologised, which was duly accepted.
As usual, Clive Lloyd came to the defence of his man: “It’s an unfortunate incident. I don’t know if it’s the wrong type of people who are watching sport these days. [Sylvester] Clarke might have lost an eye from a stone. He is sorry about it. We are all sorry about it. But regardless of the provocation, we have got to behave ourselves.”
Jack Bailey, the International Cricket Council (ICC) Secretary, who was present at the ground, was not amused. He called the incident “a most unfortunate happening” while describing the incident to the West Indian Cricket Board. As a result, Clarke was banned for three matches. The ban could not have come at a worse time: Clarke had already been selected ahead of Holding against a touring England, but had to be left out. Holding never looked back.
Clarke was offered a Surrey contract in 1979. The first match against Cambridge University at Fenner’s Ground was washed out after 11 overs of play, and play was called off after Lancashire batted for only 12 overs in the next match at Old Trafford. Clarke got to bowl, and finished with figures of 6-4-2-2 when the match was over.
Finally getting a chance to bowl longer spells, “Sylvers” picked up 15 wickets in his next four innings. He eventually finished the season with 43 wickets from 11 matches at 17.60 with three five-wicket hauls, and won a Surrey cap next season.
Clarke played for Surrey for nine seasons from 1979 to 1988, missing out only in 1975. In these matches, he picked up 591 wickets at 18.99 with 37 five-fors and six ten-fors. Not only did he manage to run through one opposition after another, but he also intimidated them out of his way.
He broke Graham Gooch’s helmet into two; he took the top of Gower’s glove with one of his snorters; when a batsman hit him back he did not sledge: he simply looked back. The look was good enough to send a chill down the batsman’s spine. According to Mike Selvey, “his glare could freeze hell”.
He picked up two hat-tricks during his tenure: against Nottinghamshire at The Oval in 1980 he dismissed Paul Todd, Derek Randall, and Clive Rice in successive balls. He repeated the feat against Essex as late as in 1987 – his Surrey benefit season – at Colchester: this time he removed Alan Lilley, Gooch, and Keith Fletcher, and two balls later, had Paul Prichard as well, thus making it four wickets in five balls.
A special performance came in 1981 against Glamorgan at Swansea. Malcolm Nash (of 36-an-over and 34-an-over fame) bowled out Surrey for 131, but Clarke struck back with six for 66, restricting the hosts to a one-run lead. Clarke walked out to join Jack Richards with the score on 166 for seven.
The hundred – the only one of his career – took only 62 minutes. He hit eight fours and seven sixes, reducing Richards to a spectator. The innings won him the Walter Lawrence Trophy that year.
The unexpected comeback
With Marshall recovering from a back problem, Clarke was selected for the 1981-82 tour to Australia. He played the second Test at SCG when Roberts was injured. He picked up a solitary wicket for the cost of 76 runs. With a fit Roberts returning for the next Test at Adelaide, Clarke was dropped for good. He never played another Test.
He played in the Benson & Hedges Cup, though. In seven matches he picked up ten wickets at 17.70 with an economy rate of 2.75. In fact, he played in all four of the best-of-five finals (West Indies won 3-1), and picked up nine wickets at 11.89, narrowly missing out on the Man of the Finals award. He never played another One Day International (ODI) either.
Though Roberts was clearly on his way out, Marshall had come up to fill his shoes. Daniel was still around, and Winston Davis had also arrived. In end-1982, Clarke accepted an offer to go on a rebel tour to South Africa for two seasons. Married with three daughters, Clarke did not have a proper profession to support his family, and like many others he agreed to Ali Bacher’s proposal. He, like all other Test cricketers, was promised $120,000 (the others were paid $100,000 each). In the process, he earned a lifetime ban from international cricket.
These were among the strongest rebel sides to have toured South Africa. Led by Lawrence Rowe, the teams consisted of the likes of Kallicharran, Croft, Clarke, David Murray, Bernard Julien, Franklyn Stephenson, Collis King, Faoud Bacchus, and Ezra Moseley. In the second “Test” at New Wanderers, Clarke returned figures of five for 66 and seven for 34 to secure an easy victory.
In the next season, Clarke played in all four “Tests”, picking up four five-fors. In the fourth “Test” at St George’s Park, Clarke won the Man of the Match award with figures of five for 36 and five for 32. A star-studded host side was blown away twice in the same match: in the second innings, they collapsed from 66 for two to 127.
During the second season, Clarke was offered a contract by Transvaal. He had an excellent season, finishing with 49 wickets from ten matches at 18.26. In the next, he played ten more matches with a haul of 58 wickets at 12.72 (including a spell of 11-5-8-5 to bowl out Northern Transvaal for 61 in the Currie Cup final at Pretoria). He was named a South Africa Cricket Annual Cricketer of the Year in both seasons.
Thereafter, he continued to play cricket in both England and South Africa. He later shifted to Orange Free State, and towards the end of his career, to Northern Transvaal. He eventually quit after 1989-90, finishing with one for 26 and five for 46 in his last match against Orange Free State at Bloemfontein.
After retirement, Clarke returned to Christ Church, playing club cricket actively. He also acted as a practice bowler in the nets for visiting team – who often found them quicker and more hostile than any of the contemporary fast bowlers in the West Indian national team.
Clarke had started to feel unwell in 1999; towards the end of November, he had a check-up with his wife Peggy and was declared fit. He had played without an issue for his club, Crusaders, in November as well. Then, on December 4, 1999 he suddenly had a heart-attack while at home, collapsed, and passed away rather unexpectedly. He was seven days short of his 45th birthday.
Marshall had passed away exactly a month back; Clarke had attended his funeral. A day before Clarke’s death, Barbados had lost another hero in Conrad Hunte. “It was estimated that [Sylvester] Clarke’s funeral was the best-attended of the three,” wrote Wisden. The locals had forgiven him for the rebel tour, after all.
In 2005 Surrey declared that sections of the newly rebuilt Vauxhall End of The Oval will have sections named after 20 of its legends. Barring Saqlain Mushtaq he was the only overseas cricketer to have been thus honoured.
(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 Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)