Rohan Kanhai: Indo-Guyanese Hero Turns 80

By Clem Seecharran

Rohan Bholalall Kanhai will be 80 on 26 December 2015. He was born at Port Mourant, British Guiana (Guyana). He represented the West Indies in 79 Tests between 1957 and 1974, captaining them in his last thirteen. He scored 6,227 runs at an average of 47.53, including 15 centuries and 28 half-centuries. His highest score is 256, at Calcutta in December 1958. He appeared in 61

Rohan Kanhai in full flow (internet photo)
Rohan Kanhai in full flow (internet photo)

consecutive Tests between 30 May 1957 and 20 February 1969, when a nagging knee injury forced him to withdraw from the tour of New Zealand. In his first-class career (1955-81), he scored 29,250 runs at an average of 49.40, with 86 centuries and 120 half-centuries. He took 325 catches. But it is the way Rohan scored his runs, the unconquerable flair that has stayed with aging devotees. As he explains in his autobiography of 1966, Blasting for Runs: ‘When I bat my whole make-up urges me to destroy the opposition as quickly as possible and once you are on top to never let up…Once I’ve got the fielders with their tongues hanging out I aim to run them into the ground’.

For Indo-Guyanese, the mastery and international recognition of Rohan Kanhai became central to their identity, fortifying their self-esteem even as their political fortunes slumped from the mid-60s. His perceived genius would be refracted through the political, necessarily an ethnic Guyanese prism. Two men from Plantation Port Mourant – Kanhai and Cheddi Jagan (1918-97), the Marxist Indian political leader – possessed the Indo-Guyanese psyche, pivotal to their self-belief at the end of Empire. Cricket was more than politics by other means for Indo-Guyanese. Kanhai and Jagan were intertwined with Indian religious iconography that bordered on deification. It was Rohan’s bravado that made him the quintessential rebel, an instrument of their resolve as descendants of indentured labourers to erase the ‘coolie’ stain. It paralleled Cheddi Jagan’s radicalism, which sprang from similar promptings, and therefore could also be appropriated in the shaping of Indo-Guyanese identity.

The people of Port Mourant, in a breezy, less malarial district, were healthier and imaginative; this engendered strategies of mobility beyond the plantation. It fed their abiding iconoclasm, as well as their meteoric rise. Reform on the plantation (by the ‘Booker’ leader, Jock Campbell) fed the rebellious spirit with an insatiable appetite for change. And with the suspension of the constitution, six months after Cheddi Jagan’s victory at the 1953 general elections, a robust and implacably assertive posture took shape at Port Mourant – the spiritual home of Jaganism. Overseas reporters turned up continually at Port Mourant in the mid-1950s: ‘Little Moscow’. To the people on the plantation, moreover, this spoke of their heroic challenge of the old order, something exhilaratingly provocative that would change their world. This was the spirit of place and temper of the time that fashioned the temperament of Rohan Kanhai.

It was evident as early as April 1955 when Kanhai played his second first-class match, against Australia. He had cross-batted the great Keith Miller several times on his way to a half-century, and was reprimanded afterwards by the famous man for playing across the line. Rohan was not daunted; he saw that as a challenge to continue to execute his strokes instinctually, deemed risky and ‘ungrammatical’ by the purists. But the Daily Argosy had recognised the special gifts of 19-year old Kanhai as early as that match, observing that only he and Clyde Walcott were ‘able to meet the tourists on equal terms and show no regard for the bowling’: Miller, Johnson, Davidson and Benaud.

In the inter-colonial final (against Barbados in 1956), British Guiana made 581: Kanhai 195 (run out). Barbados were dismissed for 211. His skills and his mercurial approach were congruent with a seminal Indo-Guyanese aspiration – to produce a first-rate batsman imbued with passion and panache, in the West Indian style. Kanhai would henceforth speak for his people whether he liked it or not. So when he was selected to tour England with the West Indies in 1957, aged 21 (the youngest member), a long-held dream was answered. The Trinidadian journalist, Owen Mathurin, noted: ‘Kanhai is reputed to have the eyes of an eagle…a first-class bat in the making. He possesses a variety of strokes [and] is very smart in the field…The steep upward trend which British Guiana cricket has taken recently in relation to the other West Indian colonies is due largely to the efforts of this fine young player’.

But West Indies were vanquished 3-0 – a catastrophic fall after their glory of 1950. Kanhai had an undistinguished tour. The pain of Indo-Guyanese was palpable, however credible the explanation for Kanhai’s failure in England. No batsman reached 40 in the averages: Collie Smith was first with 39.60, then came Worrell, 38.88, Sobers, 32.00, Walcott, 27.44; Kanhai was fifth with 22.88, followed by Weekes, 19.50. That Indo-Guyanese were not overwhelmed with despair was largely attributable to Cheddi’s Jagan victory in the general elections of August 1957. All the great stars were eclipsed on that tour of 1957, yet the fear that Rohan may not get another chance was gnawing. Many Indo-Guyanese offered prayers that Rohan Kanhai, like Cheddi Jagan, would deliver soon. Kanhai’s batting in 1958, against Pakistan, built on the possibilities evinced spasmodically in England the previous year. He reached 96 in Trinidad and 62 at home in British Guiana, but his average of 37.37 paled against the Olympian batting of Garry Sobers, who averaged 137.33. But Rohan was selected to go on the West Indies tour of India, in 1958-9. It was seen as a kind of homecoming; and he had to come good now. To do otherwise would give the impression, in Mother India, that the years had been squandered. Two other Port Mourant batsmen were also selected: Basil Butcher and Joe Solomon. Three Indians were in the West Indies team: Kanhai, Solomon and Sonny Ramadhin.

Kanhai made 66 and 22 at Bombay, falling to the leg-spinner, Subhash Gupte (1929-2002), in the second innings. In the first innings of the second Test, at Kanpur, he was bowled by Gupte for 0; he made 41 in the second, but succumbed again to the mastery of this very clever bowler, who got 9 for 102 in the first innings. Gupte was a brilliant exponent of the googly (some say two types, of varying pace), but equally adept at bowling a range of deliveries in the same over, including the flipper, while maintaining impeccable control. And he bore his admirable skills with a palpable cockiness, unnerving in its timing and conducive to fallibility by his victims. In 1953, when he had lured West Indian batsmen into extravagance and sudden death – he got 26 wickets in the series – he was a hero of Indians in British Guiana and Trinidad. Now Kanhai’s vulnerability to Subhash was unbearably agonising. But Kanhai’s decisive resolution of his ‘Gupte problem’ is a testimonial to his strength of character:

Subhash Gupte was the greatest leg-spinner I have ever played against…Gupte was India’s golden boy, the only real world-class player they had. In the first Test I presented him with his 100th Test wicket…In the next Test at Kanpur he bowled me…for a blob and as we came in for tea he sauntered up to me and sneered: ‘Hello, Rabbit!’ The jibe brought a giggle from the rest of the players in earshot and set my blood boiling…[It] was not until we moved to Calcutta for the Third Test that the rabbit turned. Garry Sobers went down with stomach trouble so I batted at no. 3 – and by the end of the day was 203 not out. I belted 34 boundaries in a stay just under five hours and shared an unbroken fourth wicket stand of 179 in 144 minutes with Butcher. My century, made in 132 minutes, was the quickest of the series. The next day I scythed my way to 256, unaware that I had topped Frank Worrell’s record Test score against India – 237 in Kingston…[B]ut mastering Gupte was my prize.

The Indian cricket writer and commentator, Dicky Rutnagar (1931-2013), covered the series for the Hindustan Times. He was enthralled by Kanhai’s epic at Eden Gardens; and he drew the conclusion that Gupte had wilted under his ‘punitive blade’: ‘The gaiety of the yuletide was distinctly present in the batting of Rohan Kanhai…[His] correct yet cocky innings was invaluable to his side, for besides providing such a large share of the total…it completely demoralised the Indian attack and nobody more than Gupte, so far the biggest thorn in the side of the West Indies batting’.

But the two other men from Port Mourant also were outstanding in that third Test at Calcutta: Butcher 103, Solomon 69 not out. In the next Test, at Madras, Kanhai and Butcher were again prolific, scoring 99 (run out) and 142 respectively. Joe Solomon made 86 in the Kanpur Test and 100 not out in New Delhi; he topped the batting averages (117.00). Joe recalls that his innings in Delhi was watched by one of his heroes – Jawaharlal Nehru (accompanied by his close friend, Lady Mountbatten) – who complimented him for the ‘maturity’ of his batting.

Rohan’s epic at Calcutta was the Indo-Guyanese gift to Mother India – a vindication, indeed, that the decades had not been squandered. Joe Solomon recalls that India took Rohan to her heart: a gifted returning son. After his 256 at Calcutta, Kanhai was the recipient of an accolade that Indo-Guyanese could claim as recognition of their progress as a people in British Guiana: ‘The President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, made a nice gesture presenting me with a stuffed tiger’s head in appreciation of what he called “a fine innings played in the right spirit”…I shipped the tiger’s head home in a huge box and today it hangs proudly in my mother’s home in British Guiana’. The ‘Tiger of Port Mourant’, and the ‘triumphant fall’, Kanhai’s unique shot first executed in Australia in 1960, would become symbolic of his people’s journey from their poverty in Mother India, to the ‘logies’, the former slave ranges on the plantation, and now towards the niches of freedom being carved out by Kanhai, within the boundary, as well as by their political hero, Cheddi Jagan, beyond the boundary.

Ian McDonald (born 1933), the Guyanese poet, tells a story that helps us understand why, after Rohan’s ‘epic at Calcutta’, they virtually enthroned him amidst their pantheon of Gods. A senior Indo-Guyanese politician related it to Ian while on a visit to the Corentyne in 1955. This man had a brother who was a doctor; another was a famous lawyer; his sister was at university overseas. His father had started as a cane-cutter at Port Mourant; his grandfather was a ‘bound coolie’ from India:

When he was a boy, an old man, it may have been his grandfather, used to tell him about the time he came across the ‘black water’ from India. It seemed like months, if not years, the voyage lasted. And the one clear memory the old man had was that each night on the deck he looked at the stars blazing in the sky and gradually, as night succeeded night, his eyes, coached by the imagination, gradually picked out the shape of a tiger leaping in the sky amidst the constellations. That was what he recalled in the hardship and the monotony and the homesickness of the journey – a tiger leaping in the sky amid the stars. And he told it to his grandson and his grandson told it to me and during the Corentyne weekend traced himself for me that tiger-shape still blazing in the sky. And now at nights, at certain times of the year, I still look up and I think of the old man on his long voyage, and the generations who have done well after him, and it seems to me the tiger leaping in the stars must have become for him a sort of symbol of pride and strength and beauty which he could not then hope to possess but which perhaps he could yearn for in his new land one day. And it seems to me, also, that the generations have not misplaced the symbol or the old man’s yearning.

After India, West Indies played three Tests in Pakistan. But their best bowler, Roy Gilchrist (1934-2001) whose pace was insuperable against India (26 wickets at 16.11), did not go there. He was sent home because of irreconcilable problems with his captain, Gerry Alexander (1928-2011). Kanhai believes that the absence of Gilchrist, in conjunction with the coir matting on which two of the Tests were played, led to their defeat by 2-1. In their fast-medium bowler and captain, Fazal Mahmood (1927-2005), Pakistan had a marvellous practitioner of variation of pace on the mat. The first and second Tests, in Karachi and Dacca, were played on the coir mat: Fazal got 19 for 224. West Indies won the final Test, in Lahore, by an innings and 156 runs. This was played on a conventional turf pitch; Fazal took 1 for 99 in West Indies only innings.

Kanhai clearly did not enjoy the mat. In Karachi and Dacca his scores were 33, 12, 4 and 8. But his double centuries (256 in Calcutta; 217 in Lahore) were beautiful to watch, and they established his reputation as a magical batsman of captivating style, thus answering the Indo-Guyanese yearning. His innings at Lahore was watched by General Ayube Khan, the Pakistani President. A.H. Kardar (1925-96), who captained Pakistan in the West Indies in 1958, was deeply moved by Rohan’s chanceless innings of 32 fours:

It is an innings that will live with us…It shall live with us as will its every stroke, each defensive forward and offensive back-foot stroke between mid-wicket and mid-on. It shall live in our memory as a reminder that in this age of cricketing prudence, indiscretions are as welcome as they are rare…Joined by Sobers [with the score at 38 for 2], Kanhai gave up the role of a back-bencher and took up arms like a lord setting his lands in order. In a partnership of 162 runs…Kanhai’s batsmanship spoke of the thunder and told of the blood-shaking of his heart. The innings was existence itself and presence at the ground a privilege. This Kanhai-Sobers association…was cheered wildly all the while by a knowledgeable crowd. We were privileged to see two princely cricketers in artistic performance…Kanhai’s was an innings to which all hearts – and the Lahore crowd always has a big heart for the visiting team – responded gaily…We shall remember for a long time this masterly innings. It shall continue to shine with increasing brilliance and shall be remembered, reviewed and recreated whenever a Test is played at the Bagh-i-Jinnah ground.

In June 1959, the editor of the Nation in Trinidad, C.L.R. James, reproduced an article by India’s Dicky Rutnagar from the Playfair Annual (England), in which he made an assessment of where he thought Kanhai had reached following the long tour of India and Pakistan in 1958-9. He was meticulous in demonstrating that the flamboyant play was now grounded in solid technical competence, manifested in his application in mastering the formidable craft of Subhash Gupte, the versatile Indian leg-spinner. Rutnagar argued: ‘Almost half of Kanhai’s aggregate of 538 runs for the series came in one dashing innings, at Calcutta [256], but this should not mislead one into thinking that Kanhai was not consistent. In fact, it is he who gave the first indications that Gupte could be mastered long before the series ended. Kanhai’s nimble footwork always placed him well over the ball and he drove with consummate ease off the front foot. Getting his nose right down, he reached well forward to defend against the ball that held out the slightest threat of coming off the wicket awkwardly…’

And Rutnagar was pleased, indeed, that Rohan’s command of the basics did not inhibit his instinctive exuberance:

If Kanhai did not leave India with a superior Test average, it was because he took far too many risks. Nothing seemed to curb the adventurer in Kanhai. At Kanpur he was out for a ‘duck’ in trying to sweep Gupte, and yet, in the second innings, he attempted the stroke within a few minutes of his arrival at the wicket. Surer fielding hands could have made Kanhai pay heavily for his exuberance in the early stages of his monumental innings at Calcutta, but he was absolutely irrepressible and scored at a rate which enabled the West Indies to finish the match before lunch on the fourth day. One is grateful that Kanhai, after the first two Tests against England, in 1957, was not persisted with as an opener, for the added responsibility would almost certainly have flattened the champagne that is Kanhai’s batting.

Arguably the two most internationally recognised men in the history of Indo-West Indians are Rohan Kanhai and V.S. Naipaul (born 1932), the Nobel Laureate in Literature in 2001. It is their art that counts ultimately – perceptible flaws in their personality are deemed integral to their genius. Imprisoned by their gifts, and carriers of massive burdens dictated by race and identity, it was virtually impossible for them to resume assumptions to normality. Kanhai and Naipaul were the first world-class batsman and writer respectively to emerge from the community. Their rise to eminence, in the early 1960s, at the end of Empire, embodied Indo-West Indian arrival – the validation of claims of belonging. They felt they had now earned a place in the creole sensibility. Neither man was comfortable with, or probably even comprehended, the burden with which they were saddled. Consequently, they often resented the mercurial behaviour of their Indo-West Indian compatriots to their art. However, from such unfathomable responses is the complex texture of identity woven; and although Indians were pained by the frequent inability of Kanhai to convert good scores into centuries (he made 28 half-centuries in Tests), the technical mastery and flair did sustain the representative role they thrust upon him. However great the angst Indo-Guyanese experienced when Kanhai disappointed them, it could not diminish his iconic stature. For the same reason they would stick with Cheddi Jagan, their foremost political leader, for fifty years, his limitations as a statesman notwithstanding. Because Rohan Kanhai was a batsman of extraordinary gifts, he occupies a place in the Indo-Guyanese imagination that is inviolable. But he did much more, as C.L.R. James observed in 1966, on the eve of Guyana’s independence:

A great West Indian cricketer in his play should embody some essence of that crowded vagueness which passes for the history of the West Indies. If, like Kanhai, he is one of the most remarkable and individual of contemporary batsmen, then that should not make him less but more West Indian…[I]n Kanhai’s batting what I have found is a unique pointer of the West Indian quest for identity, for ways of expressing our potential bursting at every seam…Here was a West Indian proving to himself that there was one field in which the West Indian not only was second to none, but was the creator of its own destiny…[Here was] a West Indian proving to himself that henceforth he was following no established pattern but would create his own…Kanhai discovered, created a new dimension in batting.

James’s masterpiece, Beyond a Boundary, was published on the eve of the West Indies tour of England, in 1963. Around April of that year James sent a copy of the book to V.S. Naipaul (as he did to Rohan Kanhai). And he thought it imperative to unveil the innermost prompting of the work: he asked Naipaul to convey to West Indians the significance of what he had assiduously pursued in Beyond a Boundary – exploring in earnestness ‘what we are’. He could have made this profound request only of one he considered a West Indian of rare intellectual distinction, however ironic this may appear today.

Rohan Kanhai’s cricket is meritorious by any standard, as is Naipaul’s voluminous writing; and, for a time, it seemed as if Cheddi Jagan’s leadership, his Marxist fantasies notwithstanding, would not fail. By the early 1960s Indo-West Indians walked with a spring in their steps. Not only could they claim kinship with the emerging West Indian sensibility, but timely recognition had come from C.L.R. James, one of the most intrepid, innovative thinkers from the British West Indies.

Ian McDonald continually revisits what the genius of Kanhai means to him. He witnessed many of his great innings, and as recently as November 2006, he pondered again on the life-enhancing images his favourite batsman still evokes in him:

When he came out to bat there was at once that expectant, almost fearful, silence that tells 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 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 the bowler, simply the sweetest exercise of the art of batting in the world. But in the end I am not even talking of these things, important though they are…When Kanhai was batting, with every stroke he played one felt that somehow what you were experiencing is coming from ‘out there’, a gift infinitely valuable and infinitely dangerous, a gift given to only a chosen few in all creation.

Sunil Gavaskar (born 1949) grew up in the shadow of Rohan; he first saw him in late 1958, when the West Indies met India in the first Test in Bombay. It was a seminal experience for the nine year old boy, and it imbued him with a calling to master the art of batting, to follow in the footsteps of his hero. Sunil’s portrait of Rohan, from the early 1980s when he himself was at the peak of his powers, is a testimonial for all time:

Rohan Kanhai is 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 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 I have played with and against. But having seen them all, there is no doubt in my mind that Rohan Kanhai was simply the best of them all. Sir Garry Sobers came quite close to being the best batsman…he was the greatest cricketer ever, and he could do just about anything. But as a batsman I thought Kanhai was just a bit better.

Sunil named his son Rohan, so did another protégé of Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharran of Port Mourant (also born in 1949). This confirms the inviolable stature of Rohan Kanhai, the ‘Tiger of Port Mourant’. In May 1966, on the occasion of Guyana’s Independence, James Scott celebrated his style thus: ‘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’. Nineteen years after his first first-class match, in March-April 1974, Rohan Kanhai played his last Test, against England in Trinidad. Michael Gibbes wrote at the time: ‘His niche in West Indies cricket…is assured, as is his place in the hearts of all who treasure human excellence in any form’.

I can add nothing more.

Clem Seecharan is Emeritus Professor of History at London Metropolitan University. His books include From Ranji to Rohan: Cricket and Indian Identity in Colonial Guyana, 1890s-1960s and Hand-in-Hand History of Cricket in Guyana, 1865-97, Vol 1: The Foundation (2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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