Hooper: Return Of The Prodigal Son
West Indian cricket has suffered its worst period in living memory over the last nine months, with cumulative returns of a solitary victory against eight losses on consecutive tours. The fact that these were tours of the Ancient Enemies, England and Australia, has only made the purgatory harder to bear for the West Indies faithful.
Unfortunately things promise to get no easier in the immediate future. The formidable South Africans come to town bearing the reputation of being the second best team in the world, with some partisans even claiming they are as good as the Australians that just demolished the West Indies 5-0.
And in this period of turbulence and despair, of strife and famine as it were, the cricketing world might witness the playing out of a Biblical Parable in real life: The Return of the Prodigal Son, Carl Llewellyn Hooper!
Indeed, "prodigal" was always an adjective associated with Hooper. Perhaps one of the most supremely gifted cricketers of his generation, Hooper was a more than useful off-spinner, and maybe the best slip fielder in all cricket, with remarkable reflexes and prehensile fingers. His batting could be a thing of remarkable beauty - technique, grace and sublime timing somehow seemed to reside in perfect. And yet his batting was often heartbreaking as well, for he always seemed to contrive to throw his wicket away just as he was looking at his best.
One of few batsmen sufficiently gifted to be at complete ease against a destructive Waqar as well as a rampaging Warne, Hooper somehow became for a while a veritable "bunny" against the medium-paced offerings of Steve Waugh! Eighty Tests brought him a mere nine centuries and an average of 33.76 - a figure, his fans would tell you, which was a good 20 runs per innings less than his talent deserved.
The last glimpse the world caught of Hooper in West Indian whites was nigh on two years ago, in the final test of the home series against Australia. His final dismissal, sadly yet somehow appropriately, was leg-before to the up-and-down bowling of Greg Blewett as the West Indies lost and conceded the slim 2-1 lead they had so stunningly crafted earlier in the series on the back of maybe the two best back-to-back innings in Test match history from Brian Lara.
Hooper walked away from international cricket after this game, at the relatively young age of 32. This was where the parallel with the Prodigal Son diverged - he did not leave to "waste his substance with riotous living", but rather to take care of his ailing child with his wife, in her native Australia.
There did indeed arise "a famine in the land", however - the once-mighty West Indies lost two out of two Tests to New Zealand, three out of five to England, and five out of five to Australia.
With both mother and child now in good health to start this year, Hooper felt confident enough to return to competitive cricket. He made himself available for international cricket again after a two-year absence, and set out to earn his way back to the test team with performances at the domestic level in the Busta Cup.
And how! The erstwhile Prodigal Son is a wastrel no longer - instead, at the crease, he has shown a remarkable hunger for runs. Leading his native Guyana from the front, he started his season with a blazing 159 against Barbados (with no one else managing fifty). A relative lull followed - 15 and 66 against the Leeward Islands and 39 against England A. But then the hunger for runs asserted itself again - 98 against West Indies B, followed by 142 and 11 not out against Trinidad.
He has also contributed with the ball (13 wickets at 30.46 - two of which were earned bowling medium-pace while opening the bowling!), and with his captaincy (leading Guyana to the joint lead for the Busta Cup).
In the current round of matches he has kept up his amazing run of form. With Guyana in early trouble chasing 350 for the vital first-innings points against Windward Islands, Hooper responded with 128 of the best to enable Guyana to pile up 425.
After seven matches in the Busta Cup, Hooper has no less than 786 runs at an average of 98.25! Both figures are, by some margin, the best in the competition.
With all the woes West Indian cricket has suffered of late, Hooper's return is wonderful news. While the accent in West Indian cricket must be on young talent to build the future, it is rarely good policy to fill the team entirely with callow youth - without some sort of experience at the helm to guide them the younger players often sink rather than swim. And with the pool of talent in the Caribbean much shallower than it was in the glory days of Yore, West Indian cricket cannot afford to lose talented young players for any reason - especially not due to setbacks and destroyed confidence as a result of untimely exposure.
What Hooper brings to the table at this stage might well be crucial - experience, form and veteran leadership in an increasingly fragile middle-order; much improved catching in the slips (where the West Indies have slipped terribly in the past decade); and a useful fifth bowling option who offers variety and change of pace in an attack that cried out for both in Australia.
And, with Hooper, there is also, of course, the possibility, The Promise, that maybe, just maybe, a supremely gifted young man has faced the harshness of life, and matured. That the Prodigal Son has truly returned. And that, this time around, he WILL do justice to his immense abilities.
It will make for fascinating viewing, and long-time fans of Hooper in particular will watch with bated breath.