by Zaheer E. Clarke
Published March 9, 2015
The ground could hold less than ten percent of the population, yet it appeared the entire island of about 230,000 showed up outside the Kensington Oval to see a man nicknamed ‘Yagga’ bat. The security guards were powerless: the fans had gone mad. They broke the gates free, scaled the walls, and swung from high-tension electricity wires to enter the ground. They sat on the roof of the stands or anywhere possible, including in the seats of legitimate patrons. This is a snapshot of the maddening mosaic of events that transpired on the third day of the third Test match between West Indies and England in 1974.
There have been over 1400 Test matches played since, and 733 before, yet none hypnotized cricket fans as the 734th Test. It offered many romantic stories; however, one solicited chaotic emotions more than all else: an inning of 302 runs that many describe as Lawrence Rowe’s perfect masterpiece.
Rowe’s 610-minute vigil of batting poetry, in Bridgetown, Barbados, is described by the Wisden Almanack as a “master performance”. Mike Selvey supports this description and calls it an inning of “unruffled technical excellence”. I will merely call it “magisterial” because I am simply tongue-tied in describing this memorable knock.
Tony Cozier gave us the backdrop of the hysteria that emerged on the third day of the Test. However, I’ll go back further on the canvas in order to show you how this masterpiece truly began.
England bats first, and at the end of the first day have amassed 219 runs for 5 wickets, with Tony Greig and wicketkeeper Alan Knott offering resistance to the West Indian bowling attack.
On the second day, Andy Roberts achieves a feat no bowler forgets, his first wicket in Test cricket, in this his debut match. Ironically, it just so happened that the 23-year-old youngster took Old’s wicket, yes, Chris Old to be exact. The veteran, Lance Gibbs closed England first innings at 395 by dismissing Pocock, Pat Pocock, that’s his name, I kid you not.
Lawrence Rowe and Roy ‘Cement Head’ Fredericks walk out, in the late afternoon, to start the West Indies innings. Fredericks, known for his quick and fiery innings, starts sedately. Rowe, known for his grace and whistling while batting, declared to all present that he was in a destructive mood, with a thunderous clap over the square leg boundary.
Gideon Haigh’s words put into perspective Rowe’s mood as close of play approached on the second day. “… He (Rowe) received a bouncer from Bob Willis. He smashed it flat into the stand at square leg; it travelled most of the way at head height.” According to Rowe, Geoffrey Boycott was standing at square leg, a few metres from where the ball sailed over the fence; however, Boycott hardly moved.
The rest day followed and with Rowe starting the third day on 48, maddening scenes erupted. He scored a blistering 154 runs during the day’s play. It was a delight for the patrons in the stands who invaded the pitch twice: when he crossed 100 and again at 200.
Rowe started the morning of the fourth day of the Test on 202. The fans wondered if he would break Sir Garfield Sobers’, then world record of 365 not out, in this, Sobers’ final match at home. He scored an even 100 runs during the day to bring up the first, and still the only, triple century by a West Indian at Kensington Oval. The fans didn’t invade this time. When he was finally caught by Geoff Arnold, off the bowling of Tony Greig, the entire island that had descended on the ground stood and applauded this prince as he walked to the pavilion.
Rowe, in his innings of 302, drove superbly off both the front and back foot. He cut and went down the track against the spinners with ease, and at times, it seemed, even against the fast bowlers. He hooked and pulled with intent, especially that clap of thunder that crashed into the stands over square-leg.
Such was the ability and aesthetic grace of Rowe that Sobers thought he could have been the greatest West Indian batsman of all-time. Sir Viv Richards, arguably, the most feared and destructive batsman in cricket history had Rowe’s nickname ‘Yagga’ sketched on his fence at home. So was his reverence for the man and his special abilities.
Michael Holding in describing Rowe’s abilities in his book, Whispering Death, said: “… What struck me most was that he never, but never, played at a ball and missed. Everything hit the middle of the bat and whatever stroke he chose to play (and he had them all) would have the desired result. His technique was superb, his eyesight like a cat’s and he had all the time in the world to play with captivating ease and elegance. I have not seen such perfection since.”
That 734th Test match featured the debutant Andy Roberts, the first to represent West Indies from Antigua, an isle of 365 beaches. However, his story was pale to the paradisal feeling that was experienced by the patrons in the stands. This was the last homecoming Test for a king, Sobers, but his greatest feat was dwarfed by the ecstasy evoked and grace displayed by a newly crowned prince. There was the South African of Scottish roots, Tony Greig, playing for England, who produced his career-best 148, yet that career best did not arouse the same collage of crazed emotions as Rowe’s career best did.
Many centuries have been scored before, three others during, a plethora of centuries after that Test in Bridgetown, Barbados. However, none was aesthetically pleasing or riot-invoking as Lawrence Rowe’s 302. As I close my eyes and go back in my mind to that Sunday, March 10, 1974, and of how it must have been, I will borrow Holding’s words, “I have not seen such perfection since.”
© Zaheer Clarke
From the “Lies & Statistics” Column in the Western Mirror (Published Monday, March 16, 2015)