Sir Garfield Sobers pays tribute to the three Ws, West Indies cricket’s most famous trio, in the 2021 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
The year was 1950, and West Indies were in England on one of the most celebrated tours in cricket history. I was 13 when it started, and would leave home at seven in the morning to try to catch snatches of commentary on my way to Bay Street Boys’ School in Bridgetown. My father had died at sea during the war when I was five – he was a merchant seaman, and his ship was torpedoed – and my mother did not have a radio, so I used to stop outside people’s houses and press my ear to their doors or windows to listen in until they shooed me away.
I remember that famous victory at Lord’s – West Indies’ first in England – when Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine were immortalised in calypso. And I can still hear the voice of the English commentator describing the batting of my boyhood heroes, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes, as we went on to win the series.
Worrell, said the voice, batted so delicately that when he stroked the ball to the boundary, it got there just before the fielder, who tired himself out chasing it. Walcott was the Bully Beef of the West Indies batting, because he hit the ball with such power that the fielder took his hands out of the way.
And Weekes was so quick-footed and graceful, so neat and tidy, that the fielders could only stand and admire his strokeplay. That voice, I later discovered, belonged to John Arlott, and his words made a lasting impression. It was not long before I had the opportunity to tell him so.
The Three Ws were all born in the parish of St Michael in the south-west of Barbados. So was I, but I did not really get to know them until I was selected to play for West Indies less than four years later. As a boy, I used to put the numbers up on the scoreboard at Bay Pasture, the Wanderers ground, so I had the perfect vantage point to watch and study them when they were playing for their clubs. I did not get the chance to play against them, though, because by the time Denis Atkinson, later to become one of my Test captains, got me into the Police team, they were spending most of their time off the island, touring with West Indies or playing in the Lancashire Leagues.
I had made a bit of a name for myself when I was 13 or 14 playing against much older fellows, and I first appeared for Barbados against the Indian touring team at 16. But, little over a year later, I was still playing cricket in the street with my friends, as I did most evenings, when a message came to my home summoning me to Jamaica for the Fifth Test against England. I was amazed. Two or three days later, I got to Sabina Park, where the players were practising, and saw Worrell, Walcott and Weekes in the dressing-room, as well as the great George Headley. I said to myself: “Oh boy, you have really arrived.”
Because Valentine was sick, I had been selected as a left-arm spinner batting at No. 9, and I picked up four wickets in England’s first innings. Len Hutton got a double-hundred, and they won easily. But everybody was kind and complimentary, although I don’t think they realised I had some ability as a batsman until I was asked to open in the Third Test against Australia the following year. Jeff Stollmeyer, the captain, had apparently trodden on a ball and twisted his ankle, though I was led to believe he had other reasons for not facing Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.
I went in thinking I wasn’t really an opening batsman, so I wasn’t going to try and play like one. I took guard and looked around the field: no one in front of me except Miller, the bowler. I said to myself: “Don’t look behind and, if you see red, just throw the bat.” I hit him for four fours in his first over. Then Ian Johnson came on to bowl his off-breaks: I had a sweep, and was caught at backward square leg for 43.
I never batted at No. 9 again, but I knew I still had a lot to learn. I will always say that it was Atkinson who did most to set me on my path, because he spotted me as a little boy, and would send the groundsman to take me on his bicycle and bowl to him at the Wanderers. But Frank, Clyde and Everton helped me in so many ways.
There are some places where the senior players don’t want to see the youngsters – they want them out of the room – but those fellows were nothing like that. Forget about their standing as three of the greatest players the game had seen: they always had time for you.
I used to see a lot of Frank when I went to England to play for Radcliffe in the Central Lancashire League. He lived near me, and I used to go to his house and ask for information and advice about the pitches I would play on, and the players I would face. One of them was Cec Pepper, the great Australian all-rounder, and the only player around who bowled a flipper. The first time I faced him, I was batting reasonably well, but got a bit carried away when he sent down a short one. I was halfway through my pull shot when I suddenly remembered what Frank had said about his flipper, and dropped the bat quickly. The ball hit it, and fell safely to the ground. Cec, who was renowned for his salty language, came marching down the pitch: “You’ve been talking to that so-and-so Worrell, haven’t you!” Or words to that effect.
Frank also taught me how to supplement my income. I got £500 for the entire league season, and out of that I had to pay for my digs and keep myself tidy. The professional could make extra cash by scoring 50, at which point a collection box would go round the ground. The pennies, shillings and sometimes pounds would stop going in if you were out, and Frank drummed it into me: “Don’t get out until the last penny drops.” He had a lasting influence on West Indies cricket when he became captain, and I was honoured to succeed him.
I was lucky to have Clyde at the other end when I was scoring the world record 365 not out against Pakistan at Sabina Park in 1958. He came down the wicket, and said just what I wanted to hear: “You get the runs, and I’ll keep you going.” He was as good as his word, finishing unbeaten on 88.
Everton became a lifelong friend. We had played a bit of dominoes and bridge together before we started travelling the world, and we did so regularly when we were back in Barbados. I enjoyed sitting on top of the pavilion at Kensington watching cricket with him. He was always such a cheerful person, and a very nice man.
They have all gone now: Frank from leukaemia at the age of 42 in 1967, Clyde aged 80 in 2006, and Everton last year at 95. Yet they will never be forgotten, not just in the Caribbean, but all round the world. They were great players and great ambassadors for West Indies cricket. They were also great people.