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Sonny Ramadhin: A self-taught bowler of remarkable merit – Almanack

by Harry Gee 5 minute read

In the summer of 1950, the pride of English batting was bemused and bewildered by Sonny Ramadhin – an unknown 20-year-old West Indies spinner. His feats made him a shoo-in as a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

Little could the parents of Sonny Ramadhin, the West Indies right-arm spin bowler, have guessed what a stir their son would make in the cricket world when he was born at Esperance Village, Trinidad, on May 1, 1930. His mother and father were West Indian, and a grandparent Indian. There had been no history of cricket players in the family, yet the boy, almost entirely self-taught in the game, became a bowler of remarkable merit before he was 21.

Last summer Ramadhin took 135 wickets for 14.88 runs apiece – a bigger number than any other West Indies bowler had ever captured in England. His performances during the tour are given fully in the West Indies section of this issue. Here is the story of his astonishing rise to fame.

Ramadhin, who owns to no other first name but Sonny, was introduced to cricket at the Canadian Mission School, Duncan Village, Trinidad. He took bat in hand as naturally as most youngsters, but never bowled at school. His reward for batting prowess came when he carried off the Juggernaut Cup for the best average.

After 12 years at school, Ramadhin left at 16. He did not play organised cricket for some time, but took every chance to practise with the local Palmiste club in Trinidad. Ramadhin, who even now stands no more than 5ft 4ins and just tips the scales at nine stone, must have looked a frail figure in his teens. He rarely used to get a knock in the Palmiste nets, so he started to bowl. Almost at once he, and the batsmen he bowled to, found that he could turn the ball from the off or from leg without change of arm or body action. His inclusion in the Palmiste reserve team followed, and promotion to the first eleven soon came.

The club played second-division cricket, with games on Sunday lasting from 1.30 to 6pm. Ramadhin then was 17. A year later the club won the Callender Cup trophy, and cricket enthusiasts in Trinidad began to take notice of the youth who could make the ball break either way by a simple flick of his small fingers and an imperceptible turn of the wrist.

Sonny Ramadhin in action against England in June 1957

A very good friend, Mr S. Beekie, brought Ramadhin to the notice of Mr C.I. Skinner, of the Trinidad Leaseholds Oil Company. Ramadhin, at 19, accepted work as a storekeeper with the company, and Mr Skinner, a former Inter-Colonial player and an all-rounder for Barbados, devoted himself by encouragement and helpful hints to developing the ability which he plainly saw in his protege. Ramadhin met with consistent success for the Leaseholds team; then, well recommended, he was picked for the West Indies trials prior to the selection of the team for England.

In two matches on a matting pitch for Trinidad against Jamaica Palmiste, his only first-class games before coming to England Palmiste, Ramadhin took twelve wickets for 19.25 runs apiece. This bit of luck, as Ramadhin describes it, led to his selection. John Goddard, the West Indies captain, saw Ramadhin in one trial and straightaway staked his faith on his peculiar gifts. Jeffrey Stollmeyer, the Trinidad captain, also spoke highly of Ramadhin.

Sonny Ramadhin with spin-twin Alf Valentine during West Indies’ tour of England in 1950

So he came to England when hardly 20, a great hope for his country and a mystery for English batsmen to solve. From the start Ramadhin perplexed his rivals, and as the tour went on he grew into a bogey with a reputation which worried most batsmen even before he bowled against them.

His orthodox attack was the off-break spun with the middle finger down the seam. The forefinger, now thickened, used to bleed when Ramadhin found himself called on to bowl dozens of overs, but the digit gradually became stronger, and bathing it in hot water proved a salve for soreness. On pitches when the ball did not turn much, Ramadhin attacked the off stump. If the turf helped spin, then he pitched the ball outside off. His variations, which kept the batsmen on tenterhooks, were the leg-break and plain straight ball, bowled perhaps twice in an over. The leg-break, spun principally by the middle and third fingers, was almost invariably pitched on the middle stump.

Ramadhin flighted the ball, yet never tossed it, and with a clever change of pace alternating from slow to medium he presented additional difficulties to batsmen who hesitated to go forward to kill the spin. Hutton, by the way, earned the admiration of Ramadhin who remarked: “He played me best, never took a risk, and was so quick on his feet in playing forward.”

Ramadhin, at times, employed three short legs, one somewhat deeper than normal, but most of his victims were clean bowled and stumped – a tribute to his accuracy and bewildering spin. Ramadhin always bowled with his sleeves down and buttoned to the wrist, and batsmen gained little help from trying to watch his hand. On practically every occasion he wore a cap. It was rumoured at one stage, when ringside critics as well as batsmen were trying to fathom his secrets, that he touched his cap as a signal to the wicketkeeper when about to bowl the leg-break, but Ramadhin said the action was involuntary and meant nothing. He gave no signals to Walcott or Christiani, who, according to Ramadhin, could spot the leg-break without prior notification.

Sonny Ramadhin demonstrating his grip to an intrigued Donald Bradman in Brisbane, early 1950s

If there was one hint that the ball would break from leg, it came when Ramadhin, at the end of his quick seven-pace run, often moved nearer the stumps to deliver the ball with his usual over-the-wicket action. Opponents and onlookers wondered if Ramadhin ever bowled the googly. He did not, because he cannot twist his wrist sufficiently to bring the ball out of the back of his hand.

So, with batsmen looking for mysterious deliveries which rarely came as they anticipated, Ramadhin captured wickets and the admiration of cricket enthusiasts, both young and old. Full of energy, he was always ready to supplement his bowling value to the side by fielding on the boundary or at cover, but his batting record on the tour showed little indication of the skill of which he was so proud during his school days.

Ramadhin has two hobbies – cycling, and dabbling into the mechanics of motor cars – and a great ambition to play in Test matches in Australia. Instead of returning home he went with the Commonwealth XI to India, and intended to follow that tour with a summer engagement as professional to Crompton, the Lancashire League club.

Sonny Ramadhin played in 43 Tests for West Indies, taking 158 wickets at 28.98.

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