Sonny Ramadhin – a Caribbean trailblazer immortalised in a victory song

The ‘mystery’ spinner, who died aged 92 in March, was the first top-class Indian cricketer to make Caribbean move, his 1950 Lord’s feat an example of his talents

A report by Mike Atherton for The Times of London.

Before the first great West Indian batsman, George Headley, played his last Test in January 1954 money had to be raised. He had been playing for Dudley in the Birmingham league the previous English summer, and while there was unstoppable momentum to repatriate this cricketing giant for the start of England’s 1953-54 tour to the Caribbean, even though he had not played Test cricket for six years and was 44 years old at this point, it needed a public subscription to make it happen.

More than £1,000 was raised by Jamaicans, at a time of real financial hardship, a sum that was twice the touring fee that England’s cricketers would receive that winter and four times that which the local professionals would earn for the five-match series. If there was a happy ending, it came in the shape of a thumping West Indies win at Sabina Park, although Headley failed to make a significant contribution in either innings and did not play Test cricket again.

It was, David Woodhouse writes in his superb new book, Who Only Cricket Know, a reminder that “there is a long tradition in the Caribbean of collections by the general public to support their cricketers, stretching as far back at the inaugural 1900 tour of England and as far forward as 1972”. This last public leg-up for local cricketers refers to the funds raised by Antiguans to send Viv Richards and Andy Roberts to Alf Gover’s indoor school in
London, before their international careers were launched.

Ramadhin, who died this week, was the last surviving member of the first West Indies team to win a Test in England, at Lord’s in 1950

For a time during the four decades that encapsulated the rise of West Indies cricket to the pinnacle of achievement, between 1950 and 1990, there was perhaps a stronger link between Caribbean cricketers and their supporters than anywhere else in the world. Achievements on the field were linked with the social and economic standing of those who watched at home, or of those who came to England in the great wave of emigration after the Second World War. If the cricketers did well, those watching walked a little taller.

The residual pride felt in the achievements of this generation of cricketers could be gleaned in many of the obituaries for Sonny Ramadhin this week, the first player of Indian heritage to play for West Indies and one half of the celebrated duo, alongside Alf Valentine, that spun West Indies to their first Test victory in England, at Lord’s in 1950. This feat was immortalised in a victory song, originally penned by Lord Kitchener and popularised by Lord Beginner, two Calypsonians who had come to England two years before on the Empire Windrush, that included the line, “those two little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine”.

After Sir Everton Weekes’s death in July 2020, Ramadhin was the last surviving member of that group of players from 1950. His grandparents had come to Trinidad as indentured labourers from India to work on the sugar plantations and if many top-class cricketers of Indian heritage followed, such as Rohan Kanhai, and others from the sugar estates in Trinidad and Guyana, Ramadhin was the first, the trailblazer.

There are bits of footage on YouTube of Ramadhin bowling. He was short in stature, no more than 5ft 4in in height, and he bowled with his cap on and sleeves rolled down and buttoned at the wrist. He was what could be called now a “mystery” spinner, since he spun the ball both ways from a flick of the fingers rather than turn of the wrist. Think of someone like Sunil Narine, and you wouldn’t be far away from understanding how Ramadhin bowled.

Ramadhin was the first player of Indian heritage to play for West Indies

Modern players can study Narine through video footage to fathom his mystery. There was no such opportunity with Ramadhin, so when he burst on to the scene in 1950, he did so with remarkable success. He had played only two first-class matches before that England tour, but at Lord’s his match figures were 11 for 152 off 115 overs, 70 of which were maidens. It was only after Colin Cowdrey and Peter May padded him away seven years later, than Ramadhin’s effectiveness declined.

Ramadhin is one of the figures that binds together Woodhouse’s book, which ostensibly concentrates on the 1953-54 tour, led by Len Hutton for England and Jeffrey Stollmeyer for West Indies, but is far more wide-ranging than that. What a cast it was: the three Ws — Weekes, Clyde Walcott and Frank Worrell — glimpses of Headley and Garry Sobers, the spin twins for West Indies and some of England’s most celebrated cricketers, including Hutton, Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Denis Compton and spin twins of their own, Jim Laker and Tony Lock.

The tour itself provides ample interest, being between the two best teams of the day and being one of the most notorious of all time, with, among many controversies, bowlers being called for throwing, crowds rioting, umpires needing protection, bouncer warfare and the perennial bugbear of slow over rates. The perceived behaviour and attitude of England’s cricketers was such that it almost cost Hutton the captaincy, and did cost Trueman his place on the next winter’s Ashes tour.

Woodhouse gives full flavour to the complex issues of race and class, without which Caribbean cricket of the time cannot be understood. England’s cricketers, most of them visiting the region for the first time, found themselves caught between the planter class, many of whom wanted to see the visitors prevail, and the nationalists, who gleaned from the potential of West Indian success on the field the future promise of self-government.

Woodhouse places the tour in the context of what had been, in 1950, and what was to come. Ramadhin’s last Test was in Australia in 1960-61, the memorable tour on which Worrell became the first tenured black captain of West Indies. He paved the way for the victorious dynasties under Clive Lloyd and then Viv Richards, who led possibly the best and certainly the most charismatic teams of all time.

Ramadhin had long retired from top-flight cricket by that stage, although he remained in touch with the game through, first, the Lancashire leagues, where he played post retirement, and then through his son-in-law, Willie Hogg, the former Lancashire player, and his grandson, Kyle Hogg, also of Lancashire. To understand what this shy and humble man, who for many years ran a pub in Saddleworth in retirement, and others of his generation meant to West Indian supporters, Woodhouse’s book is a fine place to start.

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