Alphonso Roberts. (Photo Courtesy: Rooted Montreal blog)
Alphonso Roberts. (Photo Courtesy: Rooted Montreal blog)

Born September 18, 1937, Alphonso ‘Alfie’ Roberts, was the first Test cricketer from outside the quartet of Barbados, Trinidad, British Guiana, and Jamaica. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the finest ambassadors of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Shell Shield (later Red Stripe Cup, then President’s Cup, then Busta Cup, then Carib Beer Cup, and currently the surprisingly unimaginative Regional Four Nation Competition) had started in 1964-65. Till then West Indies cricket was dominated by four teams — Barbados, Trinidad, British Guiana (later Guyana), and Jamaica; breaking through to the Test side was a nigh-impossible for a player born in the smaller islands.

It was under these conditions that Alphonso Theodore “Alfie” Roberts came to forefront. Coming from St Vincent, Roberts played for Combined Windward and Leeward Islands. Only 7 of the matches he played were given First-Class status, in which he scored 153 runs at 13.90 without a fifty. In all recorded matches (30 of them) Roberts did slightly better, scoring 961 runs at 21.35 with a hundred.

Early days

Born in Kingstown, St Vincent, Roberts studied at St George’s Anglican School and St Vincent Boy’s Grammar School. He excelled at both cricket and football, and was awarded a scholarship at Queen’s Royal College at Port-of-Spain following a recommendation from Everton Weekes, later a great friend of Roberts.

A 17-year-old Roberts played for Windward Islands against the touring English side of 1953-54 at St George’s. He failed, scoring two before being run-out. A year later, playing against Trinidad at Port-of-Spain, Roberts top-scored with 74 out of Combined Islands’ 170.

He got another opportunity against a top-ranked side — for Windward Islands against the Australians at St George’s. Once again he top-scored, this time with 74, against an attack that consisted of Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Bill Johnston, Ian Johnson, and Jack Hill. Unfortunately, none of these matches were given a First-Class status. However, the 18-year-old Roberts was picked for West Indies’ tour of New Zealand in 1955-56.

At the highest level

Roberts struggled with the bat early on tour. His First-Class debut came against Auckland at Eden Park, where he scored 34 and one. He had a few decent outings, with 47 against Nelson at Trafalgar Square, 19 and 45 against Central Districts at Wanganui, and 31 against Hawke’s Bay at Napier. He top-scored in the final match as the tourists were bowled out for 105.

With West Indies already up 3-0 in the four-Test series, Roberts was selected for the final Test at Eden Park. At 18 years 173 days he became the fourth-youngest Test player for West Indies after Derek Sealy, Garry Sobers, and Jeffrey Stollmeyer.

Tom Dewdney (19.5-11-21-5) bowled with a lot of heart after John Reid chose to bat, but Reid himself stayed firm with 84; with some help from Lawrie Miller and John Beck he helped New Zealand reach 255. Harry Cave struck early in response, removing Bruce Pairaudeau, but the real blows came from Tony MacGibbon when he removed Garry Sobers and Weekes in quick succession.

Denis Atkinson joined Hammond Furlonge at 59 for 4, and counterattacked from the beginning. He scored a quickfire 28 in a 35-run partnership with Furlonge before Reid ran through his defence. Roberts walked out, and settled into a partnership for the sixth wicket.

Roberts defied the four-pronged seam attack along with Furlonge before the opener fell for a 211-minute 64. Roberts lost Alfie Binns and Sonny Ramadhin at the other end, and was eventually ninth out for 28 when MacGibbon ran through his defence. West Indies folded for 145. Furlonge, Atkinson, and Roberts were the only ones to reach double-figures.

Sammy Guillen (playing for New Zealand after starting his career with West Indies) top-scored with a 40-minute 41 as Atkinson ran through the tourists with 7 for 53. Set an improbable 268 for victory, West Indies were bowled out for 77: Weekes was the only to provide some resistance with 31; Binns (20) and Atkinson (10) were the only others to reach double-figures as New Zealand registered their first Test win.

Roberts was bowled by Don Beard for a duck. He scored 53 against New Zealand Colts at Palmerston North, but the match was not given First-Class status. He never played another Test, and finished the tour with a mere 137 First-Class runs at 19.57.

Trinidad, and back

He moved to Trinidad after the tour, where he, to quote Wisden, “Encountered criticism from some who objected to his selection ahead of local-born players.” Even his 96 not out for North Trinidad against South Trinidad at Point-e-Pierre did not make an impact. He also played a First-Class match against Barbados at Bourda, but scored a duck and 15.

Roberts moved back to St Vincent soon afterwards. “Trinidad was the great loser for missing such a great talent and yet so young,” lamented Stollmeyer. He did not do much with the bat, though. He scored a duck against the touring Pakistanis at Castries and in his final First-Class match, a mere one against MCC at St George’s.

Move to Canada

After working as a civil servant for four years at St Lucia a 23-year-old Roberts migrated to Montreal as a student. He studied at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University). His academic career flourished, but his inclination lay in politics — and he went on to play the role of an ambassador of the Caribbean to the world.

Along with luminaries like CLR James, George Lamming, Hugh O’Neale, Franklyn Harvey, Anne Cools, and Rosie Douglas, Roberts helped form Conference Committee on West Indian Affairs. They organised a series of conferences and events that would trigger significant political movements across the Caribbean.

Roberts toured several countries like Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Libya, Cuba, and Mozambique, as well as the erstwhile Soviet Union and other European countries to as a representative for the deprived. He also helped promote cricket and netball in the black community in Montreal. David Austin later wrote about Roberts’ stint in Montreal: “There he (Roberts) was instrumental in pushing forward the agendas of Black Power, political theory (with CLR James), and community.”

Later cricket stint

Alan Weedy of Wisden recounted an incident: Weedy and Roberts batted together against a touring New York team for Mount Royal in what Weedy called “the only match he (Roberts) played in Canada”. Though he had not “touched a bat in four years”, Roberts scored a half-century before telling Weedy “No, I will never play cricket again.”.

He also played a few matches for Grenada, including one against St Lucia at Castries where he scored 101 not out — his only recorded hundred — albeit not in a First-Class encounter. Then only 31, he added an unbeaten 50 in his next match, this time against Dominica at St George’s. In his last recorded match, against Dominica at Roseau, Roberts surprised everyone by picking up 2 for 67 — his best figures at any level.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Roberts remained loyal to his roots and helped found St Vincent and Grenadines Association of Montreal. On the eve of the independence of St Vincent in 1979 he insisted the small islands of the Grenadines should be treated the same way as St Vincent. The request was accepted by the new Government. The new country came to be known as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Final years and legacy

Roberts went on to become one of the luminaries of the Caribbean in his era. He passed away on July 24, 1996 of gall-bladder cancer at an age of 59. In January 1995 he was interviewed by Austin. The rather detailed interview was later published as a book called A View for Freedom: Alfie Roberts Speaks on the Caribbean, Cricket, Montreal, and CLR James.

It was published in 2005 by The Alfie Roberts Institute, an independent non-Governmental organisation responsible for hosting a substantial collection of work, both print and media, mostly of natives of Africa and Caribbean.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)