Cricket's Commanders-in-chief: Frank Worrell

Garfield Robinson

They were capable of the exalted levels of virtuosity to which most others could only aspire. In batting, bowling, and fielding they had individuals who were among the very best in the world, and on their day, when everything came together, they could overpower and even embarrass any opponent. But it was not always their day, and instead of being majestic they would sometimes be mediocre; games they should have won by control and consistency, they lost through negligence and frivolity.

And then, Frank Worrell was put in charge. That the star-laden West Indies side started playing more as a team with the elevation of Frank Worrell to the captaincy, is no coincidence. The stylish Barbadian transformed this carefree group of mercurial players from disparate islands, some more than 11 hundred miles apart, into a focused band of musketeers.

More than just a captain, Worrell was a symbol. Before him, the captaincy was the preserve of upper class Whites, and so his ascendency, in some way, signalled the end of years of deprivation and discrimination, which the players welcomed. To think that a player as accomplished and astute as George Headley had to play under men who clearly lacked his cricketing acumen, would have been disheartening, not just to the great Jamaican, but also to the other members of the side who would have taken note of the obvious injustice. Headley did captain the West Indies in one of the two tests for which he was appointed (injury prevented him from playing in the other) during the 1948 England visit, but only after unyielding advocacy by Jamaican politician and West Indies cricket board member Noel “Crab” Nethersole.

It was probably the fierce campaign waged by Trinidadian journalist and then editor of The Nation newspaper, CLR James that also led to Worrell being appointed. Unwilling to interrupt his educational sojourn at Manchester University, the Barbadian had twice turned down the captaincy — against Pakistan for the 1957/58 home series, and again for the 1958/59 visit to India and Pakistan. But by the time 1959/60 England series rolled around, he had finished his studies and was therefore available to the West Indies. The board, however, decided to stick with the estimable Gerry Alexander. He led them to decent results in India and Pakistan, despite the extensive disruptions due to a falling out with volatile fast bowler Roy Gilchrist, who was sent home after the Indian leg of the tour. James’ argument was simply this: “There was not the slightest justification for Alexander to be captain of a side in which Frank Worrell was playing.” (Beyond A Boundary, p.233).

It was a testament to the broad confidence placed in Worrell that the masses felt that he could rehabilitate Gilchrist, and he made a strong case of the pacer. The board never budged on Gilchrist. But after a two-day meeting in British Guiana, they announced Frank Worrell as captain of the West Indies cricket team. Gerry Alexander was named vice-captain.

Worrell’s approach was a departure from the authoritarian method of his predecessors. In referring to his style of leadership, Worrell’s biographer, Ivo Tennant wrote:

He did so with a different style of leadership from what had hitherto been known in a colonial environment, which was “do so because I say so.” Worrell charmed, encouraged, led and corrected. The casual spectator who did not know the players, would be unaware of who the captain was. Fielders moved into position as if programmed. (p. 56)

Worrell’s first assignment was the 1960/61 tour of Australia. The series ended in a 1-2 defeat for the West Indies but the large crowds that attended the games couldn’t have asked for more. Brisbane saw the game’s first tied test on December 14. Australia then won the second test by seven wickets, only for the West Indies to come back and win the third by 222 runs. The fourth test was drawn and Australia just managed to hold on and win the fifth by two wickets. The Caribbean side made such a good impression on the tour that over half a million Australians lined the streets of Melbourne to see the team off, beseeching them to “come back soon.”

India then toured the West Indies in 1961/62 and was thrashed 5-0. Visiting captain, Nari Contractor was struck by Charlie Griffith in the game against Barbados. He required brain surgery to save his life and Worrell was the first to donate blood. This deed is commemorated in West Bengal on February 3 every year by a blood donation drive. It is named Sir Frank Worrell Day.

Come 1963, the West Indies embarked on a five-test tour of England which they won 3-1. The West Indies was now a well-honed unit, forsaking the reckless “calypso cricket” that they were known for in former years. Not that their play became dreary — with players like Garfield Sobers, Wes Hall, Rohan Kanhai and Lance Gibbs, it was anything but — now however, they were dedicated to winning. And they all looked up to the fatherly Worrell, who, aged 39, was considerably older than most in the side.

Worrell retired at the end of the 1963 tour. He then managed the side when Australia visited in 1964/65, and went with them to India in 1966/67. There, he was diagnosed with Leukemia and he died in March 1967, aged 42, soon after returning to Jamaica. JS Barker, in his book on the 1963 England tour that he titled Summer Spectacular, gave a glimpse of Worrell’s character in relating his response to some bad fielding by the West Indies:

Worrell was the master from beginning to end, but even Worrell can’t do much about dropped catches. Except soothe the ruffled bowler and convey to the unfortunate fieldsman that he knows perfectly well nobody deliberately misses a catch and that, anyway, it was an accident that couldn’t happen again, and even if it did, the earth won’t stop turning around. What a man! (p. 104)

His contribution to West Indies cricket will never be forgotten.

To see the other captains who made this list, click here: 15 Greatest Captains

Edited by Staff Editor


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