George Headley: The "Black Bradman"

George Headley: The "Black Bradman"

George Headley was perhaps second only to Don Bradman as a batsman in his playing days and, according to many, he remains in that position. He was hailed as "Black Bradman" and was not only a fantastic cricketer but also a symbol of hope for his people.

Updated: May 29, 2016 4:14 PM IST | Edited By: Arunabha Sengupta

George Headley, born May 30, 1909, was perhaps second only to Don Bradman as a batsman in his playing days and, according to many, he remains in that position. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the life and career of the man was hailed as "Black Bradman" and who was not only a fantastic cricketer but also a symbol of hope for his people.

The First World War was drawing to a close, and some young men were playing a game of rounders in a nondescript field in a distant Panama village. A young boy in his shorts, hardly eight years of age, stood in the corner of the field, watching with round-eyed curiosity, not really understanding what was going on. Suddenly, the ball was hit in his direction, and a voice inside him said that he had to catch it. Furthermore, he knew exactly how to. He ran, jumped and plucked it out of the air, leading the spectators to break into a spontaneous round of cheering. The men engaged in the game walked towards him and asked if he had played before.

"No." was the reply.

"Would he like to play in the big match due Sunday?"

"I would have to ask my parents," was the reply.

The father and mother were confused, but after being reassured there was nothing illegal about it, they agreed.  Little George Headley turned out that Sunday, with the instruction to stand at a certain place and catch whatever came his way. He ran, leapt, and caught spectacularly at a critical stage of the game. He was carried off on the shoulders of the other players, all the way back home, returned to the still bewildered parents with heaps of presents and loads of praise.

The prodigy

Headley’s father had been one of the hands behind the construction of the Panama Canal. It was the ambition of his parents that their son would go to the United States to study dentistry. Hence, a couple of years later, at the age of 10, Headley was sent to Jamaica, to be educated in English and not in the Spanish of his native Panama. Cricket found him as a wide-eyed kid in a strange new land, and the game never let him go from its clutches. He still wore his short trousers on the playing field when he emerged into serious club cricket.

In early 1928, the local cricket authorities were dazzled by a rare talent, and when Hon. LH Tennyson’s XI visited the islands, Headley was included in the Jamaican side. Against an attack led by the mercurial Northamptonshire paceman Nobby Clark, the 18-year old scored 16, 71, 211, 40 and 71.

The structure of West Indian cricket of that era ensured no further First-Class matches for a year before Julian Cahn brought his team to West Indies, complete with bowlers of the quality of Stan Nichols, Jack Mercer and Ewart Astill. Headley, not yet 20, started with 57 for Jamaica and ended with 143 for a West Indian XI.

None of these would have been possible if he had received his papers in time. Having migrated to the United States, Headley’s parents had sent across the required documents for Headley to come over and join them in that cricket agnostic land of opportunities and spend a lifetime filling cavities. Fortunately for the history of the islands and the game of cricket, the post was delayed. And Headley was allowed to discover his mission in life.

An unbroken saga of success

By the time Hon. Freddie Calthorpe brought over a strong English side to play just the second ever representative series featuring West Indies, Headley was an automatic choice. To put this in perspective we have to remember that the islands were yet to have a domestic competition. There was no centralised administration, and for each venue a different selection panel and a different captain were appointed.

As many as 28 players turned out for West Indies in the four-Test rubber. Along with Clifford Roach, Headley was the only one to play all the Tests. He scored 21 and 176 on debut at Barbados, failed at Trinidad with 8 and 39, roared back with 114 and 112 in a big win at Guyana. And finally, in the timeless Test at Jamaica, he registered 10 and 223. West Indies were on 408 for 5, chasing 836 for win, when the match was drawn by mutual agreement. Headley ended the series with 703 runs at 87.87. The runs had been plundered against Bill Voce, Nigel Haig, Wilfred Rhodes and Ewart Astill.

From then, till Second World War interrupted cricket, Headley strode the world as a genuine great from a fledgling cricketing nation. There have been brilliant players for weak sides starting out on their Test journeys, whose careers might have soared to great heights but were weighed down by the heavy misfortunes of their inexperienced teams. Headley had no such problems. Even the staunchest Australian and English critics hailed him as one of the greatest of the world, second only to Don Bradman; at par or, according to some respected opinions, even ahead of the great Wally Hammond.

Headley’s career was one continuous saga of success.  Even the all-conquering Australians could not master him. When West Indies travelled Down Under in 1930-31, Headley started with 25 and 82 against New South Wales and hit 131 against Victoria at Melbourne. West Indies lost by an innings, but old Hugh Trumble said that it was the best innings he had ever seen. And he had watched nearly fifty years of cricket.

Soon, word spread that Headley was a murderous batsman on the off-side. Clarrie Grimmett countered his strength by bowling the leg-side line, packing men on the on-side. For a brief while, the young master was confused, failing in a sequence of matches, including the first two Tests. In the third Test at Sydney, he started wristing it away against the spin between the men cluttered between short leg and mid-on. Bert Ironmonger and Grimmett skittled West Indies out for 193, but Headley remained unconquered on 102.

After four consecutive defeats at the hand of the strong Australians, West Indies finally won the fifth Test at Sydney — fortuitously aided by rain over the weekend. Headley struck 105 in the first innings. By the end of the tour, Grimmett certified him as the best player through the on-side. And the leg-spinner had spent a large part of his career bowling to Jack Hobbs and Don Bradman.

Yet, Headley’s supremacy was not limited to any particular aspect of batting. When he toured England for the first time in 1933 and struck 169 not out in the Manchester Test, A. Ratcliffe, writing in the 1933-34 Cricketer’s Annual, remarked: "His cuts off slow bowling were a strange sight. I had only seen such strokes once when [Frank] Woolley cut Roy Kilner repeatedly to the boundary."

Again, the lack of a First-Class system in West Indies ensured that Headley had to play most of his cricket between tours in the club matches or even fun outings in the parks. He held the spectators spellbound at all levels of the game. In between the Australian odyssey and the tour of England, Lord Tennyson did bring his side again to play a series of First-Class games. Headley faced them in 3 matches, scoring 344* in the first, 84 and 155* in the second and ending with 140.

When England visited in early 1935, Headley was subdued for the first few Tests.  Scores of 44, 0, 25, 93 and 53 read well enough against any other batsman, not for George Headley. With the series tied 1-1, the teams moved to Jamaica, Headley’s adopted home, for the final match. He batted eight-and-a-quarter hours to pile up an unbeaten 270, and then Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale whisked England out twice with hostile spells. West Indies had won their first ever Test series.

The next series Headley played was his last as a great batsman. It was the final tour before the Second World War, against Wally Hammond’s Englishmen in the summer of 1939. At Lord’s Headley demonstrated his exceptional class, negotiating Bill Bowes, Hedley Verity and Doug Wright to score 106 and 107, scoring hundreds in each innings for the second time in his Test career. None of the other West Indian batsmen scored 25. And in the last Test at The Oval, when he was run out for 65, there was not a man in the stadium who would have wagered against a century.

Symbol of Hope

When cricket was interrupted, Headley had played 19 Tests and scored 2,135 runs at 66.71 with 10 hundreds and 5 fifties.

Among team-mates who had played 5 Tests, the next highest average was Clifford Roach's 30.70. Headley had made 26.5 per cent of the West Indian runs of the period and had scored two thirds of their 15 centuries. Not even Bradman enjoyed this sort of lion’s share in his team.

It was not a stretch to say Headley was second only to the Australian great, he was indeed so by a very clear margin. There were many who vouched that when the clouds gathered, atmosphere turned murky, and skies opened up to make a sticky pudding of the pitch, Headley even outshone the great Australian.

All through the decade, Headley had been a symbol of hope for the black populace of the Caribbean islands.  Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley described him as "black excellence personified in a white world and a white sport".

Headley himself was conscious about his African roots in the proudest possible way. When he had entered Australia for the 1930-31 tour, he had put in 'African’ on the immigration. The dreams of the black communities rose with his soaring deeds. On coming across a photograph of a line of cricketers, Headley Among them, waiting to meet George VI, historian Frank Birbalsingh remarked: "That one of us —a black man — could shake the hand of a king introduced possibilities formerly undreamt of in our colonial backwater of racial inferiority, psychological subordination and political powerlessness."

Without any shred of doubt Headley was the best person to lead West Indies in terms of cricketing skills and acumen. All the West Indian captains during that period had, with their collective effort, managed to equal Headley’s number of half-centuries, but none of them had reached three figures. Yet, Headley and Constantine had to play under these white men of questionable cricketing pretensions.

Playing league cricket at Nelson, Lancashire, Constantine was vocal about this discrimination.

And after the War, Noel Nethersole, deputy leader of Jamaica’s People’s National Party, applied pressure on the West Indian cricket board for recognising Headley as the captain. The authorities relented for one single Test. Headley walked out to toss with England’s stand-in skipper Ken Cranston at Barbados in January 1948, in a landmark moment in the history of the black people. But, that one Test was all that he was appointed for. A perplexed Wally Hammond was led to remark, "Headley is by far the most outstanding player as well as the most experienced cricketer... and I do not see why he is not given unqualified control of the team for the whole series."

However, by now, Headley was 42, a shadow of the supreme batsman of the 1920s and 1930s. A back injury in the first Test ensured an amicable solution to all, forcing him to miss the remaining matches. Gerry Gomez led in the second Test and, from the third, John Goddard became the regular skipper of the team. The black man at the front had come and gone, providing a glimpse of change but little more.

The final Tests

Headley was chosen to tour India mainly due to a specific request by the Indian cricket authorities. But, after a failure in the opening Test, he hurt himself attempting a catch against a Pakistan XI and did not play in any further matches. He retired from Tests after that and moved to club cricket in Kensington and, later, Birmingham.

There was a final comeback, ill-advised and on public demand. Successful for Dudley in the Birmingham League, he kindled the expectations of the Jamaican public yet again. Hence, when Len Hutton’s Englishmen visited in 1954, a public subscription organised by Daily Gleaner raised £1,000 to bring him back to Jamaica.

Headley had his reservations, but public opinion won through. Playing in a fund-raising match for the Combined Parishes against MCC, he was hit on the hand by a rising ball from Fred Trueman. It made the Yorkshire fast bowler a villain in the eyes of the crowd. After missing a First-Class game because of the injury, Headley was back scoring 53 not out against MCC for Jamaica.  And he was included in the team for the first Test.

At the age of 45, Headley walked out to bat and scored just 16 and one. However, West Indies won the Test, and captain Jeff Stollmeyer scooped up hugely enriching portions from his august experience.

In the three post-War Tests played by Headley, he managed just 55 runs and it pulled his average down by six runs per innings. However, even then, 2190 runs in 22 Tests at 60.83 is a fascinating record, and stands third in the all-time list of averages of players with more than 20 Tests — after Don Bradman and Graeme Pollock. In all First-Class matches Headley ended with an average of 69.86, behind only Bradman and Vijay Merchant among those who played at least 50 innings. He scored a century every fourth innings.

The proof of his people

Small and compact, like all great players Headley was excellent off the back-foot, but was also blessed with incredible footwork to get to the pitch of the ball when required. He saw every ball early, out of the hand of the bowler, and revelled in playing as late as possible. Bowlers were often in the middle of an appeal, believing they had got past the bat, only to find the bat come down at the last moment to whisk the ball to the boundary. He was known to smack the first ball of a spinner straight back, and hit the sight screen on first bounce. He never pushed the ball, he hit them. And along with the quickness of feet, his bat-speed was also uncanny.

According to legend, Headley also placed the ball fully conscious of the exact position of not only fielders but their identities. Bowlers sending down long spells were made to chase distant balls deliberately, and often strokes were placed to perfection to make the fielder stretch and pull a muscle. He never pushed balls, but hit them. He played cricket as it was meant to be played, in all its glory of free attacking abandon.

While teammates often remained carefree during a match, Headley followed a meticulous process of preparation – which involved silence, and often chain smoking. It was said that during his walk from the pavilion to the crease, he would not recognise his father if he met him along the way.

Headley’s success in cricket was not just the case of amazing sporting laurels. It went far beyond that.

Everyone in West Indies basked in the glory of his feats, irrespective of colour or status. However, according to Michael Manley, "it was to the black masses that Headley had the deepest significance ... (Headley) became the focus for longing of an entire people for proof: proof of their own self-worth, their own capacity. Furthermore, they wanted this proof to be laid at the door of the white man who owned the world which defined their circumstances."

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at