(Born on Boxing day, 1935
In the last 87 years, the West Indies have bestowed upon the cricketing world some of the most gifted and breathtakingly exciting batsmen from George Headley to Brian Lara. But, within that constellation, Rohan Kanhai shines brightest as the region’s most gifted exponent of the art of batting. Kanhai’s heroics always staggered the imagination and often defied description. In 1964, while watching him at Leeds, Sir Learie Constantine was moved to remark, “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 have seen strokes that they have never seen before: from him or anybody else. He carries on that way for 60 or 70 or 100 and then he comes back with a great innings behind him.”
Indeed there was something hauntingly mysterious, indescribably captivating about Kanhai at the crease. Perhaps, it was that ‘something’ that Sir Learie was alluding to. Too often today, sportswriters mistakenly equate mere talent with genius, but not so with Rohan Kanhai. It is said that there is a thin line between genius and insanity. At the crease, in his own inimitable style, Kanhai often straddled that line. Sir Learie puts it this way: “You know at times he goes crazy.” CLR James, caught up in the euphoria of the socialist movement in England at that time; in the idealism of Marxist philosophy; and in his own political convictions, tried to frame Kanhai’s game within the context of national liberation. He wrote that, “Kanhai was an East Indian, and East Indians were still somewhat looked down upon by other people in the Caribbean”. CLR James, therefore, saw in Kanhai, an individual who wanted to prove to the world that “there was one field in which West Indians not only was second to none, but was the creator of its own destiny.” I do not believe, and in reality, there really is nothing to suggest, that Kanhai ever thought of his game in such socio-political terms. Kanhai played cricket in the true spirit of the game. He loved and appreciated it, but never confused it with life. It was always, to him, only a game. Kanhai instinctively understood that the purpose of batting is to entertain, and the crease was the stage on which he performed. He always seemed to get into position early to play his stroke, and the most important thing was that he always had in mind an attacking one!
In today’s game, its defense first, patience and risk free batting. A style much admired and celebrated because it represents all of the things that are important in the game today – nothing breathtaking or spontaneous, mind you – just dogged, deliberate, and defensive. There is that growing consensus today that entertainment can no longer be gotten from test cricket. For that we get the T20 lick-it cricket, a game in which batsmen are forced to play attacking, exciting cricket. Oh dear me, I thought these things came naturally to batsmen! Not anymore, it seems. This is the era of coaches, theories and game plans. Not much room for individuality or style. Heaven forbid that a batsman should try to be spontaneous or creative! Forever conscious of ratings – LG, Coopers and Lybrant, and who knows what else – today’s batsmen keep one eye, or is it both eyes, on statistics. Kanhai was oblivious to personal stats and numbers. His was a greater calling, a selfless duty – team first. He understood that his role, often at number three, was to demoralize the opposition. But, unlike so many of today’s stars, Kanhai did not transgress the spirit of the gentleman’s game or resort to unsportsmanlike conduct. Instead, he used his blade to tame, maim, and defame the opposition, and set the stage for the mayhem that was sure to follow in his wake.
Folklore is inseparable from any talk of West Indies cricket and one such is about the 1960-61 tour to Australia and the legendary fast bowler Allan Davidson. As the story goes, the Babulal (that’s not his real name, you know) was in full cry – hooking, pulling, and driving Davidson to every part of the field. After one torrid over in which he was severely mauled, wicketkeeper Grout went up to his captain, Richie Benaud, to inquire if, perhaps, the heat was bothering Kanhai. Benaud, somewhat confused, asked Grout why in the world he would think such a thing. Grout replied that only a few overs ago, when Kanhai first came to the crease, he was defending the very same balls that he was now, effortlessly and nonchalantly, dispatching to the boundary. Benaud, smiling, replied that it was not the heat or any such thing, but that this is Rohan kanhai and that’s how he bats! About the game, frankly, almost 60 years later, who cares? What one remembers is that Kanhai scored a century in each innings of the test (the first to do so in Australia), and Lance Gibbs got his famous hat trick – unforgettable moments indeed. Although the story itself may be true, there seems to be some confusion about the bowler (Davidson did not play in that test match).
Standing above every other West Indian batsman from his or any other era, Rohan Kanhai rubbished conventional theory, defied the coaching manual, heeded the credo of team first even to the detriment of personal statistics; met the opposition head on, and always entertained his fans.