For many Guyanese who followed his career from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, he was the closest thing we had to a non-political national hero. For cricket enthusiasts the world over, he was one of the most thrilling, inventive and accomplished batsmen of his generation. Sunil Gavaskar, India’s original Little Master before the phenomenon also known as Sachin Tendulkar, named his son, Rohan, in honour of “the greatest batsman” he had ever seen. Thirty-five years since his retirement from international cricket, he is still regarded by those who had the privilege and joy of seeing him bat as one of the all-time greats.
Rohan Bholalall Kanhai – for a long time he was mistakenly and mysteriously called Baboolall, or more popularly ‘de Baboo’ – will be 75 on Boxing Day. Along with, in alphabetical order, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Lance Gibbs and Clive Lloyd, he is a contender for the imaginary title of Guyana’s Greatest Cricketer. But this is not another fantasy exercise to try to anoint any one of these living heroes as such. Rather, it is a tribute to a special man, who through a happy coincidence of genius, temperament and circumstance, helped to entrench Guyana on the cricketing map and served notice of an emerging nation brimming with talent and self-confidence.
The record will show that Rohan Kanhai first played for West Indies against England at Edgbaston in May 1957. He opened the batting and kept wicket, scoring 42 and 1 and taking one catch. In truth, he did not do much to distinguish himself in his maiden series. But this was just the calm before the storm and, in the words of CLR James, the greatest of all writers on West Indies cricket, “the future batsman was there to be discerned.”
Rohan Kanhai did not score a century until his 13th Test against India, one-and-a-half years later, when he hit his highest Test score of 256 at Calcutta. Fourteen more centuries were to follow and by the time he played his 79th and last Test in 1974, he had scored 6,227 runs at an average of 47.53. But mere statistics do not tell the story of Rohan Kanhai.
Discovered and nurtured by the legendary Clyde Walcott, after he had been recruited to develop cricket on the sugar estates, at a time of colonial disgruntlement and political ferment, Rohan Kanhai was very much a man of his times, who managed to transcend his humble origins and the history of Guyana, to become one of the most universally admired and best loved of West Indian batsmen. His rise to the top ran parallel to and, in many respects, mirrored the emergence of the new Guyana and the challenges it faced, from the clumsy attempts to quell the nascent spirit of anti-colonial defiance, through civil strife and the birth pains of Independence, to the optimism and brash confidence of the new nation and the sobering reality of responsibility and self-sufficiency.
Indeed, for CLR James, Rohan Kanhai was not only one of the most remarkable and individual of contemporary batsmen, but also represented in his batting, “a unique pointer of the West Indian quest for identity, for ways of expressing our potential bursting at every seam.” James, that most astute of social historians, was, quite simply, fascinated by Rohan Kanhai, and his seminal essay, Kanhai, A Study in Confidence, should be compulsory reading for all serious students of West Indian nationhood and the West Indian psyche and all aspiring batsmen. Of his dashing innings of 77 at the Oval, which helped West Indies to victory over England in the final Test of the 1963 tour, this is what CLR had to say:
“Perhaps I should have seen its national significance, its relation to our quest for national identity. Here was a West Indian proving to himself that there was one field in which the West Indian not only was second to no one, but was the creator of his own destiny. However, swept away by the brilliance and its dramatic circumstances, I floated with the stream.”
In trying to capture “the deep and indeed awed respect” of Learie Constantine – another cricket legend and authentic West Indian hero – for Rohan Kanhai and what he meant by saying that Kanhai had a tendency to go “crazy” at times, this is how James relates the conversation:
“Some batsmen play brilliantly sometimes and at ordinary times they go ahead as usual. That one,” nodding at Kanhai, “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 see strokes that they have never seen before; from him or anybody else. He carries on that way for 60 or 70 or 100 runs and then he comes back with a great innings behind him.”
Many will recall Ian McDonald’s story of love at first sight, of his being so enraptured by Rohan Kanhai’s batting – his timing, his elegance, his artistry – that he felt compelled to write immediately to his father to tell of this new prodigy from the cane fields of British Guiana. Even now, more than five decades later, he still waxes lyrical about the man who he maintains has to be included in “any list of the greatest West Indian batsmen”:
“I speak of Rohan Kanhai, of course, whom of all the sportsmen in all the many sports I have watched in my life I judge to have possessed the most compelling genius of them all.
“When Kanhai came out to bat there was that sudden, expectant, almost fearful, silence that tells you that you are in the presence of some extraordinary phenomenon. Of course you could look forward to his technical brilliance. Was there ever a more perfect square cover drive? And has anyone in the history of the game made a thing of such great technical beauty out of a simple forward defensive stroke?
“And, more than just technical accomplishment, there was the craft and art of Kanhai’s batting – no mighty hammer blows or crude destruction of a bowler, simply the sweetest exercise of the art of batting in the world.”
And our Sunday scribe harks back to James and Constantine when he writes: “You could feel it charge the air around him as he walked to the wicket. I do not know quite how to describe it. It was something that kept the heart beating hard with a special sort of excited fear all through a Kanhai innings as if something marvellous or terrible or even sacred was about to happen. I have thought a lot about it. I think it is something to do with the vulnerability, the near madness, there is in all real genius.” (‘Judging the greatest’ SN, July 4, 2010)
There really is nothing more to add except to wish this Guyanese icon a happy 75th birthday. Bat on, Maestro, bat on…