Masters of the art: how the two of VS Naipaul and Sonny Ramadhin met

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A week after his teenage son Vidiadhar left for England to pursue his ambition of becoming a writer in 1950, Seepersad Naipaul visited another teenager who had left the village of Trinidad the same year and was wreaking havoc in England. The elder Naipaul, who would later write painful letters to his son who would be gripped by doubts about his writing ambitions and sink into depression, would recount the visit. An impressed Vidia would urge his father to send the article to London newspapers as Ramadhin was “known to everyone in England, and very few knew anything of his past”.

Ramadhin was then 19 years old and was erasing the post-colonial wounds of the Caribbean people, with 20-year-old bespectacled spinner Alf (red) Valentine, charging the West Indies with their first major triumph at Lord’s over the English. Together they took 59 wickets in the series, Ramadhin knocked out 11 for 152 at Lord’s, and West Indies would win a historic series 3-1. Cricket was no longer a game from then on in the Caribbean who relished the advantage of their colonial masters. Especially since several of them had only recently left on the ship Windrush to work in England, and would be melancholy known as the Windrush generation.

“When Ramadhin’s arm came up to play bowling, they couldn’t tell if the ball would spin left or right, go straight, stay low, lift or disappear into the air,” his friend, the judge Ralph Narine, beautifully captured the mystical effect years later. It was Narine who met the shy teenager at Waterloo station shivering in a “brownish overcoat” in the cold April wind. It was the English who felt his chills across the open cricket grounds.

From beyond

Back home, Naipaul Sr took two pictures of the house Ramadhin had grown up in and typed up a story for The Sunday Guardian, the newspaper he worked at. He captured vignettes that moved his son: A loving grandmother who worried about Ramadhin’s shyness and her desire for him to get married soon. The orphan boy who grew up in the care of his grandmother and aunt Sumintra and uncle. The improbable setting of the village where, in the words of Naipaul Sr, there was more chance of finding a cricketer in “Timbuktu than Hope in Trinidad”.

In the years to come, when he was in India to play cricket, Ramadhin would talk about how his grandfather was from Uttar Pradesh. He was a descendant of indentured labourers, snatched from India by the English, who worked east of Trinidad in the sugar cane plantations and agricultural estates. A few decades ago, history teacher David Trabolay, who was also from the neighborhood before moving to the United States, met the aunt who explained how Ramadhin played with bats carved from coconut palms and a ball rubber pressed from Rubber shafts.

In his academic paper for the College of Staten Island, written with obvious love for his subject, Trabolay recounts a story told by the aunt. “Once, when Ramadhin responded to his uncle’s request to help him work the garden that he was going to play cricket, his uncle joked, ‘How are you going to make a living out of cricket?’ To this Ram replied, “You’ll see, Dad, I’m going to make a living with this”. Not just his uncle, but everyone in cricket would be watching.

English chapter

England was the country where he would soon settle, playing in the Lancashire leagues until he was 55, marrying a local girl and running a pub for twenty years and it all started as a dream in 1950. The literary critic James Wood once described VS Naipaul as a “writer of conservative but radical outlook”; Ramadhin’s bowling was radical.

Long sleeves buttoned at the cuff, a cap perched permanently on his head – rumors swirled that he would touch her as a signal for his broken leg to the wicketkeeper but was then crushed by him like a mere natural tick, he was the one of the first mysterious spinners the world had seen. Few people knew what he was playing then; even in Trinidad as he and Valentine were snatched from near-anonymity for their potential to confuse the English. In the late 90s, in an interview with The Daily Mail, he admitted that he had thrown away some of his deliveries – his long sleeves, no wonder, became the official dress code for mystery spinners with a slight crease in the arms.

At Lord’s he bamboozled the English, taking 11 wickets and entering at least three calypsos and a magnificent poem. The most famous calypso was sung by Lord Kitchener who sang on the set “…. At Lord’s where I saw him, Yardley did his best, Goddard won the test… With my little buddies, Ramadhin and Valentine. A lesser known, Norman Span alias ‘King Radio’, happily launched: ‘Give the ball to Ramadhin’. Later, the Trinidadian poet Cecil Gray raved in a poem titled “Sonny Ramadhin”: “The ball is ‘an orb empowering us’…. The name of Ramadhin made pride swell in our veins”.

The veins probably contracted a bit on Ramadhin’s next set, the Australia tour. He picked up a five-for in Brisbane but wasn’t as effective on the hard courts where the Australians designed attack as their best form of defence. He was back to his best on the next New Zealand tour on grounds that suited him better. He was tackled well by the Indians in the 1953 West Indies series, where leg spinner Subash Gupte caught the eye, including that of a Caribbean lady who would become his wife. Years later, as Shane Warne baffled drummers’ minds with his seductive artistry, Ramadhin would say Gupte was better.

Demystification

The denouement of Ramadhin began in 1957 in England through controversial but legal means. Just like the Bodyline. Ramadhin had brought out seven Englishmen in the first round of the first Test at Edgbaston, but subterfuge awaited the man known for his deception in the second round. Peter May and Colin Cowdrey, in particular, faced much of Ramadhin’s 98 overs, adding 411 carries in eight hours and not only nullifying it with the piece of wood in their hands. May counterattacked him (Ramadhin would call him years later the best drummer he ever played with), but Cowdrey chose to push him away. Until the bullets turned into his stumps.

At that time, a batsman could not be off Lbw even if no shot was offered to balls likely to hit the stumps as long as the point of impact was outside the stump. The day’s reports also focus on more than little help Cowdrey has received from England referees. Even England’s 12th man in that game and one of the first wide-eyed supporters, Johnny Wardle, was moved to comment later:

“I could have mourned him. If he appealed 50 times, at least 30 were plumb, even from the pavilion. It was a total outrage, really. Shortly after, CLR James, the Marxist thinker and cricket writer, ranted about the “long-range defensive thrust, negative bowling”, as “specialist performer techniques (professional or amateur) in a safety-conscious age” and called these players, “the welfare state officials.

The wise chiefs of cricket would much later amend the LBW law, allowing umpires to rule out batsmen even if they were hit outside the line of the ball if they failed to play a stroke. Years later, fellow CLR James Jimmy Adams would still find a way to make a living in the welfare state. The law change, however, likely came too late for Ramadhin, who entered his final round after this streak.

He had one last hurrah in the 1959-60 home series against England, collecting 17 wickets from four Tests, just behind Wes Hall’s 22. He played the famous linked Test in Australia in 1960, was injured soon after, and wonderful spinner Lance Gibbs came out of the shadows from the next Test.

Years later, in 2011, Charlie Davis, a West Indian drummer who averaged over 50 in Tests, regaled a few of us reporters with Gibbs at a drunken night out at the bar at Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad. Davis, a teetotaler and delightful storyteller, recounted how he once asked former player Conrad Hunte about Rohan Kanhai’s success while touring England. ‘Charlie, Rohan is a good player, what did you expect?’ Davis recounted Hunte’s comments before adding, “That’s the best compliment I’ve ever heard from player to player. ‘Good player.’ Shortly after, when he told a self-deprecating story about how he couldn’t choose Ramadhin’s bowling at all – it was Ramadhin in his late 40s, well after his retirement, Gibbs said, “Charlie, Sonny was a good player, what did you expect?!”

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