A legendary fast bowler and noted for his genial spirit, Wes Hall later played the roles of a selector, manager and even Board President, while also becoming a minister in both the political and religious senses of the word. Arunabha Sengupta pays tribute to the big man with a great heart who recently became only the second genuine bowler to be knighted for his services to cricket.
Wes Hall used to bowl with a pace like fire – a phrase that went on to etch itself on glossy dust jackets as the title of his autobiography.
With one of the longest run ups in the history of the game, he bounded to the wicket – a sight of terror. Six feet three inches tall and proportionately wide, all of it sinew, he steamed in with the gallop of a long-jumper. His eyes bulged, teeth glinted, the characteristic crucifix flew ahead propelled by the hurtling pace. Finally came the leap accompanied by arms flailing about as in a cartwheel, and the ball was released at well over 90 miles per hour.
Many batsmen of the day perhaps imagined a trail of fire as he approached, and they can all be forgiven. As CLR James put it, “Hall merely puts his head down and lets you have it, and it’s pretty hot.”
First with Roy Gilchrist and later with Charlie Griffith, the Barbadian formed fearsome combinations, precursor of the Caribbean pace machinery of the 70s and 80s. Clayton Goodwin summed his action with the words: “The picture of Wesley Hall in full flow, as he ran towards the wicket, is still treasured in the memories of all but the opposing batsman—and maybe in theirs as well.”
While his pace could clutch the heart of batsmen in cold fear, teammates and opponents vouched that intimidation was the last thing on his mind. Ted Dexter, who had been pummelled by his express deliveries often enough, recounted, “There was never a hint of malice in him or in his bowling.” And when Wally Grout had his jaw broken by one of his lifters, no one was more heart broken than Hall himself.
While he was frighteningly quick, he could also move the ball about in the air and off the wicket, a ploy he often used in the subcontinent. After blowing the Indians away in his debut series in 1958-59, in the third Test of the series against Pakistan that followed, he became the first West Indian bowler to take a hat-trick.
A tale of two Tests
However, about 50 years before the knighthood, his name and fame were perhaps immortalised by the two fantastic Test matches in the early 60s.
During the Brisbane encounter of 1960-61, which eventually ended as the first-ever tie in the history of Test cricket, he had sent down 17 eight-ball overs on the final day before bowling the sensational last one; in which three wickets fell – including two run outs.
One and a half years later, in a most delightful Test match at Lord’s, he bowled unchanged through the 200 minutes of a truncated final day. He had overslept and had been fed just two hard boiled eggs by captain Frank Worrell, and he went on and on, bowling 40 overs to finish with four for 93 as the match was drawn with one wicket to fall and six runs to score - a display of sustained willpower, adrenaline and relentless pace.
Yet, this same day brought to light some of the more vulnerable sensibilities in the big man. When Brian Close started walking down the wicket as he approached to deliver his fiery thunderbolts, Hall stopped in his tracks, like a rabbit caught between headlights; and walking towards mid-off where captain Worrell stood, he finished on his knees, disbelief and confusion in his eyes. No one had ever done this to him, and more importantly, he did not want to hurt the batsman. It took all of Worrell’s genius in man-management to send him back to his bowling mark.
The man within the six foot three inch frame
True, Hall was much more than just a fast bowler. He was a lovely human being during his playing days, and has remained so ever since. His endearing camaraderie and zest for life secured a place in every heart. The Australian commentator Johnnie Moyes described him as “a rare box-office attraction, a man who caught and held the affections of the paying public”. CLR James sketched him in less commercial and more human strokes, “Hall simply exudes good nature at every pore.”
Wear and tear on his body – from the years of fast bowling and a couple of accidents while driving as fast as he bowled – eventually saw him limp off the field for the last time in 1969. His final tally remains an impressive192 wickets at 26.38 apiece.
Never a batsman of note, but always an entertaining one in his brief outings at the crease, his one and only First-Class century came at Fenners, against Cambridge University, and delighted the cockles of his happy heart. “Ah, but it wasn't any old hundred,” Hall would say, “it was against the intelligentsia.”
After cricket, Hall became involved in Barbadian politics, joining the Democratic Labour Party. In 1987 he was appointed Minister of Tourism and Sports in the Government of Barbados.
“You think my run up was long. Now you should hear my speeches,” he used to quip about his new vocation.
He also played the roles of a selector and manager of the West Indian cricket team and even became the Board President.
In 1990, the versatile man stepped into a new dimension altogether, a divine one. He “made a very serious decision to give heart and life to God”, attending Bible school and was later being ordained a minister in the Christian Pentecostal Church.
In a heart-wrenching partnership of two of the scariest fast bowlers of two generations, Hall ministered fellow Barbadian Malcolm Marshall while the latter lay dying from colon cancer.
Prolonged wait for knighthood
The knighthood in 2012 perhaps took way too long to come and can hardly be called a just reward for a great fast bowler with a great heart. Many fellow West Indians had already been touched by the royal sword before him – worthy men all, but none would have refused to admit Hall’s claim to the honour. Conrad Hunte, Garfield Sobers, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes and Viv Richards have preceded him from the islands, a conglomeration of greatness and, predictably, all redoubtable wielders of the willow. (Lord Learie Constantine was knighted in 1962, primarily due to his work as a lawyer, politician and diplomat.)
Indeed, after Alec Bedser, Hall becomes only the second cricketer noted for his accomplishments with the ball alone to be asked to arise as knight. Like the great Sir Alec, he too had to wait more than four decades after his last Test match to be conferred with the honour.
However, it is unlikely to bother him. As another knight, the late Sir Frank Worrell had once pointed out, “Unlike most fast bowlers, (Hall) discusses cricket in all other terms except the first person singular. There is not the least trace of egotism in the man.”
With geniality and religion mixed in his soul in a refreshing spirit, Sir Wesley Hall will probably cherish the late honour with grace, humility and happiness.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)