Builder Of Runs And Legends

Date Published: 
Indo-Caribbean World
Bernard Heydorn

Once in a while I dip into the past to remember a legendary cricketer. Such is Rohan Kanhai – a gay blade, a glamorous right handed batsman, a glorious Indo-Guyanese cricketer.

Rohan (Bholalall/Babulal) Kanhai was born on Boxing Day December 26, 1935 in the village of Port Mourant in the county of Berbice, British Guiana. With five sisters and two brothers, he was a fifth child.

Port Mourant, located 15 miles from New Amsterdam, a town in which I grew up in the 1950's, gave birth to other legendary Guyanese such as freedom fighter and President, Cheddi Jagan. There must be something in the air in Port Mourant, the sugar estate, cow dung and pasture, the Corentyne breeze, or the history of its labouring residents that give rise to some of Guyana's greatest sons and daughters.

Kanhai from a very young age broke all the rules of batting. He tended to hit across the line of flight, play a cross bat instead of a straight bat, not always using bat and pad together, moving out of his crease instead of staying at the wicket, falling instead of being on his feet, and always on the lookout for blasting the bowlers. He was unorthodox and uncoached.

The cross bat technique he shared with perhaps the greatest batsman of all time – The Don – Don Bradman. Unlike the purists of the game who got their direction from the great halls and fields of cricket in England, West Indian cricketers before and after Kanhai have sought to make cricket more interesting, exciting, creative and entertaining.

Kanhai learnt his cricket - according to his book, Blasting for Runs (1966) - in the narrow backstreets and open wasteland around his home in Port Mourant. He used the dried leaves of coconut palms to make bats. Hit on the bare legs regularly with hard cork balls, he learnt to be nimble on his feet, a skill that came in very handy as he faced some of the most fearsome fast bowlers in the world, including Trueman, Statham, Tyson, Davidson, Hall, Griffith, and Gilchrist.

By his own admission he was unorthodox, taking balls from the offside and putting them away to the leg and onside boundaries. Even his captain, the great Sir Frank Worrell tried to improve his off side game with more orthodox play. Kanhai persisted in his ways, saying that a batsman needs three things to succeed – guts, timing and concentration. Now I realize where I fell down as a batsman for these qualities, were mostly foreign to me.

Let me roll back to Berbice in the 50's when Kanhai came into his own. I remember seeing him in the late afternoon, jumping off a truck heading for Port Mourant and coming to play ball with students of Berbice High School on their playing field. Three of my brothers and I attended Berbice High School.

He would take off his work boots, hit the ball all over the place, then jump back onto the last truck heading for his home on the Corentyne that evening. We school boys, even at that early age, were in awe of his talent.

Kanhai's father worked at the Port Mourant Sugar Estate. Rohan, it is said, worked at carpentry. Later he developed into a builder of runs and legends. In his early cricketing career he doubled as a wicket keeper. His friends and neighbours in Port Mourant were other Guyanese and West Indian cricketing greats such as Basil Butcher, Joe Solomon, Ivan Madray, and "Uncle" John Trim.

Rohan and Ivan Madray were teammates in the Port Mourant Roman Catholic School. Basil Butcher attended the Anglican School nearby. Kanhai and Madray decided to join the Port Mourant Cricket Club nearby where Joe Solomon and Basil Butcher were playing. The ground was close to Kanhai's house and inevitably he would hook a ball onto the house, into the garden or his mother's clothes hanging on the line outside. Broken windows and fraught nerves were the result!

Incidentally, around this time my eldest brother played for a cricket team called Teachers (although he worked at a bank), originating around the New Amsterdam area. His team played against the Port Mourant Cricket Club that had Butcher, Solomon and Rex Ramnarace who I believe was the captain. Rohan Kanhai was reportedly absent because of an appendix operation. I daresay we can all guess what the result of that match was.

Later on I saw Kanhai batting at the Mental Hospital Ground in New Amsterdam. This was, at that time, the best ground in Berbice with the patients (they called them "madmen" in those days) rolling the pitch and outfield regularly as a form of occupational therapy. I believe it was an inter-county fixture – Demerara versus Berbice.

Kanhai was stroking the ball majestically through the covers, hitting the boundary boards with such explosions that it even had "the madmen" jumping! Then he would become bolder and hit the ball out of the ground into a neighbouring locked ward where the patients were sitting under trees in their enclosed quadrangle. On occasion, a patient would pick up a ball and refuse to return it, holding up the game indefinitely.

In late 1954 Kanhai got a chance to play in Georgetown in a feature match. The big names in cricket at that time were the Barbadian Clyde Walcott working in British Guiana and Guyanese Bruce Pairaudeau. As fate would have it, a spinner from Berbice called "Cobra" Ramdatt was selected instead of Kanhai but "Cobra" twisted an ankle and Kanhai got the spot.

He opened the batting and was quickly out for a duck off the bowling of Richard Hector. He reprieved himself as a wicketkeeper and was called to trials for British Guiana. In early 1955 he flew to Barbados with the B.G. cricket team. There he faced the Bajun fast bowler Frank King who peppered him with bouncers leaving him battered and bruised, for a score of 14 runs. In his book "Blasting for Runs" he say, "Like most batsmen I've never particularly liked pace but I've tried not to allow anyone to master me".

Playing in a colony match later for Guyana against Australia he confounded the great Australian fast bowler Keith Miller by clouting 51 runs, cross bat and all. By 1957 he was on the boat to England with the West Indian team as a wicketkeeper/batsman. Thus began his illustrious Test career. He had mixed success as a player in England that summer. His first five innings on foreign soil brought scores of 0, 0, 0, 2, 4 – a total of 6 runs.

It was on that tour that Kanhai was bruised from head to toe after taking Trueman's hostile bowling for four hours in one innings. By the time he was out for 47, his left hand was strapped and he felt weak at the knees. In his autobiography Blasting for Runs (1966) he said that he asked his batting partner Clyde Walcott what to do about Trueman and Clyde said "Stand up and bat!"

Clyde then took the first two balls of Trueman's next over, both bouncers, and pasted them to the square leg boundary. Trueman left Clyde alone after that.

According to John Arlott the great English commentator and sports writer in his autobiography Basingstoke Boy (1990), umpire Dai Davies cautioned Trueman for intimidatory bowling when he sent down four bouncers to Kanhai in a single over. Remember in those days the batsmen did not wear helmets for protection as they do these days.

By the time of the West Indian tour of India 1958/59, Kanhai had established himself as a fearsome batsman. He scored 256 in Calcutta, his highest Test innings. Together with Garfield Sobers, the former Barbadian police cadet, they stood like colossi astride the cricket world. They often found themselves at the crease together rescuing the West Indies from a bad start and plundered bowlers as a deadly batting pair.

Even though Kanhai has been a professional cricketer for many years, he indicates that he prefers watching soccer to cricket. He likes to get away from his office for some relaxation.

I suspect that horse racing is also one of his relaxants like the time he and Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie went missing on a Commonwealth tour in Kuala Lumpur in the middle of a cricket match and turned up at a race course nearby. I remember seeing Rohan in the stands at the Garrison Race Course in Barbados in the early 1970's, enjoying the races.

Kanhai went on to score many runs around the world in a variety of cricketing formats. He stuck to his unorthodox style and has played with and against many of the greats of the game. He was in the famous tied Test in Australia, the first ever in cricketing history in the memorable tour of 1960/61, together with his Port Mourant teammate Joe Solomon.

The West Indies went on to become World Champions in cricket. Kanhai, Sobers and others were instrumental in their rise to the top. Kanhai became captain of the West Indies for 13 Tests, succeeding Gary Sobers. He was the first Guyanese to lead the West Indies for an extended period of time. Grey-haired and 40, he played in the 1975 Cricket World Cup, scoring a steady half century.

He has played League Cricket in England which is somewhat akin to Sunday cricket in Guyana in the old days – lots of fun, lots of runs, lots of cricketing tales and tall stories.

He played county cricket for Warwickshire where he participated in a world record undefeated second wicket stand of 465 with John Jameson against Gloucestershire in 1974. He also played in Sheffield Shield matches in Australia. Kanhai coached in the West Indies in the 1990's although he was averse to coaching for himself.

Kanhai knows what it's like to be acclaimed and what it is to be booed, as he was at Bourda, Georgetown in the Australia visit in 1964/65. He made a quick 89 in the first innings of the Test but was out for a duck in the second innings with the third ball he faced. Unlike the first innings when he was wildly cheered by the home crowd, he was roundly booed in the second innings.

"It was a strange, frightening noise I'd never experienced before and never want to again," he said. It shows how fickle fans can be.

Kanhai stayed out of controversy most of his life except for his stint of playing cricket in South Africa (Transvaal 74/75). John Arlott was perhaps alluding to this in his book Basingstoke Boy (1990) when he said, "Kanhai enjoyed a long cricketing career although he fell out drastically with some of his political masters".

Apartheid in South Africa was under universal condemnation at the time and it is said that Kanhai was either "banned" from Guyana or from playing cricket in Guyana. It is difficult to see how a citizen can be banned from his own country.

Very little is known of Kanhai's private life. He was married in the early 1960's in England. He has lived a semi-reclusive life in the last little while. Attempts to get him to play cricket in Toronto I believe have proven futile.

Kanhai has scored 6,227 runs in 79 tests for an average of 47.53 Some say he gave away his wicket on occasion with rash shots or run outs. His style was decidedly his own with his famous falling hook shot where with his follow through, he ended up lying on his back.

He was like a swashbuckling buccaneer in the days when cricket was cricket, blasting for runs and putting bowlers on the rack. For me, the sun was never so bright, the skies so blue, and the breeze so refreshing as seeing Kanhai batting with freedom and delight. Such was Rohan Kanhai and such was West Indian cricket.

His book Blasting for Runs (1966) like his contemporary Freddie Trueman's The Freddie Trueman Story (1965) are interesting and outspoken, if at times sanitized. Both are definitely worth a read. The great Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar reportedly named his son Rohan after Kanhai. It is reported that there is a Wetherspoons's pub in Ashington, Northumberland named after Rohan Kanhai due to his stint there as a cricketer.

If the creeks don't rise and the sun still shines I'll be talking to you.