The Interview Series — Lawrence Rowe

Rowe at Sabina Park, 2007

The ‘rebel’ on the wrong side of history

Just how good was Lawrence Rowe? I never watched him play. Old scorecards and statistics can give you some idea, but never the full picture. Numbers are no substitute for emotion, and sport is nothing without that.

In his autobiography, Michael Holding was in no doubt about the quality of the man he followed into the Jamaica and West Indies sides. “What struck me most was that he never, but never, played at a ball and missed,” he wrote. “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.”

While in the Caribbean for the 2007 World Cup, I came across two cab drivers whose knowledge of the game would have embarrassed many ‘cricket writers’. Spencer in Jamaica would get misty-eyed talking about ‘Yagga’ Rowe, while Hallam in Barbados would almost go into a trance. And this was nearly three decades after they’d last watched him play. That kind of reaction says far more than cold numbers in a record book.

Hallam had grown up on stories of the three Ws — Weekes, Worrell and Walcott — and had watched Sobers, Hunte, Kanhai and Lloyd. He was in absolutely no doubt that Rowe belonged in that league. During one fairly long ride with Andrew Miller, my Cricinfo colleague from the UK, Hallam described in vivid detail Rowe’s 302 against England in 1974. He would shake his head and tut in wonder as he went along.

I met Rowe during the first round of that World Cup in Jamaica. I walked into the press box at Sabina Park before one of the games, and saw that quite a few of the local journalists had congregated in one corner of the press box. They were whispering to each other as they watched a man a few feet away.

He was 58 then, but he still had the aura of a ‘great’. I may not have watched him play, but I had heard and read a little, enough to know that Sabina Park was ‘his ground’. It was like stumbling upon George Best at Old Trafford, Joe Montana at Candlestick Park or Sir Donald Bradman at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He stood there with the air of someone who owned the place.

He was most generous with his time when I went and asked him for an interview, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that the chip on the shoulder was actually a giant boulder. This was the man whose nickname Sir Vivian Richards had painted on his backyard fence as he was growing up. It was also the same man who Richards eclipsed as he came into his prime in the mid-1970s.

Richards has always been at ease about his greatness. He wore it easily, and spoke of it with a matter-of-fact air that never sounded boastful. He knows what his legacy is. Rowe too knew how he would be remembered, and as a result, even factual reminiscences sounded like a desperate plea for recognition from a man who had largely been airbrushed out of the game’s history.

The fragility of his ego made for a great interview though. There are few people who can give you a headline just as they talk. Rowe did. Speaking of one of his defining innings, during Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in Australia, he said: “People still talk of the 175 I made at the MCG. There was no shot I couldn’t play. Even 30 years later, people tell me it was the best batting they’ve ever seen.”

There were plenty of glimpses of the hurt too. “After my debut series in 1972, they were comparing me to [George] Headley and [Don] Bradman, but injuries robbed me of a chance at greatness,” he told me, before he himself made the comparison with Richards that has stayed in my head all these years. “I was more naturally talented than Viv, but he accomplished a lot more. He had a full career.”

The thing is, the connoisseurs don’t really disagree. “Technically, he was one of the best,” Holding told me recently. “Not as strong a character or as big a personality as Viv, but he was top class.

“If you are only dealing with batting skill and style, there aren’t many I would put above him. Obviously, his numbers don’t compare, but that’s because of what I mentioned earlier regarding character.”

Why then have so few cricket fans heard of Rowe, especially those born after his halcyon years were over? To answer that, you have to go back nearly 40 years, to a rebel tour of Apartheid South Africa. Rowe went, as did Alvin Kallicharan, Collis King and several others. The likes of Richards and Holding could have named their price — and we’re talking six figures in dollars — but refused to even consider the offers.

It’s not a topic that Holding wishes to talk much about. “Going to South Africa definitely affected his legacy, but it can’t change the fact he was a quality player who under different circumstances would have gone down as a great West Indies batsman,” he told me. “Money is not everything. You have to look at the circumstances surrounding the job that’s giving you the money.”

When we spoke, Rowe, perhaps understandably, tried to defend what he had done those years earlier. “I always wanted to go to South Africa to see what it was like,” he said. “I initially refused to go [on the rebel tour of 1982–83] because my family was here. But they made me captain, and made it clear that the tour wouldn’t come off if I didn’t go.

“Some went for financial reasons, some just to get out of the West Indies. I just knew that the decision I made wouldn’t have made life any more difficult for black people there. I still think the rebel tour did some good — it allowed black folk there to see that it wasn’t only white men who could play the game and excel at it. But I leave it to history to judge us.”

It’s safe to say that history hasn’t judged them kindly. Craig Marais, who works for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), was a young cricketer making his way into the first-class game when the rebel tours happened. “Nowadays, it’s just looked upon with sadness and pity,” he told me. “The rebels sold their souls for pieces of silver, got ostracised back home and then [quite a few of them] hit bad times with drugs and mental-health issues. That’s their legacy unfortunately, and what they will be remembered for … guys who sold their souls to the apartheid regime.”

During that 2007 World Cup, Marais introduced me to Emmerson Trotman, an exciting Bajan batsman who had also been part of the rebel tours. Trotman had spent a lot of time in the Netherlands after the Caribbean turned its back on those players, and he spoke quite candidly about the financial temptations that had made up many of the players’ minds.

Remember, this was a time when most players worked full or part-time jobs in the off-season to make ends meet. There was no IPL, no CPL, no pay days that set you up for life. And while you can say that the players ended up on the wrong side of history, it’s pretty cruel to judge them too harshly.

Where Rowe doesn’t help himself is in comparing the rebel tours to Packer’s World Series. ‘We were called mercenaries then too,” he said, recalling how it had been Holding that called him with an invite to join the Packer crew. But that’s beside the point. The rebel tours were never just about the money. They helped give legitimacy to a disgraceful political ideology and a government that systematically oppressed people of colour for 40 years.

The cricket world’s hypocrisy is equally breathtaking though. As Marais also pointed out when we chatted, the man tasked with luring these cricketers to South Africa was Dr Ali Bacher, who had led the side in the years before they were banned from international cricket. Dr Bacher commands immense respect among the cricket fraternity, while those that he wrote out the cheques for are pariahs. Explain that?

This isn’t a criticism of Dr Bacher, whose hospitality and wisdom I’ve enjoyed more than once. At the time, he did what he thought was best for the survival of the sport he loved in South Africa. To an extent, he succeeded. As controversial and divisive as they were, the tours and the incidents around them kept South Africa cricket in the headlines.

When people talk of The Fire in Babylon and West Indies cricket’s glory years, Rowe seldom gets a mention. For a team so closely associated with making a region and a race proud, he doesn’t fit the narrative. But who defines legacies anyway? The moral arbiters sat behind keyboards or those once touched by his magic?

I won’t forget the look of reverence on Hallam’s face as he described Rowe in full flow. That, in itself, is not a bad legacy to leave behind.

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