Innings of a genius
---A tribute to Carl Hooper

by Ian McDonald
Stabroek News
March 18, 2001

I have been dismayed at the strength of the opposition in some quarters to Carl Hooper's appointment as Captain of the West Indies. I was particularly shocked at the irrational virulence of Michael Holding's opposition. I have high admiration not only for Holding's greatness as a cricketer but also for his intelligence and shrewdness as a student of the game. He could have expressed his opposition to Hooper as captain in measured terms and his views would have been received with respect. But for a West Indian cricketing personality of Holding's stature to go off the rails in the way he has undermines the team he loves, confuses and demotivates the very youngsters he hopes to nurture, divides us when we should be coming together and all in all does great harm to West Indian cricket.

I myself believe that Carl Hooper has given enough proof that he has matured as a man and as a cricketer and well deserves the honour of leading the West Indies. But I understand that his chequered history of leaving the team in the lurch more than once makes an opposite view arguable.

However, what cannot be doubted by anyone - Michael Holding himself does not hesitate to admit it - is the sheer genius of Hooper's batting at its best. It must be everyone's hope - even Holding's hope as he tries not to watch? - that in the course of the series against South Africa Hooper will rise above the huge pressures on him as the new leader and find it possible to display in full flower one of the greatest batting talents the game has ever known.

Some years ago I wrote an article celebrating Hooper's genius as a batsman. I reproduce it here as tribute to the new Captain.

I have always said, and now can happily say again, that Carl Hooper is a cricketing genius. Years ago I wrote the following:

"I remember, in 1956, not long after arriving in Guyana to work and live, I went to Bourda and saw for the first time a young batsman play an innings of such assured and peculiar brilliance that though he did not stay long on that occasion I knew what I had seen marked the batsman down as a genius in the art of batting. That night I wrote my father in Trinidad that I had that day seen "the best batsman in the world". That young batsman's name was Rohan Kanhai and I never had any cause to change my opinion after that first glorious sight of perhaps the most marvellous batsman cricket has yet produced.

About 30 years later - as I get older my memory for precise dating grows less assured but can recapture still the glory of the actual play - I had a second, very similar experience. I was at Bourda and for the first time I was watching young Carl Hooper bat. Again I felt the frisson that tells you that you are in the presence of something exceptional. (A.E. Housman wrote that he recognised true poetry when the hair rose on the nape of his neck as he read). I went home, certain about what I had seen, and wrote a letter, this time to that great man, wonderful player, and most astute of cricket connoisseurs, Jeffrey Stollmeyer, and reported that I had seen a young who would one day join the band of heroes. This young batsman had all the time in the world to play his shots. The bowler bowled and it seemed young Hooper might have wandered off to pluck a flower or kiss a pretty girl in the crowd and come back to hit the ball gloriously for four past cover point. And he had the power, the smooth power. And he had the presence. Here indeed was a hero in the making."

(Before I go on, I might perhaps add that one other time I have seen a young batsman and written about him in similar terms - this time to Tony Cozier a year ago about Shivnarine Chanderpaul. We shall see if glory touches him also as his career unfolds).

At the beginning all went more than well with young Hooper. He soon became one of the great young West Indians - in 1987, for instance, dominating the regional Youth series as it had never been dominated before and is unlikely ever to be dominated again. When he entered upon his first-class career in the regional competition he at once scored a century which he himself remembers with particular delight and which made him a hero in the eyes of the knowledgeable cricket-lovers at Kensington. Very soon, as if by royal right, he was called to Test cricket and in his second match, in India in 1988, in the natural order of things he scored a century. It all seemed effortless and ordained. One could sit back and admire and not worry too much any longer about our middle order batting. In due course he would enter the kingdom where only the likes of the three W's and Sobers and Lloyd and Kanhai and Richards reign.

We all know what happened then. His career entered a strange and bewildering doldrums from which he has struggled to emerge. In his batting there have been any number of inexplicable failures. It is not that he has lacked temperament - many times he has played a crucial role at nerve-tingling times: witness only his acclaimed 134 in the third Test in Pakistan in 1989 and, of course, his role in the famous tied International at Bourda a few weeks ago. And it certainly is not that there is any fundamental flaw in his technique - the technical apparatus of his batting is superb. And his brilliant talent has been acknowledged even by his most stubborn detractors.

It has seemed more a matter of carelessness and lack of concentration. And perhaps there was in it an element of mounting over-anxiety to please, to make amends to those who kept the faith in him. He must prove at once, or very early in an innings that he was the masterly batsman everyone expected him to be. And when he failed, again, so the next time it was even more important to prove his talent quickly and dramatically. So do young men, overawed by adulation, put pressure on themselves to perform at some supreme, impossible pitch. He should have grafted more and longer - except that genius finds it hard to graft.

The set-backs and the long periods when achievement did not match the exceptional talent (had the promise been less, perhaps the criticism would have been lower-keyed) led to an increasing stream of criticism which must have become hard for the young man to bear. Despite his many achievements and growing contribution to the West Indian team as a steadily improving slow bowler and peerless slip catcher, the criticism has focused exclusively on his batting failures. (And there is merit in that. I think Hooper will end up taking over 100 Test wickets. But it is true that one doesn't spend much time describing Mozart's literary efforts or Derek Walcott's paintings. Carl Hooper is a batsman). Even on those occasions when he has done reasonably well with the bat the success has been belittled as too little too late. At times the voices raised against him have become a chorus which seemed to endanger his place on the team. Even Tony Cozier, most knowledgeable of cricket commentators, has been strangely perverse in emphasising Hooper' failures, down-grading Hooper's successes, and making the case more often than not why he should be dropped. For a young man, as I say, it must have been hard to bear.

The anti-Hooper campaign has always seemed to me utterly misguided. You do not lightly cast aside genius when you are lucky enough to have discovered it.

The selectors must have sensed that. Certainly Richie Richardson knew it: is it my imagination or has Richardson over the last few difficult months for Hooper made a point of putting an arm around the young man's shoulders whenever the opportunity arises? At least Hooper will have known that his captain's confidence in him is secure.

Those who have been prepared to drop Hooper should remember the story of Frank Worrell and the English batsman Tom Graveney. I think it was in 1963 the West Indies were touring England. Two days before the first Test captain Frank Worrell came into the dressing room where the West Indian team were relaxing after a workout. He had a bottle of champagne in his hand and with a smile he invited the team to join him in a drink. A couple of the boys, mystified, asked him why the celebration on what was only the eve of the first Test. With a broad grin Frank Worrell explained: "The jack-asses! They leave out their best man - Tom Graveney not in the side!"

So let us come to the occasion when Carl Hooper at last, surely, put even the most tenacious of doubters to flight. Sadly, we in Guyana were not able to watch his great innings of 178 not out at the Antigua Recreation Ground. The failure of the television transmission was a serious deprivation. But still it was music to the ears to listen with growing satisfaction as Hooper's innings unfolded from its first careful and even tentative beginnings to assured mastery as he gathered confidence to dominating brilliance as his genius flowered.

How full the heart felt for the young man who has had to endure so long a travail and bear such a burden of carping criticism! How good it was to hear the commentators' unstinted praise and acknowledgment of an extraordinary talent now finding full expression: a pull shot worthy of the great Richards, a straight drive with something of the power of Greenidge and the elegance of Dujon, a late cut whose original was Frank Worrell's patent, a most delicate leg glance which one remembered from the repetoire of Jeffrey Stollmeyer, a square drive which Lawrence Rowe might have fashioned. All of these great names were invoked. Here at last was Hooper mentioned in company he deserved.

Of course he impressed his own brand of genius on the stroke-making and the commentators tried their best to measure it. But they found it hard. It was said of Frank Woolley that in one over there might be an exquisite off-drive, followed by a perfect cut, then an effortless leg-glide. In the next over, and the next, the same sort of thing happened. And soon the superlatives became repetitive. Now one felt that the commentators were having that sort of trouble with Hooper. So they called in aid our great men to compare.

After a while, though, my ear became attuned to something heard through the commentary which I might not have perceived if I had been viewing the innings on television. I might have missed it in the excitement of watching. I realised that the descriptions and the comments were not all there was to hear. There was something much more, something which put me more subtly, more richly, in touch with the true spirit of that great innings. In the end, one did not need the commentary to sense that something special was unfolding. Before the stroke's description one could hear the gasp of the crowd, the in-drawn breath of sudden, high admiration and the drawn-out "aaah" of deep satisfaction which are the most heart-felt tribute any audience ever gives to any artist. They are the best measure of the triumph of genius. The commentator's, or the critic's, subsequent praise can only fall short of such spontaneous tribute.

Not long ago I read a passage in the autobiography of the sculptor Eric Gill:

"And while I am thus writing about the beauty and impressiveness of technical prowess I cannot, for it made an immense difference to my mind, omit the famous name of Ranjitsinhji. Even now, when I want to have a quiet wallow in the thought of something wholly delightful and perfect, I think of Ranji on the county ground at Hove .... There were many minor stars, each with his special and beloved technique, but nothing on earth could approach the special quality of Ranji's batting and fielding .... I only place it on record that such craftsmanship and grace entered into my very soul."

I never saw Ranjitsinhji but I felt I knew what Eric Gill meant because I had seen Frank Worrell and I had seen Rohan Kanhai. And now, I think, the commentators, seeing Hooper's innings, sensed the feeling too.

When Hooper was well launched and beginning to exult in the freedom his exceptional gifts at last allowed him, one could sense through the candences of the crowd's expressive voice the awe his batting was generating and the pure delight he was giving. What more could an y sportsman, craftsman, artist desire? He was lifting his audience along on his wave of glory - you could hear and feel it. He knows what the feeling is like now for the first time - the unreserved blessing of a home crowd. He knows what heroes feel like. I hope he has got the unforgettable taste of it and that he will yearn to savour more. That is the spur. Forget statistics. That feeling is fame's true spur. May it drive him on the rest of a long career which will bless us all and honour the game.