Remembering Robert Christiani

Winston McGowan
Date published: 
Stabroek News

The receipt of news a few weeks ago of the death in Canada of Robert Christiani at the age of 84 was a source of sadness to older Guyanese cricket fans. This writer shared that sorrow for Christiani was my boyhood cricket idol and hero.

For this reason the British Guiana Cricket Club (B.G.C.C.) in Thomas Lands, for which he played in domestic cricket, became my favourite local club rather than the Demerara Cricket Club (D.C.C.), which was located in my immediate neighbourhood in Queenstown. I still remember the sense of excitement spectators, including myself, experienced whenever he came to the wicket. Among the spectators invariably was his mother, a dignified lady of small stature, who was a cricket fanatic and very knowledgeable where the game was concerned, a rarity for women in those days fifty odd years ago.

I still recall the pleasure Christiani gave me, but also the times of sadness, two of which stand out in my memory. The first was his failure in the Tests in England in 1950, when all the other specialist batsmen in the team achieved a batting average of over 40 runs an innings. Christiani, however, scored only 82 runs in his six innings, with a paltry average of 16.40 runs an innings and a sequence of 17 and 6, and 33 and 5 not out, 10, and 11.

His most productive innings in that series, 33 in the first innings of the second Test at cricket's headquarters, Lord's was a particular disappointment. Not out overnight, Christiani seemed on his way to a big score. Sadly, however, he was dismissed immediately on the resumption on the second morning, bowled by that great English medium-fast opening bowler, Alec Bedser. Christiani contributed little to that glorious historic occasion when the West Indies won a Test series in England for the first time.

My other sad memory of Christiani was his final Test appearance in February-March 1954 at Bourda in the third Test of a series against a formidable English team led by that fine opening batsman, Len Hutton, and including several other players of renown, such as Denis Compton, Peter May, Trevor Bailey, Jim Laker, Tony Lock and Brian Statham. Christiani had scores of 25 and 11 in a game which the Englishmen won easily by nine wickets.

This was a great disappointment to Christiani and his supporters, for he had been recalled to the team after a brilliant performance in the "Colony game" for British Guiana preceding the Test. In that game Christiani had two impressive innings of 75 and 82. The Test proved to be not only his final appearance for the West Indies, but also the last game of a first-class cricket career which had begun nearly 16 years before. In 88 games in that distinguished career Christiani in 142 innings scored 5103 runs, including 12 hundreds and 27 half-centuries, with an average of 40.50 runs an innings.

Robert Julian Christiani, or R.J. as he was fondly called by his many admirers, was born in Georgetown in July 1920. He is the best known of an outstanding cricket family, challenged only by the Wights - Vibart, Oscar, Norman, Leslie, Arnold and Peter - for the distinction of being the most successful family of Guyanese cricketers.

Robert had three brothers who were able cricketers - Cyril, Bertie and Harry. Cyril is still acclaimed as the best Wicket-keeper produced by Guyana. He represented the West Indies in all four Tests of a series against England in the Caribbean in 1935 - a historic occasion when the West Indies won a Test series for the first time. He was also a competent batsman, opening the batting in two of these four games. In the second game at the Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad in January 1935, Cyril's opening partner was the Maltenoes star player, Charlie Jones. He seemed destined for a long and successful career as a wicket-keeper-batsman. This, however, was not to be, for in April 1938 Cyril, Robert's older brother, died prematurely at the age of 24, a victim of malaria.

It was four months later, in August 1938, that Robert Christiani began his first-class career, representing British Guiana against a team led by the Trinidadian, Rolph Grant. His next two first-class matches were against Trinidad and Barbados at Kensington Oval in January 1939.

In this initial phase of his first-class career, Robert Christiani was viewed primarily as a wicket keeper, who had a measure of ability with the bat. In one game he was placed as low as Number Nine in the batting order. In his first eight innings in these regional matches he had scores of 14 and 3, 0 and 23, 1 and 30, and 58 and 6 - a total of 135 runs or an average of 16.88 runs an innings.

At this stage of his career Robert Christiani's wicket-keeping was much more impressive than his batting. In fact, he narrowly missed being selected at the age of only 18 for the West Indies primarily as a wicket-keeper for the tour of England in 1939, which was brought to a premature end by the outbreak of the Second World War that interrupted international cricket until 1946.

During the war, as will be shown in the second instalment of this article, Robert Christiani developed into a specialist middle-order batsman of quality. His fine performances for British Guiana during and immediately after the war enabled him to gain selection for the West Indies in its first Test Series after the war, against England in the Caribbean in 1948. This was the beginning of an international career that lasted six years and in which Christiani represented the West Indies in 22 Test Matches, until then far more than any other Guyanese cricketer.

Robert Christiani was easily recognisable on a cricket field. He was fairly tall (slightly under six feet in height), bespectacled (wearing thick lenses) and bow-legged. He was a very versatile cricketer. At the zenith of his career he was primarily a batsman - an attractive attacking right-hander who was a superb strokeplayer. He was known especially for his beautiful drives through the off-side, his fine hooking and his quick daring foot-working against spin bowling.

It is doubtful whether any other Guyanese or West Indies batsman of any era has advanced down the wicket to spin bowlers as far and as regularly as Christiani. Yet he was seldom dismissed stumped. The only occasion when this occurred in his Test Career was at Kensington Oval in Barbados in February 1953 in the second Test of a series against India. In both innings of that game he was stumped off the bowling of the wily wrist spinner, Subhas Gupte, for scores of 0 and 33.

In addition to his value as a batsman, Christiani was a brilliant fieldsman, especially close to the wicket on the leg side. He was also a useful leg-spin/googly change bowler, a competent wicket-keeper and a good team man.

At Test level Christiani's versatility was best demonstrated during the West Indies tour of India in 1948-49, the first encounter between the two teams. In the first Test at Delhi he not only made a century (107), but also took 3 wickets for 52 runs in 23 overs, dismissing three of India's leading batsmen - Modi, Hazare and Phadkar - as the home team struggled successfully to avoid defeat. In the third Test at Eden Gardens in Calcutta, Christiani was required to keep wicket when the regular stumper, Clyde Walcott, was injured. He performed capably, taking a catch and effecting two stumpings.

Robert Julian Christiani was born in Georgetown in July 1920 and died in Canada about a month ago. The first instalment of this article dealt with the beginning of his first-class cricket career in 1938 and 1939 just before the outbreak of the Second World War. It also outlined his attributes as a versatile cricketer. This second instalment will focus principally on his Test career from 1948 to 1954.

In the early phase of his first-class career Christiani was valued mainly as a wicket-keeper, though it was recognised that he possessed at least a measure of ability with the bat. It was during the Second World War, which interrupted Test cricket and severely disrupted Caribbean regional cricket, that Christiani developed into a fine specialist middle-order batsman, the most distinguishing feature of his career.

In the twelve matches in which he represented his homeland, British Guiana, during and immediately after the war, Christiani scored five hundreds and four half-centuries. The last of these hundreds was a brilliant innings of 181 in a drawn game against Jamaica at Bourda in October 1947, his highest score in first-class cricket in his entire career. In these twelve inter-territorial games between 1944 and 1947, Christiani scored 1265 runs in 24 innings with a good average of 52.70 runs an innings.

His exploits with the bat enabled Christiani to gain selection as a specialist batsman for the West Indies in its first Test series after the war against a visiting English team led by Gobby Allen. He made his Test debut at the age of 27 in the first match at Kensington Oval in Barbados in January 1948. There he failed by only one run to join that small group of cricketers who have had the distinction of scoring a century on their first Test appearance. Christiani was adjudged leg before wicket for 99 in the second innings and shed tears over the disappointment of not reaching the coveted milestone. Thus he gained the unenviable record of being the first West Indian cricketer to be dismissed for 99 runs in a Test match.

Christiani played in all four Tests of the series, thus emulating a feat performed in 1935 by his elder brother, Cyril, who kept wicket in all the matches of a series against England in the Caribbean. In short, Robert Christiani in 1948 becomes only the second Guyanese cricketer to represent the West Indies in all the games of a Test series. In the third Test before his home crowd at Bourda, he scored a delightful half-century (51 runs) before being caught brilliantly on the square-leg boundary from a hook, which initially seemed destined to produce six runs.

Christiani's next involvement in Test cricket was in India at the end of that same year in the historic initial clash between the two teams. In the first Test at Delhi in November 1948, he scored a century (107 runs), the first and only Test hundred of his career and the first by a Guyanese. He also created a record by becoming the first West Indian batsman to score a Test hundred, batting as low as Number 8. It was also the first occasion that West Indian batsmen had scored as many as four centuries in a Test innings, the other centurions being Clyde Walcott (152), Gerry Gomes (101) and Everton Weekes (128). Christiani's fine innings enabled the West Indies to achieve a mammoth score of 631, which at that time was its highest ever total in a Test innings.

Christiani also played a fine innings in the second Test at Bombay in December. Batting at Number 6, he made 74 of his team's massive total of 629 for 6 declared. He shared a fifth-wicket partnership of 170 with the Barbadian, Everton Weekes, who made the top score of 194 runs.

Christiani played in all five Tests of the series, which the West Indies won 1-0, with four games drawn. He finished sixth in his team's Test batting averages, scoring 294 runs in 7 innings with an average of 42.00 runs an innings. He was eclipsed by Weekes (111.28), the openers, Jeffrey Stollmeyer (68.40) and Allan Rae (53.42), Walcott (64.57) and the skipper, John Goddard (47.50).

Christiani was the only Guyanese in the West Indies team for the next encounter in England in 1950. The tour was one of mixed fortune for him. He failed dismally in the Tests, scoring only 82 runs in 6 innings with a highest score of 33 and a paltry average of only 16.40 runs an innings.

He was, however, very successful in the other first-class games, scoring four centuries. Two of them were undefeated knocks (131 not out and 100 not out) against the Middlesex county team at cricket's headquarters, Lord's. As knowledgeable a person as Frank Worrell is said to have described the second hundred, made out of a total of 148 for three, as "the best century I have ever seen."

Christiani's other two hundreds during the tour were 111 against Cambridge University and 130 against Northamptonshire. In spite of his failure in the Tests, he ended the tour with 1094 runs and an average of 45.58 runs an innings and was one of six members of the team to reach the coveted landmark of 1000 runs.

Late in the following year, 1951, Christiani was a member of the West Indies team which went to Australia for its next assignment. This was in reality a clash between the two top teams in the world - their first meeting since their original encounter 21 years earlier, in 1930-31 in Australia. As then, the West Indies lost this clash by four games to one, being unable on this occasion to cope with the excellent pace bowling of the Australian trio of Ray Lindwall (21 wickets), Keith Miller (20) and Bill Johnson (23).

Christiani played in all five Tests. He performed better than several of his more highly esteemed team-mates, including Weekes and Walcott, though he had only two good innings. In the second Test at Sydney he made 76 runs, the top score in his team's total of 362, but this effort was not enough to prevent the Aussies winning the game by seven wickets.

In the following Test at the Adelaide Oval in December 1951, Christiani made a major contribution to his team's single victory in the rubber by six wickets. In the crucial second innings he scored 44 not-out, including the winning run, sharing a vital unbroken fifth-wicket partnership of 92 runs with the Trinidadian all-rounder, Gerry Gomez. The pair, the two last recognized batsmen, came together when the West Indies, needing 233 for victory, were precariously placed at 141 for four, two wickets falling at that score.

In the series Christiani scored 261 runs in 10 innings, with an average of 29 runs an innings. He finished fourth in his team's batting averages behind Gomez (36.00), Worrell (33.70) and Stollmeyer (32.80).

After this series in Australia in 1951-52 Christiani, then in his early thirties and past his peak, lost the regular place, which he had commanded in the West Indies team since his debut in 1948. He represented the West Indies in only four Tests in its following three series against New Zealand abroad and India and England at home, before he retired from Test and other forms of first-class cricket in 1954. In those four matches he had a disappointing sequence of low scores: 3 and 3 against New Zealand, 4 and 33 and 4 and 1 not out against India, and 25 and 11 against England in his final Test and first-class game at Bourda in February-March 1954 - a meagre total of 81 runs in 8 innings.

In his entire career Christiani played 22 Tests, scoring 896 runs in 27 innings, including one century and four half-centuries, with an average of 26.35 runs an innings. This was a very moderate performance which Christiani's loyal fans, including this writer, would contend was not a true reflection of his ability.

This opinion is shared by many commentators, who usually attribute his moderate achievement in Tests to the fact that the presence in the West Indies team of several very gifted batsmen meant that Christiani usually batted very low in the order and often did not get the opportunity to produce a substantial innings.

As Bridgette Lawrence and Ray Noble observe in their valuable book, The Complete Record of West Indian Test Cricketers, "Robert Christiani was one of several players who had the misfortune to reach cricketing maturity at a time when the West Indies had a wealth of batting talent at their disposal...he had to compete with the likes of the three W's, Stollmeyer and Gomez...The plethora of gifted batsmen available...meant that he didn't come in until number seven and therefore had little opportunity to show his true class."

Christiani was also unfortunate in that at the peak of his career during and immediately after the Second World War, the West Indies were not involved in any Test cricket. The fact that he was a gifted batsman is, however, confirmed by the statistics for his entire career. In 88 Test and other first-class matches which he played between 1938 and 1954, Christiani scored 5103 runs in 142 innings, including 12 hundreds and 27 half-centuries, with an average of 40.50 runs an innings.

Christiani was the outstanding batsman for British Guiana during most of this period. In the 26 games in which he represented his homeland, he scored 2178 runs in 50 innings, including 6 hundreds and 12 half-centuries, with a commendable average of 45.37 runs an innings.

Christiani is probably the most versatile cricketer produced by Guyana. He was a fine middle-order batsman, a brilliant fieldsman, a capable wicket-keeper and a useful spin bowler.

He was arguably the finest batsman produced by Guyana in the first ninety years of Caribbean first-class cricket, i.e. between 1865, when British Guiana and Barbados contested the first two first-class matches in the region, and the emergence of Rohan Kanhai in 1955. His main rivals for this honour are Edward Wright, Hampden King, Maurius Fernandes, Peter Bayley, Bruce Pairaudeau and Leslie Wight. None of them, however, had Christiani's ability and acclaim, though Wight statistically had a better record.

Christiani had numerous historic achievements with the bat. In 1947, when he scored 181 against Jamaica at Bourda, he became the first West Indian batsman to score a century against the other three leading territorial teams in the region. Previously he had made two hundreds against both Trinidad (126 and 133) and Barbados (128 and 149).

Until 1953, when Pairaudeau scored a century (115 runs) on his Test debut against India at the Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad, Christiani had the two highest scores by a Guyanese in Test cricket - 99 against England at Kensington Oval in January, 1948 and 107 against India at Delhi in the following November. This innings was not only the first century by a Guyanese in Test cricket, but also the first occasion that a West Indian batsman scored a Test century batting as low as Number 8.

In England in 1950 Christiani became the first and only Guyanese and only the second West Indian to score a century in each innings of a match at cricket's headquarters, Lord's, when he made 131 not out and 100 not out against Middlesex, emulating the Jamaican, George Headley, who had performed the feat in a Test against England in 1939. It was the first occasion a touring batsman had scored a century in each innings against Middlesex. Christiani's twin centuries enabled him to become the first Guyanese to score 1000 runs on a West Indian tour.

Christiani was also the first Guyanese to command a regular place in the West Indies team. He played in all eighteen Tests in four series in which the West Indies were involved between 1948 and 1952 against England (twice), India and Australia. In most of these matches (12 of the 18) and on the tour to England in 1950 he was the only Guyanese in the West Indies team. At the time of his retirement from Test cricket in 1954, his number of Test appearances (22) exceeded not only that of any Guyanese, but also the total number of Tests played until then by any other four Guyanese.

Finally, Christiani was the first Guyanese to achieve a career aggregate of over 500 runs in Test cricket and more than 5000 runs in first-class cricket. In his entire career which ended in 1954, he played 142 innings in first-class cricket, scoring 5103 runs, including 12 centuries and 27 half-centuries, at an average of 40.50 runs an innings. At the time of his retirement this aggregate was surpassed by only seven West Indians, namely, the Barbadians, Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell and George Challenor; the Trnidadians, Jeffrey Stollmeyer and Gerry Gomes; and the Jamaican, George Headley.

Robert Christiani dominated Guyanese cricket in the 1940s and early 1950s. Until the emergence of Rohan Kanhai in the mid-1950s, no Guyanese cricketer was as highly respected and as great a source of pride to his countrymen as Christiani. Not surprisingly, he was included in the first batch of distinguished cricketers inducted into the nation's Cricket Hall of Fame.