Guyanese Test Keepers

Date Published: 
Stabroek News
Winston McGowan

In an excellent book published two years ago commemorating the 75th anniversary of the West Indies involvement in Test cricket, Ray Goble and Keith Sandiford in their evaluation of Guyana's contribution to the regional team in Tests observed that "Guyana's production of wicket-keepers has been somewhat limited. Wicket-keeping has remained Guyana's major weakness."

This is a valid assessment, for in the long history of West Indies Test cricket dating back to 1928 Guyana has provided only five wicket-keepers and none of them had a long career behind the stumps. Only three of them, namely, Cyril Christiani, Clifford McWatt and Ivor Mendonca, were specialist keepers. The other two, Robert Christiani and Rohan Kanhai, were specialist batsmen who only occasionally wore the gloves.

The first Guyanese to keep wicket for the West Indies in a Test was Cyril Christiani. Christiani went with the West Indies team to England in 1933 at the young age of nineteen as deputy to the Jamaican wicket-keeper, Ivan Barrow. He did not play in any of the three Tests of the series which England won by two games to nil with one match drawn. However, by the time the West Indies was involved in its next Test series in the Caribbean early in 1935, Christiani, then only twenty-one, had become the first-choice wicket-keeper, replacing Barrow.

Christiani played in all four Tests of the series, keeping superbly. Also a useful lower-order batsman with a good technique and sound defence, he was asked to open the batting in three of these matches. In the second Test at the Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad he formed with Charlie Jones, the Malteenoes left-hander, the first Guyanese opening pair in Test cricket. His wicket keeping helped the West Indies to gain its first series victory in its fifth attempt, winning by two games to one with one match drawn.

Christiani seemed destined to have a long and distinguished career as a wicket-keeper, but this was not to be. In April 1938 his career came to an early and sudden end when he died of malaria at the young age of twenty-four. In the four Tests which he played he had seven dismissals (six caught and one stumped) and scored 98 runs with a highest score of 32 not out and an average of 19.60 runs an innings.

Two features of Cyril Christiani's wicket-keeping stood out. Firstly, possessing courage, keen eyesight and quick reflexes, he frequently stood up to the stumps for fast bowling, usually without conceding byes or dropping catches and often effecting stumpings - a rare achievement for a wicket-keeper. Secondly, he was a brilliant stumper, especially on the leg side. Few wicket-keepers anywhere in the world in their first-class career have had such a high proportion of stumpings in their dismissals.

In a first-class career of 28 matches, Christiani had 64 dismissals, 20 or nearly one-third of them stumped. The closest any Caribbean wicket-keeper has come to this achievement is the Jamaican, Jackie Hendriks, who had 50 stumpings in his 190 dismissals in a first-class career involving 83 matches, that is, about one quarter of his victims were stumped.

The second Guyanese to keep wicket in a Test match was Cyril Christiani's younger and more famous brother, Robert, the first Guyanese to make a century in a Test. Robert Christiani began his first-class career in 1938 a few months after Cyril's death, playing for British Guiana as a wicket-keeper and a tail-end batsman. Batting at Number 9, in his first two games he had low scores of 14 not out, 3, 0 and 23, but impressed observers with his neat wicket-keeping.

He was considered unlucky not to have been selected on the West Indies team to England in 1939 as a wicket-keeper who also had some ability with the bat, as he demonstrated when he scored a half-century (58) in the final trial match before the selection of the team. Thereafter he virtually neglected wicket-keeping and concentrated on his batting. He quickly developed into his country's premier batsman and was selected as a specialist middle-order batsman in the West Indies team in its next series in 1948 against England in the Caribbean and in the following tour to India at the end of the year.

During the third Test of that series at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta, the West Indies wicket-keeper, the Barbadian, Clyde Walcott, suffered an injury and Christiani was asked to deputise for him. He performed admirably, taking one catch and effecting two stumpings off the bowling of the Trinidadian wrist spinner, Wilfred Ferguson. This proved to be the first and last occasion that he kept wicket in a Test, though he did serve in that capacity for the West Indies in first-class matches overseas in England and New Zealand and for British Guiana in regional matches.

The third Guyanese to serve in that capacity was Clifford McWatt, a contemporary and team-mate of Robert Christiani. McWatt was an able specialist wicket-keeper and a competent middle-order batsman who made two centuries and four fifties for British Guiana in regional first-class cricket.

McWatt was first selected to represent the West Indies on its initial tour to India in 1948-49 as deputy to Clyde Walcott. He did not play in any of the five Tests and did not make his Test debut until five years later in the Caribbean against an English team led by Len Hutton. He played in all five Tests of this 1954 series, keeping tidily and effecting eight dismissals, seven caught and one stumped.

He was also quite productive with the bat in the lower order. Batting at Number Eight, he scored 198 runs in eight innings with two fifties and an average of 33 runs an innings. It was his dismissal, run out for 54, one run short of a century partnership with the Jamaican, John Holt, for the seventh wicket, which sparked off the infamous bottle-throwing incident at Bourda in the third Test.

Surprisingly, in spite of his successful debut, McWatt had only one more Test appearance. This appearance was in the second game of the following series at the Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad in April 1955 against Australia. He failed with the bat, scoring four runs in his only innings, and took two catches and conceded five byes in a mammoth Australian score of 600 for 9 wickets declared.

McWatt was a good wicket-keeper to both pace and spin. The fact that he was left-handed enabled him to keep with ease down the leg-side. In his Test Career, he had 10 dismissals in six games (nine catches and one stumping) and he scored 202 runs in nine innings with an average of 28.85. In his entire first-class career of 41 matches, he had 51 victims (45 caught and six stumped) and a batting average of 28.84.

The fourth Guyanese to keep wicket in Tests was Rohan Kanhai, the finest batsman produced by Guyana. Like Robert Christiani, Kanhai was a specialist middle-order batsman, who also had the ability to serve behind the stumps. Unlike Christiani, however, he did not begin his first-class career primarily as a wicket-keeper.

In his first Test series in England in 1957 Kanhai, then only twenty-one years old, was required to function in two roles to which he was unaccustomed. He was asked in the first three Tests to keep wicket instead of the first-choice stumper, the Jamaican, Franz Alexander, to strengthen the team's batting and in two of these games to open the batting as well.

Kanhai kept wicket competently in the three Tests, taking five catches and coping reasonably well with both the pace of Roy Gilchrist and the spin of Alfred Valentine and Sonny Ramadhin. It was obvious, however, that he was not a specialist keeper and his dual role was clearly very demanding. Consequently, the task behind the stumps was entrusted to Alexander for the last two Tests of the series. Kanhai was never selected again to keep wicket in a Test, though he did serve behind the stumps in an emergency in a Test on at least one occasion.

The fifth and last Guyanese to keep wicket for the West Indies in Test cricket was Ivor Mendonca, who had a short first-class and Test career. He played two Tests against India during its tour of the Caribbean in 1962, deputizing for the injured Jackie Hendriks in an encounter in which the West Indies won all five Tests in a series for the first time.

Mendonca was a fine wicket-keeper and an able batsman with good technique, who normally batted in the middle order, but sometimes opened the batting. In his Test debut at Sabina Park in Jamaica in March 1962, he scored 78, batting at Number Eight and sharing a seventh-wicket partnership of 127 with Garfield Sobers, took four catches and effected one stumping. In his second Test appearance in the fourth game in Trinidad, he also had five dismissals, again four caught and one stumped. In short, he had an unusually large number of victims in two games.

This seemed a very promising start to what was expected to be a very successful Test career as a wicket-keeper-batsman. Inexplicably, however, he was replaced by the Barbadian, David Allan, in two of the Tests and in the following series by the Trinidadian, Deryck Murray, and never represented the West Indies again.

Although the number of Guyanese who have kept wicket for the West Indies in Tests equals or surpasses that of any other Caribbean territory, Guyana has not yet produced a wicket-keeper who has made a substantial contribution to West Indies Test cricket. No Guyanese wicket-keeper has served the West Indies for any extended period. Clifford McWatt has the largest number (6) of Test appearances for a Guyanese stumper. Guyanese, in fact, have been selected to keep wicket in only fifteen of the 430+ Tests which the West Indies have played.

Of the five Guyanese who have kept wicket in Test cricket, Cyril Christiani is generally considered the best. In fact, some analysts consider him the finest wicket-keeper in the history of West Indies Test cricket. However, he was not as good a batsman as any of the other four Guyanese keepers. This is clearly reflected in the statistical record which shows that his batting average is only 19.45 in his entire first-class career.

It was only Cyril Christiani, McWatt and Mendonca who were specialist wicket-keepers among the five Guyanese. In these circumstances both McWatt and Mendonca would have a legitimate claim to be considered the best specialist wicket-keeper-batsman produced by Guyana.

Amazingly, no Guyanese has kept wicket for the West Indies in a Test for forty-four years. The talented Tyrone Tull certainly has the ability to be the next Guyanese to serve in this capacity. To succeed, however, he will need not only to improve his batting considerably, but also, more importantly, to develop a commitment, discipline and hunger which he has not yet demonstrated.