Kanhai, The Berbician Blaster

Norman Gonsalves
Date published: 

When Australia toured the West Indies in 1955 they were particularly impressed by the batting of the young Guianese wicketkeeper, Rohan Kanhai. This hitherto unknown player had blasted the great Australian fast bowler Keith Miller and his partners to all parts of Bourda, scoring an impressive half century.

He made a rather ordinary Test debut in England in 1957, and had another ordinary series against Pakistan in the Caribbean. It was in his next season, however, on the West Indies tour to India in 1959, that Kanhai bursted forth.

The famous Indian leg spinner Gupte was spinning webs around the West Indians, taking 16 wickets in the first 2 Tests, including Kanhai's 3 times. In the second innings of the second Test, while walking back to the pavilion after having just dismissed Kanhai, Gupte walked over to the young West Indian and said, "You are my bunny".

The next time the two met, in the first innings of the third Test, at Eden Gardens in Calcutta, Kanhai showed that he was truly West Indian. Gupte's taunt must have hurt his West Indian pride, for he tore into the Indian attack with such ferocity that by the end of the first day's play he was 203 not out - his first Test century. He carried on next day to 256, which remained the highest individual Test score in India until VVS Laxman made 281 recently.

Gupte's spirit was broken and the West Indies won the series handsomely. On the following tour, to Pakistan, Kanhai and his fellow West Indians couldn't cope with the matted wickets, and the Master of the Mat, Fazal Mahmood. They lost the first two Tests, but Kanhai hit a brilliant 217 in the third, which West Indies won by an innings.

A fairly good series for Kanhai followed in 1960, against England in the Caribbean. By the time the West Indies were ready to tour Australia at the end of 1960, however, Kanhai's reputation had preceded him, because of his exploits in the subcontinent, where Australians generally fared poorly, and because Keith Miller spoke highly of him at every opportunity.

Kanhai, and the West Indies, team didn't disappoint the Australians. The first Test was tied, Australia won the second by 7 wickets, and West Indies won the third by 222 runs. Kanhai hit a century in each innings to draw the fourth, setting up the most exciting fifth Test ever played in Test cricket. Australia barely won that by 2 wickets and a lot of luck, but West Indies had won the hearts of Australia. Over a 100,000 Australian fans lined the streets of Melbourne to bid Worrell's famous West Indians goodbye.

In England in 1963 Kanhai was the main batting attraction and Sobers the bowler everyone wanted to see. Several brilliant innings by Kanhai and Sobers were well received by the English fans and West Indies won the series. Kanhai continued to please fans everywhere, but in 1969 he had a poor tour of Australia, and asked to be rested. He returned in 1971, playing for the World XI against Australia in 1971/72, where he hit a couple of brilliant centuries against a rampant Lillee and Massie. After returning to Test cricket however, he soon lost his form and asked to be rested again.

By 1973, with West Indies cricket in serious decline, Kanhai was recalled to the Test team as captain. Carefully marshalling his fast bowlers Boyce and Julien, he led West Indies to a spirit-reviving series win in England. Kanhai retired from Test cricket the following year, with the West Indies on the rise. He appeared for the West Indies in the inaugural World Cup, and showed he was still capable of competing with the best.

In addition to his long Test career Kanhai played regularly for Guyana and English county Warwickshire. He also represented Western Australia and Tasmania in the Sheffield Shield. In 1974 he put on 465 with John Jameson for Warwickshire, the highest second wicket stand in first class cricket for a long time.

In 1975 Kanhai accepted an invitation by the Black South African cricket board to coach Black kids in South Africa, which caused him to fall out of favor with the Guyana government under Burnham, which was strongly anti-apartheid. In a time when the Burnham Guyana government showered many honors on Fredericks and Lloyd, Kanhai got no award whatsoever. Interestingly, he never got an award from the Jagan government either, but was employed part time by the state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation as a coach in his native Berbice.

Kanhai, however, was rewarded for his valuable contributions to West Indies cricket by other West Indian territories, notably Jamaica. He coached the Jamaican team with distinction for several seasons in the late 80's and early 90's. For this, and his contribution to West Indies cricket, he received Jamaica's second highest national award.

As coach and manager of the West Indies team in the early 90's he was credited with the development of Brian Lara's ability to play long innings. He, however, complained about disciplinary problems among the West Indian players, and relinquished the job.

Kanhai still appears at cricket grounds in the Caribbean, and always has that pleasant air about him. No wonder, for this great player of yesteryear always enjoyed his game, and always shared that joy with spectators everywhere in the world. Who else but a player that enjoys his game thoroughly would hook a bouncer with such relish that he often ended up on his posterior after playing the shot?