The Unfillable Hooper Hole
No West Indian cricketer of recent times-perhaps of all time-has evoked such starkly contrasting emotions as Carl Hooper. They either adored him or abhorred him. There was no in-between. They loved him for the God-given talent that allowed him to make the most technically complex of sports appear so gracefully simple. They condemned him for the wanton waste of such a gift, reflected in the final, modest statistics of a career that has now come to a sad and premature end with his sudden retirement.
"If batting was a beauty contest, Hooper would be Miss World," was how Malcolm Knox, of the Sydney Morning Herald, put it after one of his nine Test hundreds at Brisbane.
"Cricket has nothing so purely delightful as the sight of Lara and Hooper together," wrote EWSwanton after the pair's assault on Shane Warne and the Australians at Kensington four years ago. And Swanton, then into his late 80s, has seen them all, from Bradman, Hammond and Headley to the present generation.
Indeed, only Frank Worrell and Lawrence Rowe of West Indian batsmen stroked a late cut quite so delicately and so precisely as Hooper. Few could match the elegance of his driving through mid-on and extra-cover. None could so effortlessly deposit the best of spinners beyond the boundary. He could have been a more effective off-spinner had he not spent most of his time aiming defensively at middle and leg, buying rest time for the fast bowlers. And there has never been a safer slip catcher, a difficult business that was, somehow, a piece of cake for him.
Yet there was always the impression that Hooper seldom had his heart and soul in the game. Perhaps his demeanour heightened that perception. He is a quiet, introverted man, not prone to the wild on-field celebrations so common in modern times. He seldom smiled, rarely frowned. He acknowledged a key wicket or a sensational slip catch with the same understated reaction as a special hundred. It was more likely that his passion for the game that was his profession was sullied by the pressures it placed on him.
On the ill-starred tour of England in 1995, he complained to manager Wes Hall of frustration and mental and physical tiredness and pleaded to end the tour after the Second Test. Hall responded by sending him for sessions with psychologist Mike Brearley, the former England captain.
When a back injury kept him out of the 1994 home series against England, he was incensed with the Board's lack of attention and left the Caribbean stating: "For now, my fitness comes first and Kent (his English county) second". Those words came back to haunt him time and again. To many they were proof that he cared little for West Indies cricket. It was a notion he did not erase with his late withdrawal from the 1996 World Cup in India and Pakistan, his failure to play in the Hong Kong Sixes in 1997 when appointed captain and his reluctance to turn out for Guyana.
Such judgement was harsh, if understandable. Appointed vice-captain to Brian Lara for last year's home series against England, he played his greatest and most significant innings, an unbeaten 94 lasting almost six chanceless hours on a difficult pitch that snatched victory in the First Test. He ended with a hundred in Antigua, an average of just under 50 and 15 wickets, his best all-round series. He seemed to be ready for many more years as a key member of the West Indies side.
What happened between then and the mini-World Cup in Bangladesh is impossible to know except that Hooper turned up several pounds heavier than is good for a professional cricketer. He had always had difficulty controlling his weight but no one worked harder at it than him. It was perhaps an indication that, like 1995, all was not well.
On the tour of South Africa that followed, he often seemed distracted-but, then again, so did many others. He was subject to a few lazy run-outs. He took to standing still at mid-wicket and signalling, like a traffic policeman, to the man behind him to back up. It was unbecoming of someone who had been one of the game's finest fielders in the position.
The birth and subsequent illness of his son to his Australian wife in far-off Adelaide was a further complication and Hooper arrived in the Caribbean clearly mentally and physically unready for the demands of a series against opponents as tough as the Australians. He should never have come in such a state. His immobility made him the laughing stock of even his own countrymen at Bourda and the crowd at Kensington Oval where he was more of a favourite than anywhere else in the Caribbean.
To have heard the announcement of his overnight retirement greeted with cheers around Kensington on Sunday was the unkindest cut of all for a cricketer who had given so much pleasure-if also so much pain-to true lovers of the game. West Indies cricket will miss him for, whatever his faults, he was one of the best all-rounders at a time when the species is almost extinct.
West Indies cricket fans will also miss him, whatever their persuasion. Who will they have to argue about now?