The golden continuum of champions

Last month during his feature address at the 2011 Sports Award ceremony, President Ramotar, while praising our current champions, made a powerful plea for us to remember and honour sportsmen and sportswomen who performed nobly in the past but were all too likely to sink into obscurity and even oblivion as the years pass. He called for sporting associations to establish Halls of Fame which would permanently commemorate the contributions of those who had made their nation proud in the past but had been forgotten.

I hope the President’s plea is actively pursued. Let us bring our forgotten heroes and heroines out of the shadows. And, as an example, let me indulge myself by recalling a great West Indian sporting hero in my own family who, I will take any odds, is completely unknown to 99.9% of the current generation.

A E (Bertie) Harragin was my mother’s favourite uncle. At least she always spoke fondly of him as being kindly, handsome, amusing and interested in us children which was important to her. He died when I was nine and I only have vague memories of him, though I do have an overall impression of a tall man of infinite physical grace who did not condescend to us children but held serious conversations with us. He asked my father once if I was a “fast” runner or an “endurance” runner because it was important to know that for the sake of my future in sports. I wish he had lived longer so that I could have known him when I was older. He served with distinction in the British West Indian Regiment in the First World War and after the war rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and became Deputy Inspector-General of the police force in Trinidad.

Bertie Harragin was in his time by far Trinidad’s greatest all-round sportsman. In the book published to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Queens Park Cricket Club, an article on him is entitled ‘He Towered Above Them All‘ and ends with the words, “he left behind a legacy as being the man by whom any Trinidad and Tobago all-round sportsman is measured.”

The record is remarkable. He was an outstanding footballer, boxer, swimmer, and track and field athlete, excelling in sprinting, hurdling, the pole vault and the shotput. In competition he once threw the cricket ball 128 yards 4 inches to establish a Caribbean, and even, I believe, a world record which was never beaten. He was a champion cyclist and his one-mile cycling record stood for 25 years in Trinidad.

But Bertie Harragin was most celebrated as a cricketer. He first played for Trinidad in 1897 at the age of 20, scoring 73 and 53. He captained Trinidad to victory in the Inter-Colonial Cup in 1901, 1904, 1907 and 1910. Years later, in a legendary exploit, challenged by the fact that Trinidad had not beaten Barbados in Barbados since his own win in 1904, he came out of long retirement in 1932 to captain Trinidad again at the age of 55 and led his side to victory in Barbados against a much favoured team which included the great West Indian fast bowlers Mannie Martindale and Herman Griffith and several other Test stars. It was the sort of challenge he relished.

In 1906 he was vice-captain of the West Indian team which toured England, finishing second in the batting averages. In the first fixture of the tour played against W G Grace’s XI, in a quick-fire innings of 50, Harragin had the temerity to drive the Grand Old Man of cricket for six sixes “out of the ground,” the match report states. “Uncle Bertie hit W G Grace for six sixes in an innings” is a feat I have long treasured in my private collection of splendid sporting achievements.

There are so many Guyanese and West Indian men and women who lived extraordinary lives and performed remarkable feats or whose achievements were exemplary in their time and are now hardly remembered or not remembered at all. My uncle Bertie Harragin was such a man and it saddens me to think that when I and my generation pass away the wonderful life he lived will sink into complete oblivion. I write this column in his honour and in honour of all those marvellous Guyanese and also West Indian sportsmen and sportswomen whose astonishing lives and careers are in danger of not being captured in any permanent record.

The record of Bertie Harragin as a cricketer and all-round sportsman merits that he be remembered. But, more importantly, in any man’s life, how does one preserve something of the indefinable essence of the man once he has gone? All the accounts I have indicate that Bertie Harragin was a man of charismatic charm and authority, possessing a nature which drew people to him in lasting friendship and admiration. He was certainly much revered in our family. But, to be more objective than that, I put my trust in the assessment of CLR James in his great book Beyond A Boundary. In writing of old Constantine, Learie’s father, CLR writes as follows:

“Old Constantine was an independent spirit. Cricket must have meant a great deal to him. Yet when some dispute broke out with the authorities he refused to play any more. One who saw it told me how A.E. Harragin left the Queen’s Park pavilion, walked over to where Constantine was sitting in the stands and persuaded him to come back. Few people in Trinidad, white or black, could refuse Bertie Harragin anything. He was an all-round athlete of rare powers, of singular honesty and charm. I would have accepted any cricket pronouncement of his at face value. He was one of the very few white men in the island at the time who never seemed aware of the colour of the person he was speaking to.”

And, writing of the emergence of young Learie Constantine, CLR had this to say:

“Even to my interested eye he was full of promise, but not more. Major Harragin, however, was captaining Trinidad in the evening of his cricketing days. He knew a cricketer when he saw one and he probably could see much of the father in the son. Practically on his own individual judgment he put Learie in the intercolonial tournament of 1921. But for the Major’s sharp eye and authority it is most unlikely that he would have got in so early.”

When Bertie Harragin died his friend and cricket colleague Andre Cipriani, brother of Captain Arthur Cipriani, founder of Trinidad’s labour union movement, said this of him: “On the field of play as on active service Bertie was guide, philosopher and friend to all, regardless of colour, class or creed.”
Around the region, and certainly in Guyana, there surely are many sporting icons of the past waiting to be re-discovered and given the long-term honour due to them. I hope the President’s words will have touched a nerve in our sporting fraternity. Quite apart from anything else, our young contestants can only benefit by understanding the legacies of achievement they inherit and which they in turn will pass on. Their places are not in isolation but in the golden continuum of champions.

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