Wes Hall: ‘I’m a West Indian, man. I’m a West Indian. To the bone’ | Cricket

This is a story about a man, and men, and what it means to embody something bigger than yourself. It’s about the ephemeral nature of things, and how we memorialise those precious fragments of legend, lest we lose them for good. It’s about a beautiful idea, and the islands around which that beautiful idea once coalesced. And it’s about acceptance: about coming to terms with the fact that something that once mattered very much will never matter again like it used to.

The man is 86 now, using a wheelchair yet sturdily unslouched, hoisted up by the cane that he grips in the palm of his bowling hand so his elbow can rest on the back of his seat. Between the open collars of his orange-red shirt and the lapels of his suit nestles a thin silvery-gold chain and crucifix, gifted to him by his mother to calm his nerves before a big school match. Aside from when it’s been cleaned he’s worn it every day since, save for that time in Adelaide when it became unhooked and was found by a journalist from the Daily Express. “You see fellas now,” he said recently, “six chains around their neck. They have entered the oasis of prosperity, that’s why they got six chains. I have this to remind me, not of where I have come from, but where I am going. And to remind me, as my mother told me, to make sure that God is always at the centre of my endeavours.”

Until this very moment, ‘Wes Hall’ existed essentially as a myth to me, an idea, a bedtime story of the kind passed down by your dad – who in my case caught him at The Oval in ’66 (“shirt billowing, jewellery flying”) and never forgot what he saw. The great fast bowler. The gentleman-bruiser. The days-long run-up, the day-long spells. Brisbane ’60. Lord’s ’63. The original. And suddenly here he is, sat with a small cohort of family and friends in the back room of the Union Jack Club, just by Waterloo station, the arch storyteller teasing out a few more. “You see, they always said I was loquacious …”

Some lives are so vast that their expanded selves can lead them to sense that they’re both themselves and those of every person they meet. From the slings of luck and fate that reshaped his boyhood dreams into a starring role in the West Indian golden age, through Barbados’ independence and a decade kicking around the fleshpots of the English north, to his later years as a businessman, government minister and sometime manager of the West Indies team – and now this, his latest incarnation, the wandering minstrel with the completed works under his arm, Hall has yet to be disabused of the notion that a higher force has been guiding him.

He wasn’t quite the first. The Caribbean had known fast bowlers before. The great-allrounder Learie Constantine, thought to be as quick as any on his day. George Francis and Herman Griffith pushed it through between the wars. Manny Martindale was a bit special. The objectively terrifying Roy Gilchrist, along with Charlie Griffith – Hall’s blood brother and great friend to this day – were ferocious contemporaries. But none could touch Wes Hall.

Hall gets ready to let fly against England at Lord’s in 1963. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

His athleticism was legendary. Tony Cozier saw a bowler with the “physique and strength of a bodybuilder”. Ted Dexter, the only Englishman to properly take him on, recalls his first sighting – “ridiculously fast, faster than any bowler I’d ever seen”. Even Muhammad Ali, dropping in on Lord’s one day, was left in awe. It was 1966 and Ali, shunned by the US for refusing to fight in Vietnam, was touring across Europe and Canada. He had just beaten Henry Cooper in London and was curious about this other game. Unimpressed by the batting stuff, he caught sight of Hall in full flow, eyes ablaze, the winds of change propelling him up and through the crease. Hall lights up at the recollection. “Ali say to me, ‘Listen, if I had your stamina I’d fight three men a night – two rounds for the first one, another two rounds, and then seven!’ It was rather ironic, he write something in his book about me, ‘That man is so fit’, and the thing about that – that was 1966! I wonder what he would have said if he’d seen me bowl in the Test match in 1963 …”

Hall is a citizen of everywhere. The great Caribbean chronicler, CLR James, observed him as the kind of man who “simply exudes good nature at every pore”. He belongs to Barbados, to the richly fertile soil of his homeland, producer of more great cricketers per capita than any other patch of land on Earth, and then to the region itself: to Jamaica, who took him in as one of their own after he scalped seven Englishmen on a mirrorball surface at Sabina in 1960, his first big series; and to Trinidad, where he worked and played for years.

Australia loved him too, for his central role in the landmark rubber of 1960-61, crowned by his final over at the Gabba to clinch the Test game’s first ever tie. And then of course there’s the old country, land of “Cromwell, and all those guys and ladies”.

It was 1957 when the teenager first touched down in England. Raw, ungrooved, struggling with his run-up, he had a quiet tour with the ball but a revelatory one of the mind. Traipsing round the provinces, it struck him that he knew more of the history of this place than he did of his own. Unable until then to find “the good graces to study West Indian history”, Hall took to the books, determined that whatever he found out should infuse his understanding of the quest to which his life was about to be hitched.

Wes Hall stands alongside Basil D’Oliveira during a tour game between the West Indies and Worcestershire in May 1966.
Wes Hall with Basil D’Oliveira during a break in a game between the West Indies and Worcestershire in May 1966. Photograph: Robert Stiggins/Getty Images

In turn his relationship with England deepened. For much of the Sixties his summers would be spent there, initially as the club pro at Accrington in the Lancashire league and then with Great Chell in Staffordshire. As a young black man at Accrington, Hall recalls being successfully inculcated into the local community. “I had many white people who I’d grown up with and who I loved,” he says in the new book of his life, Answering The Call. “When I went to Accrington, I lived a decent life and was treated with dignity.” He mucked in at all levels of the club. He took a particular shine to a promising 13-year-old left-arm spinner called David Lloyd, even accompanying the boy to Trent Bridge for his first Test match.

Writing in 2018, Bumble recalled the effect of having Hall about the place. “Seeing one of the sport’s great physical specimens competing alongside the blokes of your own town against a neighbouring one, slotting seamlessly into the community, striving to do the best he could both for himself and those he represented, taught me something of the way cricket was meant to be.”

It was a breathless time. Lessons were speedily imparted. Codes and ethics instilled. Hall’s exuberance and curiosity found an intellectual outlet in the form of a cricket team whose purpose lay beyond the mere act of changing the game (that was the easy bit) to affecting the world around it.

“In the West Indies the cricket ethic has shaped not only the cricketers but life as a whole,” wrote the English journalist EW Swanton at the end of the Fifties. But while the “fanatical devotion” that Swanton perceived had an underlying political edge, as with every great revolutionary movement, it needed its philosopher king to shake it alive.

Frank Worrell’s greatness as a cricketer was one of his more humdrum traits. The most stylish and inquisitive of the Worrell-Weekes-Walcott triptych of Bajan brilliance that defined the West Indies after the war, Worrell was urbane, smart as hell and fixated on advancing the cause of his people.

Worrell finally became the first black captain of the West Indies ahead of the 1960/61 tour of Australia. By then he already had a clearly laid-out plan for his prime fast bowler. Seeing Hall as a kind of emissary – and spy – tasked with learning about the structures and systems in more cricket-developed countries, Worrell plotted Hall’s path through the English leagues and Australian state cricket, even arranging work for him in Trinidad, where he spent three good years. Hall wasn’t the only recipient. “So here was a man who deserved a Nobel prize,” Hall told Vaneisa Baksh for her new biography of Worrell, Son of Grace. “He had a vision. He spent a long time shaping the lives of young men.”

“Sir Frank was a father figure,” he tells us now. “He was the best man at my wedding. In the Australia tour that everyone talks so much about, he only had three team meetings across the whole tour, five to six months. But the thing is, anything that happened to any player, you could go and say it to him, to the captain – and you don’t always get that. The great CLR James told Sir Frank by letter that if we could play well – not beat Australia, but play well – that would be the end of colonialism. People need to understand that – what cricket can do.”

Such were the stakes. From the start, Worrell was in cahoots with Australia’s progressive skipper Richie Benaud, envisioning a series that could electrify Test cricket, unshackled from negativity, more in keeping with the spirit of the game he’d learnt in Barbados. And he believed that Hall’s pace, grafted to the genius of Sobers and the class of Rohan Kanhai, would help deliver it.

Frank Worrell and Everton Weekes walk out to bat.
Frank Worrell (left) was the first black captain of the West Indies and a father figure to Hall. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Hall’s 21 wickets across an epochal few weeks established another plank in the legend: not even in the white heat of Australia would Wes Hall bowl short at tailenders. “I don’t mind playing hard, but I’m gonna play it fair,” he says now, rousingly present-tense.

“Seymour Nurse was fielding at silly mid-off when the Australians were batting. We had them on the rocks, and the last two were in there. I bowled this ball that I thought was lbw but that’s not the point. In the next over Garry (Sobers) caught one, and now, Garry knows if he’s caught one or if it’s a bump ball! So Seymour comes and sees me and says, ‘How about a bouncer to the last man?’ Now I can’t remember his name but I didn’t think he was a good player! And Seymour said, ‘Wes, bowl a bouncer’, and I said, ‘To a No.11?’ I said to him, ‘Where are you fielding?’ And he said, ‘Silly mid-off’. I said ‘OK, when he hit it to you, defend it, pick it up and do what you told me to do, pick it up and hit him.’ And he said, ‘Well, I can’t do that!’ ‘Well, there you go then!’”

Australia prevailed 2-1, but cricket took the spoils. Worrell’s vision had come to fruition. When it came for the team to depart, having registered, in CLR James’ estimation, nothing less than a “public entry into the comity of nations”, some quarter-of-a-million Australians came out to wave them off. And it was no passing affair: when Hall rocked up a year later to play a season for Queensland – another Worrell ruse – a thousand-strong crowd turned out to greet him at Eagle Farm airport.

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The West Indies tour of England in 1963 was the classic it needed to be. James would write that after England’s “uninspiring” Ashes tour of 1962-63, “it was openly said that the future of Test cricket would depend on whether the West Indian team would evoke in England the revival they had initiated in Australia”.

On what turned out to be Worrell’s last tour as captain, his team triumphed 3-1 in a sensational series – Sobers imperious, Dexter often barely less so – with the only drawn game, at Lord’s, arguably the best of the lot.

The final day has its own mythology. When England resumed after the morning rain needing 118 with seven wickets left, Hall simply bowled for the rest of the match, unchanged for four hours, to take it into the final over with all four results still possible. With two balls left, England were nine down and six runs shy when Colin Cowdrey, his arm in plaster after wearing a Hall lifter earlier in the day, joined the fray at the non-striker’s end. The tailender David Allen, having abandoned the chase, managed to keep Hall’s final two deliveries out to secure the draw.

Hall bowled 40 overs in that final innings, for figures of 4-93, each delivery propelled by a 35-yard run to the crease. Worrell may have willed him on, but Hall was easily persuaded. Baksh writes in Son of Grace that Hall’s “phenomenally protracted spell … was perhaps the best example of a man going way past his own capacity at the behest of his idol”. It was an unhinged feat of physical endurance. It was said that Hall was never quite the same bowler again.

His last acts as a West Indies cricketer still appear to rankle a little. In late 1966, on a tour of India, Hall injured his right knee slipping on a wet outfield in Kolkata. He hobbled through the Tests, his pace reduced. It was the beginning of the end. “They said that I was unfit! I’m not saying I was the fittest man in the world, but I never left the field in 13 years. They said to me I was not fit, and I look around and see some players … The last five or six matches I only got five wickets or so, that was the only thing that I felt was wrong.” He says all this with a smile, but still it stings.

A spectral air hangs over that time. Midway through the Kolkata Test, Worrell, by now part of the entourage in a non-playing capacity, complained of feeling tired and sick. He didn’t mention it to the players, who instead saw him deliver what Hall describes in Answering The Call as a “wonderful, brilliant speech” at an official engagement.

It would be his last public appearance. Worrell got back to Jamaica and went straight to the University Hospital. He had leukaemia. When Hall visited him in hospital, he already knew the prognosis. On 13 March 1967, Frank Worrell died. Barbados had been an independent nation for four months. He was 42.

Hall’s later years have been fulsomely lived, and faithfully. Experiencing a conversion at a church in Miami in the late Eighties, his life changed shape again. After completing his theological studies he was ordained as a minister in 1998, with one of his first tasks involving counselling sessions with the inmates of Glendairy, the Barbados prison next to where he grew up. To help with the cricket coaching, he made sure to take Desmond Haynes along with him.

Sitting in this makeshift green room, surrounded by a few of his people, doesn’t feel like the time or place to agonise over the current state of West Indies cricket, yet it can’t be ignored. He sighs. “I’m a West Indian, man. I’m a West Indian. To the bone.”

He insists he still has hope. “I feel that the West Indies have always produced some of the world’s best players, and it isn’t that we haven’t got the players, but cricket nowadays – Test cricket, ODIs, and the last one – you know.” His eyes finish the sentence for him. “Look, I like that cricket … but, you know … The money will be alright, because if you play five or six years and you’re very good, and you reach No.1, then you won’t have to work again.” It’s not hard to form the impression that money has rarely registered that high on the list of Wes Hall’s concerns.

The cover of Wisden Cricket Monthly.
The latest Wisden Cricket Monthly. Photograph: Wisden

I go to ask him what he’s proudest of, and he answers before the question’s out. “To see West Indians, from the proletariat, excel worldwide. Wherever they went. That was so important. To tell you the truth, it’s a pity that they all haven’t written books! You know they were really great players, they were 15 icons. But the good thing about that side was that there were no people who felt they were greater than anybody else.”

Finally, to the big question: who makes Wes Hall’s all-time West Indies pace attack? Four greats, from across the decades. Four names. Go. He pauses, his elbow still resting on the back of his chair. “I thought you were meaning that you’d just pick another three …”

We pack up. His next audience is waiting. I can’t resist mentioning my dad, who still talks about his day out with Wes and Charlie and Garry at The Oval in 1966. “You see,” he says, “I believe that people love cricketers because of what they thought of them. There ain’t nobody out there, even if they get all these figures – 200, 300, 800, something like that … It’s how you make them feel.

“People will always remember great players. But they will really remember the ones that made them feel good.”

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