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No batsman ever single-handedly held a fort or revived a sinking ship as George Headley

By Harsh Thakor* 
On November 30th we commemorated the 40th death anniversary of the late West Indies maestro George Headley,who was responsible for placing West Indies on the map of the cricketing world. Few in sport ever more symbolised the lone crusader championing causes. Headley set the benchmark or planted the breeding ground for all future Caribbean batting giants.
Headley's achievement touches heights or reached a pinnacle,  rarely surpassed in sport,  for the fact that climbed up the ladder  to the top in Jamaica of the 1920's which was then, a colony, where the spirit of nationalism had yet to manifest, and where a business class to sponsor any social activity on a national scale was yet to develop. Headley belonged to a race that withstood the Atlantic slave trade and plantations slavery, only to face the continued subjugation by a white minority in post-emancipation Jamaica. 
George Headley was born in Panama a year later, a product of West Indian parents, who had migrated during the first decade of the 20th century from Barbados and Jamaica to seek employment during the construction of the Panama Canal. Headley was brought up in the environment of urban poverty of Rae Town, a district in Jamaica's capital, Kingston.
The Jamaica in which Headley grew up displayed an aggressive nationalism, having been stained or trapped in three centuries of racism, which polarised the country on every important issue. No batsman ever single-handedly held the fort or revived a sinking ship as Headley. Witnessing Headley performing a repair job or resurrecting his team manifested sporting skill at a pinnacle.
Headley to this day, has the best test average by any West Indies batsmen of 60.83.Headley touched consistency in realms untouched by player representing a weak side. Headley epitomized or symbolised the dignity of the black man and it's goals of winning equal status to whites. Quoting CLR James, if he "had gone to study medicine ... he would have become a great surgeon, seeing everything, remembering everything, hands deft and sure without nerves before the most distressing case."

 Cricketing Career 

In spite of  having minimal formal coaching Headley played for Jamaica against Tennyson’s MCC team, scoring 71 and 211.
Headley ignited the first spark of Caribbean cricket enabling West Indies to draw their first ever test series 2-2 against England aggregating 703 runs. In his very first test at Bridgetown Headley scored 21 and 176.In that series he scored 223 at at Kingston and 2 centuries in the 3rd test at Georgetown. Later he steered his team to win their first ever test series against England aggregating 485 runs, including a highest score of 270 at Kingston. 
Headley scored 2 centuries conquering Clarie Grimmet, on the first ever West Indies tour of Australia. , and amused over 1000 runs on that tour. On that tour at the start, his weakness was exposed in executing the on drive. In the manner of a surgeon investigating, Headley arduously practiced in the nets to rectify his weakness in the on drive, after becoming a bunny of Clarie Grimmet, whom he took apart in the 3rd and 5th tests, like man completely transformed. He also learnt lessons from the batting of Don Bradman and Archie Jackson, tearing apart bowler Grimmet, n a Sheffield Shield game., who amassed 334 in a mere 223 minutes.
On the 1933 tour of England Headley scored 2320 runs at an average of 66.28, with 7 centuries. No member of the touring team touched an average of even 40.
In 1939, Headley’s batting eclipsed that of Hammond,Huton and Compton,i n terms of virtuosity .He aggregated 1745 runs and averaged 72.60,toping the batting averages. No other batsmen scored 1000 runs in that season, or averaged even half as high as Headley. At Lords he became the first after Herbert Sutcliffe, to score centuries in both innings of a test. Headley's innings of 139 at Lords out of the West Indies total of 225 led C.B. Fry, the outstanding English batsman and sports writer to remark that Headley's middle name should be "Atlas", projecting the manner he carried the torch of West Indies cricket, reminiscent of a towering emperor.
Overall in test cricket Headley scored 2256 runs at an average of 60.83, in 22 tests and 40 innings. In first class cricket he amassed 9921 runs, at an average of 69.86; with a career best of 344 not out for Jamaica. In test matches won he averaged a phenomenal 95.75 and scored 7766 runs while in dawn games averaged 75.90.

Comparison with Bradman 

Many classed Bradman as the white Headley. Headley outscored Bradman on bad wickets or sticklers. Possibly no West Indies batsmen equalled Headley on untrue pitches. Headley was the abject contrast or foil in Bradman in his era, who manifested the ethos of his nation’s poverty, isolation or character.
Many experts favourably compared Headley with Bradman. Both batsmen blended technical mastery and phenomenal y powers of concentration to a ascale rarely surpassed, and not only re-wrote the record books in their era but also elevated sporting potential to boundaries rarely penetrated. While nothing can undermine Bradman’s greatness, his batting was also substantiated or backed   by team support, the likes of which was never available to Headley.
This was illustrated in the one test series they played against each other, the 1930-31 West Indies tour of Australia, where they both batted at number three. The Australian openers invariably provided a solid start to the innings. Ponsford was particularly prolific, scoring 467 runs in the series to top the aggregates ahead of Bradman's 447. Then there was Kippax, Woodful, McCabe, Jackson and Fairfax to follow. By comparison, the West Indies openers provided no such foundation for Headley. In the 20 innings played by the opening batsmen in the five tests, there were only eight scores of more than 20. Worse, seven of the eight batsmen who followed Headley, only managed an average of nine runs for the entire test series. 
The performance of both batsmen on wet wickets is illustrative. Ray Robinson compares Headley's scores on wet wickets in 13 innings between 1933 and 1939 to Bradman's scores in 15 innings under similar conditions for the same period. Bradman's average was 16.66, Headley's 39.85! Hence the observation by Neville Cardus, "that Headley has good claims to be considered on all wickets the finest of the inter-war batsmen."

Evaluation of Greatness 

In the view of CLR James had Headley failed in each innings, West Indies would have failed to amass even 150.In 15 of his 35 innings he was his team's scorer ,scoring at least one third of the runs in 11 games and in three of them more than half. Headley excelled in the hook shot, in subtle late deflections to leg and in square and late cuts. He simply murdered bowling pitched short of a length.
Although part of many losing causes Headley salvaged pride like no other contemporary .
In view of  Jeffery Stollmeyer, a former captain of the West Indies team, who first met Headley as they both prepared for the 1939 tour of England. "He was the greatest batsman that the West Indies produced. Of this I have no doubt and my association with Test cricket in the West Indies spans a period from 1939 to the present day, during which I have seen and/or played with the three 'W's', Gary Sobers and Rohan Kanhai their prime; also, Viv Richards of the current crop, great players all. Why should I be of this opinion? Simply because George never looked like getting out. He liked to bat; 'Why him don't like to bat?' he used to ejaculate when one of his team played a rash or unbecoming stroke! He reduced errors to a minimum and he played as well on difficult wickets as he did on good ones. His 61 versus Yorkshire on a sticky dog at Harrogate in 1939 was the best innings, technically, that I have ever seen".
George Headley is ranked at 19th place in list of 100 best cricketers by Christopher Martin Jenkins , 19th by John Woodcock,David Gower at 31st  and 29th  by Geoff Armstrong. Headley has been chosen in the world all-time XI by 7 cricketers, namely Lance Gibbs, Geoff Boycott, Alf Valentine, Majid Khan Deryk Murray, Lawrence Rowe and Andy Roberts.
In my view by a whisker Headley may miss out on being chosen amongst the 10 best batsmen of all, or the best West Indies batsmen of them all.In Jenkins rated Headley ahead of Brian Lara ,but that is debatable. Personally I feel by an inch Viv Richards Lara and Sobers edge Headley, assessing all factors, particularly their being more explosive or dynamic, and overall aggregate of runs. It is my strong conviction that Headley although more consistent and durable, did not equal the flair of Brian Lara, Viv Richards or Gary Sobers.
Walter Hammond and Graeme Pollock would rate a few inches, ahead, because of ability to tear apart opposition I also place Hutton, Gavaskar and Greg Chappell marginally ahead because of greater longevity, playing against more competitive opposition and having higher aggregates. Headley in turn by a whisker would scrape the likes of Alan Border. and Rahul Dravid. we missed out on witnessing Headley play in India, South Africa and New Zealand or play in as diverse conditions as later batting greats.
It is my strong conviction that Headley although more consistent and durable, did not equal the flair of Brian Lara, Viv Richards, Graeme Pollock or Gary Sobers.Still it is virtually impossible to accurately compare Headley, with the others' scaling or respecting the differences in the conditions of the game, over the span of years.
Headley would comprise my top dozen test batsmen of all time and top 25cricketers. On bad wickets, possibly he was amongst the top 3 of all time. By a few inches Headley would miss out in my all-time test XI, and 2nd best all time team and comprise my 3rd all-time test XI.
*Freelance journalist 

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