Rohan Kanhai was my favourite tourist even before he arrived here with the West Indies team in 1957. It was a matter of pride. My reputation was on the line. Back then cricket news – especially about the Caribbean - was hard to come by for schoolboys in rural Kent. Yet by having had the foresight to buy a copy of The Cricketer on a rare trip to London I had got to know of the hitherto unknown young Guyanese batsman’s outstanding good form in the quadrangular tournament the preceding winter and told my friends what they could expect in the coming Tests. I had done by part, and now he had to do his.
The scorebook shows that Rohan Kanhai didn’t quite do that – though neither did anybody else, Frank Worrell excepted, that desperate summer. Nor, however, did he fail to make an impression. With his youthful good looks, and distinctive jutting hair, that was inevitable. We were sure he would have fared even better with the bat if he hadn’t been burdened unjustly with keeping wicket as well as opening the innings when the specialists in those positions failed.
A close-up view – and exchange of a few words? (if my memory serves me right) – in the morning knock-up before play at Canterbury convinced me that he was indeed a star for the future. And so it proved to be. When he scored big he scored very big – and always with panache and a sense of enjoyment in what he was doing - including 256 against India at Calcutta, 217 against Pakistan at Lahore, then a defiant 110 in completely different mood in defeat to England at Port of Spain, and then a cascade of runs in Australia, including 252 against Victoria and a century in each innings in the Test at Adelaide. That was stardom written big.
By the series in 1963 we had both come a long way in those six years. I achieved my first by-line to a cricket report in the Second Test at Lord’s. Actually I was there as a Hayter’s messenger but, the day after afterwards, the editor of New Contact, a small and very ephemeral UK West Indian magazine, hearing that I had been an eye-witness to one of the most exciting matches of all time, asked me to pen a report. (To hand in my copy and receive the payment of £3 I had to go to a room above a club on Gerard Street, Soho, knock and ask for Carmen, an attractive young West Indian lady. But that is another story). Rohan Kanhai (he was inevitably given the two names in those days), too, had an important part in that series by playing what I still consider to be the most influential innings I have seen in a Test Match.
The 3-1 margin of victory for West Indies masks just how closely the rubber was contested. The teams came to the Oval for the final Test with the series 2-1 (1 drawn), but England went a long way to squaring the account by taking a first innings lead of 29 runs. West Indies started the fourth innings needing to score 253 to win on a pitch beginning to take spin against an attack which included Tony Lock, whose aggressive bowling had wrecked them twice for under three figures in the previous Test they had played there.
Make-shift opener Willie Rodriguez served his team well in staying with Conrad Hunte until he was out at 78-1 just before lunch. The stage was set for Kanhai’s onslaught after the interval. He played just about every stroke in the book, and some that weren’t, as he stopped the bowlers from settling into any sort of rhythm. If this wasn’t the occasion of the well-known photograph of him lying on his back, having swept the ball to the boundary with his feet off the ground, at the Oval ….. well, it deserved to be. The match, and the series, was determined in those few minutes.
Statistically, when Rohan was out after hitting 77 in 88 minutes (10 fours and a six) in a 113 runs partnership there was still some way for West Indies to go to win. Realistically, however, the confidence had been so knocked out of the bowlers that the match was as good as over. As an act of determined destruction it has rarely been equalled – except, perhaps, by his Guyanese compatriot Alvin Kallicharran’s mugging of Dennis Lillee in the inaugural World Cup on the same ground twelve years later. Hunte and Basil Butcher competently took West Indies to a deceptively one-sided 8 wicket victory.
Rohan Kanhai continued to delight crowds wherever he played over the next decade whether it was for West Indies or Warwickshire, although as a Kentish lad I wasn’t quite so enthused by the latter. His innings always carried excitement and entertainment. Yet his battling to turn the tide with Butcher at Nottingham in 1966 and his contretemps with umpire Arthur Fagg at Birmingham during his captaincy in 1973 showed him as being much more than the maligned “calypso cricketer”. His leadership in that victorious three-match series, restored West Indies’ belief in themselves, after several rather anaemic seasons, and set up the springboard for world-wide dominance over the next twenty years.
When Mickey Stewart invited the entire press corps to lunch – there were only four of us – during under-19 match between England and West Indies at Old Trafford in 1993, a somewhat elderly man of Asian appearance and wispy grey-hair was already there looking out of the window. “Do you mind if Rohan Kanhai joins us?” Mickey asked and for the rest of that lunch-time I had this very successful cricketer – almost – to myself. If I had retained their numbers I would have phoned my former classmates to let them know how he had indeed come on in the world, but thanks to the modern media they would have known that already.
A short while ago I ran into a member of the small party of avid West Indies cricket fans in this country – yes, they do exist – just after he had attended a festival game at Milton Keynes. He related to me the conversations he had struck up with several former international players there including Frank Hayes …… who told him that there had been a batsman once with the same explosive power as Viv Richards, maybe more so – his name was Rohan Kanhai …..
“Do you know of him?” my friend asked. “Did you ever see him play?”