SONNY RAMADHIN: THE CALYSO CRICKET ENIGMA
One beautiful summer’s day in 1964 I had the pleasure of being taken to Headingley to watch the Roses match, a highlight of cricket’s summer in England. It was a memorable day in which Yorkshire scored 352, belying the old adages of ‘no fours before lunch’, and ‘no cutting before July’ (well, it was august in fact), applicable specifically to Roses matches. Several of Yorkshire’s batsman scored runs, in a team of which only one, Tony Nicholson, never played for England (mind you, he was elected to tour south Africa but pulled out due to injury). There was one large reason why the batsman all got in and then got out, and that reason was Sonny Ramadhin, with Lancashire as an overseas player.
Ramadhin was a small man, bowling off a short run, and had a nondescript, apparently unthreatening action. It was noticeable that he always bowled in a cap and with his sleeves rolled down. He bowled 50 overs in that innings, mainly on that day, and nobody was able to collar him or figure out which way the ball was spinning. He finished with 8 for 121. The little West Indian master of spin bowling benefitted from pressure at the other end, where Statham and Higgs toiled away without taking a single wicket. Statham in particular, to the great appreciation of the Leeds crowd, bowled magnificently – 35 overs in that innings, taking none for 81, but I swear he beat the outside or inside edge at least twice in every one of those overs, delivered on a flat pitch, and deserved at least 5 or 6 wickets. At the other end the Yorkshiremen, with, between them, a monumental amount of experience (Boycott, Hampshire, Close, Illingworth, Trueman), but not a strong reputation for coping with leg-spin, struggled against Ramadhin. He tied them in knots. They failed to pick the spin, and eventually one by one eight of them fell to his wiles.
There was of course a history to this. Ramadhin sprang to fame in 1950, when he and Alf Valentine put England to the sword as the West Indies’ ‘spin twins’ in the ‘calypso’ season. The tin drums never stopped being beaten as hard as were England that year. The spin twins took 59 wickets in that series of four tests, the first series won by the West indies against England. England toured the Caribbean in 1953-4, where the series was drawn 2-2, but England again struggled against Ramadhin.
In England in 1957, it was clear that the English batsmen had to find a way of countering Ramadhin if they were to win the series. The problem was that Ramadhin was hard to read, as he bowled leg breaks and off breaks without apparently any change of action. If the ball pitched outside the off stump you were often unsure if it would spin away or spin back to hit the off stump. The way they found was unedifying but ultimately effective. In the first test at Edgbaston England were bowled out for 186. Ramadhin took 7 for 49 and the writing was very much on the wall. The West Indies, assisted by a great 161 from OG Smith, made 474. In the second innings England were sliding to a big defeat at 113 for 3 when Cowdrey joined May. What followed on day 4 and part of day 5 was at the time an England record stand of 411 by these two, who famously used their pads to counter Ramadhin’s mystifying spin. Nowadays this response would result in an LBW decision, because playing no shot to a ball striking the pad outside the line of off stump but playing no shot is given out; not so in 1957 until a change in the LBW law brought about by May and Cowdrey’s tactic. I have no doubt this was almost as frustrating for the paying public as it was for the West Indies team, as ball after ball was just padded away. England did not score quickly. Cowdrey’s 154 took 500 minutes while May’s 285 not out took 600 minutes, although bear in mind that teams would get through about 120 overs a day, or 20 overs an hour, in contrast to today’s lethargic rate of 12 or 13.
The tactic worked very well for England, who were able to declare their second innings closed after a further stand between May and Evans, at 583 for 6. What followed was very nearly one of the all-time extraordinary fightbacks in test history as England reduced West Indies, chasing nearly 300, to 72 for 7 in their second innings, off a gruelling 60 overs, to achieve a draw. Ramadhin ceased to be a threat to England, who took the series comfortably by 3-0. In fact at this level Ramadhin was never again the force he had been, except against less adept opposition such as Yorkshire on that day in 1964. However, Yorkshire did go on to win comfortably, Lancashire being very short of good batters with Statham, normally a rabbit, in at number 7.
Ramadhin’s response to Edgbaston was interesting. He said that Peter May played beautifully but as for Cowdrey, he got him LBW 87 times. It is interesting to speculate what exactly Ramadhin meant. Did he mean that May did not use the padding-away tactic, or that he used it but nonetheless played well enough that he would likely not have been dismissed anyway? His remark about Cowdrey probably means, not that the umpire was mistaken 87 times, but that the LBW law was against him. In fact, in my judgment, before DRS came in the LBW law was inherently inimical to spinners. A long stride down the pitch, kicking the ball away from outside leg, or even too much spin on very full deliveries, was enough to avoid being given out. It sometimes seemed that a spinner had to get a batsman out four or five times before he was given. Spinners will feel Ramadhin’s Edgbaston anguish very personally.
Ramadhin was not the first or the last in the line of mystery spinners. Earlier there was Jack Iverson of Australia. Later there was Johnny Gleeson, also of Australia. More recently the doosra, the slider, the topsinner, and so on, have made a mystery out of both leg spin and off spin. Kumble, Warne, Saqlain, Muralitharan, Narine, Mendis, all in their turn have made fools of good batsman. Interestingly enough England never produced such a mystery spinner. Confronted with a young man attempting such antics I feel sure a county coach would have hauled him up and told him not to do that prissy stuff again. At Cardiff in 2009, orthodox left-arm spinner Monty Panesar, saving the game with Anderson for England versus Australia, cried out ‘googly’ as Warne bowled to him. ‘Warney’, joked Ponting from short leg, ‘your career’s over, mate. Monty’s sussed you out.’
Such remark was in fact the legacy of the mystery spinners, whose career did indeed depend on not being ‘sussed out’. Ramadhin was never fully fathomed, but was never again, after May and Cowdrey’s marathon at Edgbaston, the force he had been earlier. He was, however, still fascinating to watch. He retired in 1965 with 158 test wickets at 29 each. Valentine, his calypso twin, took 139 at 30, and after a striking career start was also not much of a force in tests after 1954. Ramadhin is now 91 years old, while Valentine passed away in 2004. It is amazing to think that when they destroyed England in that landmark series of 1950 both of them only 20 years old.