By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published December 15, 2014
In memory of Pablo McNeil: “The Bolt of Lightning and Me”
On a sunny day in high school, a track and field coach and former two-time Olympian, Pablo McNeil, most famously known for introducing Usain Bolt to the world, summoned all the cricketers to the front of the school by the Principal’s office. Mr. McNeil, a disciplinarian at heart, was not to be defied when he gave an order.
Pablo or Sir Mac, as he was affectionately called, had famously that year shared his story with the entire school of his personal experiences with former Prime Minister, Michael Manley. On the morning after the Prime Minister died, he told us how Michael Manley saw him sprinting away on the cricket field after a ball and encouraged him to focus on track and field. These circumstances are eerily similar to what happened between him (McNeil) and the legendary Usain Bolt on the cricket field a few decades later.
That day, which followed Michael Manley’s death, I saw Mr. McNeil cry before the entire school population. No one would have believed it if we didn’t witness it ourselves. Mr. McNeil crying! I guess we were too young to understand, but the entire nation was crying, the entire Caribbean, the entire world. A sad day it was for the Caribbean as two political legends, Michael Manley, and Cheddi Jagan, had passed away, coincidentally on the same day.
THE UNKNOWN MAN: VIV RICHARDS?
On this day, however, when Mr. McNeil summoned us, we were being introduced to a cricket and West Indian legend. We all approached Mr. McNeil, adjacent to the principal’s office and stood some distance away. We saw McNeil and another individual chirping away, like old friends, sharing laughs and catching up on old times. Who was this man? Why did Mr. McNeil summon us? Mr. McNeil is laughing! This was another side of Mr. McNeil we rarely saw.
Mr. McNeil turned around, and with a voice that shook mountains, asked us if we knew the man standing next to him. To be honest, none of us did. I knew his face looked familiar and I had seen a younger version of him at least once on my television. Possibly, during a rain or bad light delay in a cricket match when they showed old clips of the ‘good old days’ in West Indies cricket.
After the obvious ignorance plastered over our faces a bit, I heard a few of my colleagues’ attempt a few guesses. Some were so off, I was embarrassed for us all. “Viv Richards”, one guy shouted. I nearly fainted.
Eventually Sir Mac satirically revealed to us that the man standing next to us was Alfred Valentine: a spin bowling legend for the West Indies cricket team in the 1950s and 60s, and one-half of the famous ‘spin-twins’. Spin Twins? Outside Lance Gibbs, many of us didn’t know of any great West Indian spinners. We heard a lot about the great fast bowlers: Marshall, Garner, Roberts, Holding, Hall, Ambrose, Walsh, among others.
When Mr. McNeil said “Valentine”, immediately I recognized the name. My dad had told me a story about Valentine and Ramadhin. He spoke of other greats often: the three W’s, Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Kanhai, and many others. Valentine was an unusual name that stuck with me and immediately all my dad’s stories came rushing back.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
I was sharing the same ground with a revered cricketing legend! Immediately, it became a sacred ground and I wondered if, like Moses, I was supposed to remove my footwear. A few of my colleagues were not that familiar with the name and as such were not as awe-struck. Sir Mac went into a brief recollection and summary of Valentine’s career in front of us all, with Valentine glinting an embarrassed smile.
Mr. Valentine, in pure altruistic form, as with many children who found safety in his foster home over the years, took a moment to encourage us in our studies and our cricket aspirations. Our school captain, nicknamed ‘Ambrose’, asked Mr. Valentine about his time playing for the West Indies. Mr. Valentine launched into a story of his first time playing for the West Indies in England. He took the first eight wickets in his début Test match. We were all ears now; this man was obviously great.
As we were about to go gaga over this legend before us, Sir Mac said, “Guys. Mr. Valentine will have to leave soon. So, you guys will have to return to your classes”. You could hear the heartbreak. It seemed he only stopped by to catch up with his old friend before heading to the airport. We reluctantly walked away, but I didn’t go too far.
Afterward, Mr. Valentine sat just outside the Principal’s office. He was waiting on Mr. McNeil who ran to the staff room for a bit. I walked back up to Mr. Valentine, asked if I could sit beside him and picked his brain some more. At that moment, he became ‘My Valentine’ as he shared more stories and encouraging words. This was like a dream being realized. After a discourse that lasted about two minutes but felt like an hour, I saw Mr. McNeil returning. I thanked Mr. Valentine for the chat, excused myself, and watched the two old pals say farewell one last time.
FRIENDS & LEGENDS
That was a great day in my life. It affirmed my love for the game of cricket. So, that’s my story on Alfred ‘My’ Valentine, Pablo McNeil (the man who brought Usain ‘Lightning’ Bolt to the world) and the role Michael Manley played in it all. Friends and legends! Well, that’s how I remember it when I awake from my dreams.
© Zaheer Clarke
From the “Lies & Statistics” Column in the Western Mirror (Published Monday, December 15, 2014)