“He was three years older than me and already a very fine cricketer who seemed destined to become even better. He was more than just an accomplished batsman, having scored big 100s against England and Australia. He was also developing into a very good off-spin bowler. I am serious when I say that he had the potential to be a top class all-rounder, probably one of the world’s best.” – Sir Garfield Sobers
On September 6, 1959, Collie Smith, Garfield Sobers and Jamaican medium-fast bowler Tom Dewdney met after their respective Lancashire League games and were all set to travel through the night to London to take part in a charity match the following day. But fate had different plans. At around 4.45 that morning, Sobers was in the driver’s seat, and it so happened that he was confronted with two dazzling headlights coming straight towards him leaving him no time to react. That was all, Sobers says, he could remember about the collision that followed. It was later learnt that the car they were travelling in had run head-on into a 10-ton cattle truck. Once out of the daze, Sobers immediately went to check on Collie, but the latter responded by saying “I’m all right, Maan. Go look after the big boy (Tom).”
Three days later, on September 9, 1959, Collie was declared dead due to a severe damage to his spinal cord. He had lapsed into unconsciousness after the horrific accident, and one of Jamaica’s favourite sons was no more. He was already an accomplished player by then, having scripted terrific centuries against formidable sides like England and Australia. Sobers, in his autobiography, reckons that Collie would have been among the top players in the world had he not been taken away by that fatal accident. But on that day, the dreams of the Jamaican people and that of Collie’s had indeed come to an abrupt end.
“There should have been four of us making the journey south on that fateful night. We were waiting for Roy Gilchrist,but after an hour or more we gave up and decided to make our way to London without him. Such is the fickle finger of fate. Had we left on time or had we waited for a little longer who knows what might have happened. But there is no turning the clock back,” Sobers writes.
During the mid-1950s, Collie was a fierce competitor and a good enough cricketer, adept in both departments of the game. A strong Australian side toured the West Indies in 1955, and Collie scored centuries in both innings for Jamaica playing against some of the best names in the world. Jamaica was reeling at 81 for five in response to Australia’s mammoth 453, and this is when Collie decided to take charge and plundered 169 against an attack that featured names like Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Richie Benaud.
Later, during the first Test at Sabina Park, which also happened to be his debut, Collie went on to score 44 in the first innings and essayed another poetic ton in the second. Nevertheless, owing to a poor bowling performance, the West Indian side lost the first Test by nine wickets. He was dismissed for a pair in the next Test and was eventually dropped, but it wasn’t long before he staged a comeback.
Two other innings of his remains etched in the memories of cricket lovers from that era. One is the knock of 161 during the Edgbaston Test of 1957 against an English line-up consisting of Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Tony Lock and Collie’s idol Jim Laker. The other ton at Trent Bridge during the same year is reminiscent of his innings for Jamaica against Australia. After England amassed 619 for six in its first innings, the West Indians found themselves in troubled waters at 89 for five. At this juncture, Collie walked to the wicket and smashed his career-best score of 168 to take his side to the shores of safety.
Collie played his last Test for West Indies in March 1959 against Pakistan, a match his side went on to win by a huge margin of an innings and 156 runs. He scored 31 with the bat and dismissed Saeed Ahmed. He was a regular feature in the leagues in England thereafter.
Off the field, Collie was Sobers’ closest friend and best adviser. “He was so jovial and such a good fellow, we hit it off straightaway. It was wonderful rooming with him, and we quickly became firm friends. We were good company for each other. We would lie on our beds talking through the night, confiding in each other. We were so close, like brothers,” Sobers writes in his book.
After that accident, Sobers was apprehensive about playing at Sabina Park in Jamaica, which was Collie’s home ground. But he couldn’t have been more mistaken about his fears, as the Jamaican crowd showered him with tremendous support throughout his stay at the crease. They understood the grief he felt and mourned with him.
A crowd of 60,000 is believed to have attended Collie’s funeral in Jamaica. That speaks volumes of how popular he was back then. The people believed in his ability. After the three ‘Ws’ - Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott – had graced the stage for West Indian cricket, it was perceived that another trio in the form of Sobers, (Joe) Solomon and (Collie) Smith would take the cricketing world by storm. Sadly, the dream was short-lived.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)