Rohan Kanhai, 87 not out-the peerless genius
“No more technically correct batsman ever came out of the West Indies than Rohan Kanhai” – Michael Manley
“To see Kanhai flat on his back – with the ball among the crowd beyond the square-leg boundary – after making one of his outrageous sweeps to a good length ball, is to watch a man capable of playing shots fit to lay before an audience of emperors” – James Scott, May 1966, on the occasion of Guyana’s independence
“Kanhai discovered, created a new dimension in batting…He had found his way into regions Bradman never knew.” – CLR James
“Some batsmen play brilliantly sometimes and at ordinary times they go ahead as usual. That one… is different from all of them. On certain days, before he goes into the wicket, he makes up his mind to let them have it. And once he is that way nothing on earth can stop him. Some of his colleagues in the pavilion who have played with him for years have seen strokes that they have never seen before: from him or anybody else” – Sir Learie Constantine to CLR James, on Kanhai
“Rohan Kanhai was a great player…and he was rated one of the tops…a good cricket brain…earned the respect of his players.” – Sir Garfield Sobers.
Michael Manley, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, said it best, “The West Indies are Third World countries, but we belong, and are, in the First World of Cricket.” Although cricket’s champions have declined appreciably, Manley defined what cricket supremacy means in a global context to the average Caribbean person. Cricket is not only a religion in the Caribbean, but it best defines the unifying factor in the region. Regional political integration has followed cricket as a unifying and defining force. We were kings until the doldrums came.
One of those knights who shone brightest was Rohan Kanhai, batting 87 not out today. Like Cheddi Jagan, he shone for us, and for everyone! We must name a street, stadium or drive after Rohan Babulall Kanhai (although his official middle name is Bholalall, Babulall is what the crowds worship him as). Give Kanhai his due!
No batsman has ever batted with such original splendor, nor in such sublime fashion, as Rohan Kanhai. He was romantically enthralling, imperious and flamboyantly gifted, and his shot selection bore the hallmark of thrilling improvisation, classic stroke play and exalted quality that can only come from a man blessed with genius and divine gifts–and knew it. There simply was no shot he could not play, or invent, dictated by his mood at that time. A vintage Kanhai had no equals. In the most popular version of the game, T20, many pretenders have tried to reproduce his unique triumphant falling hook, but none have equaled the rapture and success his inventive stroke added to the dimensions of batting decades before T20 came into existence. Factor in the fact that Kanhai never batted with a helmet, and his conquests over a hurtling leather ball that have ended the lives of other cricketers, takes on manifest perspective.
When he was bored, he could throw his wicket away with disinterest, but when he was challenged, he would rise to the occasion, and no bowler, alive or dead, could escape his genius. That is not to say that he did not let down his fans with such unpredictable temperament, but they knew that his type of gamesmanship had to be susceptible to sudden failures, and they savored every moment he gave them at the wicket. Ian McDonald said it best when he wrote, “This explains the waywardness and strange unorthodoxies that always accompany great genius.”
My memory goes back to 1974. My father took us to Bourda to see Rohan Kanhai bat. He was 10 not out overnight against England. He was, most likely, playing his last test innings. He was 39 years old then, totally grey, which only enhanced his aura. My father, like so many others, simply admired him, and the mere mention of his name commanded attention. Dad wanted us to come close to greatness. Kanhai was memorialized in cricket treatises, and romanticized in folklore. I thank my father to this day, and can tell others I saw Kanhai bat!
He made 44, before Derek Underwood spun one past his forward reach, but I had seen enough of the man to appreciate his genius. Underwood said later that was the best ball he ever bowled. Those of us who are cricket aficionados can tell a batsman’s ability just from the way he holds his bat. In that brief innings, he played some trademark shots. He hooked, pulled, late cut, cover drove and slashed magnificently, enough to convince me that he was blessed with bountiful talents. He floated off the front and back foot with such ease, he was like a ballerina, dropping the ball just in front of him when he defended. His style was unforgettable. When Chris Old and Tony Grieg bounced to him, he struck like a cobra, sending them to the boundary. He gave us 2 late cuts which he delicately curved past a hapless Amiss en route to the boundary. A half cut, half drive past cover sped like a laser beam to the boundary, a parting gift to the crowd.
He was one of my boyhood heroes, and was undoubtedly the most extraordinary batsman the West Indies has ever produced, blessed with such natural ability that he could eviscerate any bowling attack in the world when he controlled the impetuosity that raged within him. There was beauty in his craft, so much different in his method of annihilation, especially on the treacherous, uncovered wickets in his day. Other times, whereas other batsmen could wear down an attack, Kanhai would dissect it with clinical precision. He was poetry, rather than prose. Ballet, rather than dance. Artistry, rather than sheer power, although this never compromised the force with which he hit the ball. He glided in riveting stroke play, batting with the dexterity of a virtuoso, yet prone to Shakespearian tragedy at any time. Kanhai on the rampage was a mesmeric joy to behold, even for bowlers.
He did not have the superlative statistics nor the sheer all-round cricketing genius of Garfield Sobers, the awesome power of Viv Richards, Clyde Walcott, Clive Lloyd or Gordon Greenidge, the classical poise of Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli or Frank Worrell, or the steadfastness of George Headley or Steve Waugh.
Nor did he have the impregnable technique or patience of Rahul Dravid, Geoff Boycott, Jack Hobbs or Sunil Gavaskar, the insatiable appetite for runs like Don Bradman, the grace of Greg Chappell or Zaheer Abbas or the unruffled calm of Majid Khan. Nor did his interaction with the game of cricket spawn changes to the socio-political structures of society and effect reforms of a radical nature as Learie Constantine’s and W.G. Grace’s did.
Nor did he attain superstar status like Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar, or batting statistics to propel him to the type of immortality attained by Sir Don Bradman, Lara or Tendulkar. Yet, Kanhai possessed a combination of batting prowess, originality and sportsmanship above and beyond the reach of all of these great players to such an unparalleled degree that has never been seen in the game of cricket and perhaps will never be equaled. His arrival at the wicket heralded both hush and expectancy. Bars closed as all rushed to the drama that was about to unfold before a Kanhai innings. You could not miss this!
His creative genius surpassed any other batsman in the game, and his flamboyance was spellbinding. There were times in his batting artistry where he touched heights of batsmanship beyond the reach of any batsman, such as in the execution of his unique “triumphant fall,” or falling hook shot, most times played off the eyebrows, the half-pull, half-sweep style stroke, the flick off the toes which dissected the on-side field, the reverse sweep off the leg stump, the magical late-cut or his majestic cover driving.
Cricketers like him invented and pioneered many innovations to the game, which have made it richer and dearer to spectators. Many batsmen may enter the same cathedral of batsmanship with Kanhai, but will not be allowed to sit in the same pew. In Michael Manley’s book, “A History of West Indian cricket,” Kanhai is photographed sitting with George Headley and Everton Weekes, and that is how they may all sit in the front pew of that West Indian proverbial cathedral, with Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Gary Sobers and Frank Worrell. However, in terms of originality, artistry and creative skill, he stands alone.
In his book “Idols,” Sunil Gavaskar, whose gigantic batting feats have not only eulogized him in calypso, but also immortalized him in a manner second to none, said this of Kanhai: “Rohan Kanhai is quite simply the greatest batsman I have ever seen. What does one write about one’s hero, one’s idol, one for whom there is so much admiration? To say that he is the greatest batsman I have ever seen so far is to put it mildly. A controversial statement perhaps, considering that there have been so many outstanding batsmen, and some great batsmen that I have played with and against. But, having seen them all, there is no doubt in my mind that Rohan Kanhai was quite simply the best of them all.”
Gavaskar concludes, “Sir Gary Sobers came quite close to being the best batsman, but he was the greatest cricketer ever, and could do just about anything. But as a batsman, I thought Rohan Kanhai was just a little bit better.” In his book “Living For Cricket,” Clive Lloyd definitively said that he regarded Kanhai as “the finest batsman Guyana has produced.” Richie Benaud, one of the most respected cricketers and commentators, in his autobiography, “Willow Patterns,” confirmed that he “thought that Kanhai was just a shade over Sobers.”
Kanhai’s greatness lies to a great degree with his connection to history, and the way he overcame the social and political forces of British imperialism which subdued him and his countrymen in his time. A captivating player, he carried the hopes and aspirations of the Caribbean people during a period of political deprivation in their collective history, where his sweet successes or bitter failures mirrored theirs during the shackles of colonialism. He became a symbol of hope, glorious expression and unrestrained freedom. We felt that we, too, could conquer, like him! When C. L. R. James wrote in the New World journal that Kanhai was “the high peak of West Indian cricketing development,” it is one of the greatest tributes paid to any West Indian hero, and focuses on the creativity Kanhai brought to cricket, and how he inspired others to do likewise.
We celebrated when Kanhai shone, brooded when he failed. In my boyhood days, he inspired youngsters like myself to think that, like him, we too could one day achieve international fame. With his showmanship and range of breathtaking strokes, few batsmen will ever attain the idolatry and heroism of Kanhai. He was a born favorite, blessed with the fearless heart of a lion. His conquests of great bowlers such as Lillee, Thompson, Gupte, Trueman, Davidson, Mahmood, and others are legendary. When Charlie Griffith rocked back his stumps first ball with a no ball, he cut loose into both Hall and Griffith at Bridgetown during the Shell Shield mini-test between Guyana and Barbados, and smashed them all over Kensington fearlessly for a brilliant 108 with 17 boundaries. Joe Solomon said it was the best century he ever saw.
Although one never to chase after batting records, Kanhai nevertheless achieved an impressive array of memorable milestones. For example, although Tendulkar is the modern icon of batsmanship, he has never scored a test century in each innings of a test match as Kanhai did against as worthy an opponent as Australia, at Adelaide in 1960-61, nor top the batting averages in an English season as he did in 1975 with an average of 82.53, nor share in such high-wicket partnerships in first-class cricket as he did with J.A. Jameson-465*, Warwickshire v. Gloucestershire, 1974, second wicket and with K. Ibadulla-402, Warwickshire v. Notts, 1968, fourth wicket.
And who would not help but admire his one-day average of 55 runs per innings? Or, notwithstanding the fact that statistics were always the furthest thing from his mind, appreciate that he scored 83 first-class centuries, and countless 90s, each innings a spectator’s dream? One must never forget that Rohan was one the best fielders in the world in his heyday, and a sportsman and gentleman who would recall a batsman to continue his innings when he felt that the umpire had given him out incorrectly.
Rohan opened the doors for others to follow. Perhaps “opened” is a mild word. Kanhai blasted the door open for other West Indians to follow. After all, his book was aptly entitled, “Blasting for Runs.” In fact, Gavaskar, Kallicharran and Bob Marley named their sons after Rohan Kanhai, and many West Indians all over the Caribbean are named after him, a testimony to Kanhai’s greatness. Gavaskar also hoped that his son Rohan would be at least half as good as the original Rohan Babulal Kanhai, which he said would make him very proud indeed! We will never see his like again…Remember the man!
Hon. Albert Baldeo is the District Leader of Richmond Hill, NY, USA, President of the Richmond Hill Democratic Club, Asian American Labor Alliance, Chairman of the Liberty Justice Center and Baldeo Foundation, a community organization dedicated to the fight for community improvement, justice, equal rights, public safety, dignity and inclusion in the decision-making process. (917) 548-1055