May 9, 1999
HE'S GONE. And any real cricket fan who says that he would not miss him is probably not telling the whole truth. Carl Llewellyn Hooper stunned the cricketing world by announcing his retirement from the sport two weeks ago, eight months before his 33rd birthday. And although he probably infuriated fans more than anyone who has ever represented the West Indies before and wins hands down in the category of underachievement, he will be extremely difficult to forget.
The Guyanese allrounder was one of the most elegant batsman to ever walk to the wicket and certainly the most stylish West Indian since Jamaican Lawrence Rowe two decades ago.
His fielding and catching close to the wicket were also out of the top drawer and his useful offspin bowling broke many a crucial partnership which eventually led to a West Indies victory. But the thing adoring fans loved him most for is exactly what they hated most about him.
Hooper did everything with consummate ease and the more difficult the task was on the field, the easier he made it look.
But caressing the ball over the extra-cover boundary off almost any bowler in the world and making a diving full-length catch in the slips look like a Sunday afternoon stroll was all the fans were willing to accept.
They were understandably not prepared to condone the other side of the king of the casual, the Hooper, who would get himself out in the most ridiculous manner after he seemed set for a huge innings.
Unfortunately, this careless side of the Guyanese master was seen much more than the breath-taking strokemaker, whom many fans the world over preferred to see than Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar. These two gentlemen also possess an unlimited array of strokes but the other reason why they are considered the best in the game at present is consistency.
They both average over 50 in Test cricket while Hooper has managed less than 34 runs in each of his 136 innings. This record is not acceptable for an average middle-order batsman, far more a man who promised greatness from the mid-1980s when he was shattering records left, right and centre in youth cricket.
The gloomy equation includes only nine centuries from 80 Tests. But that was starting to change. And before the ill-fated tour of South Africa at the end of last year it seemed that Hooper was finally ready to deliver the goods that were sitting and collecting dust in a grocery shelf for over a decade.
In the 21 Tests between the last time the West Indies toured Australia in 1996 and the nightmare of South Africa, Hooper scored 1,278 runs at an average of 45.64 while Shivnarine Chanderpaul averaged close to 42 and Lara just over 38 and a half.
He also led the way with four centuries from 28 completed innings while Lara and Chanderpaul notched two each from 35 and 29 innings completed respectively.
But statistics alone do not tell the story.
After the West Indies were massacred three-nil by Pakistan in Asia at the end of '97, they seemed certain to go one-down against England at home in the new year. After what had transpired in Pakistan it would have been a crippling blow for the Windies had the visitors drawn first blood. That they did not, thanks in part to David Williams but mainly to Hooper, who later stated that his unbeaten 94 to win the Test at Queen's Park Oval was the best and most important innings of his career.
It certainly provided the springboard for the West Indies, being led by Lara for the first time, to win the series 4-1. He averaged just under 50 and was also a major force with the ball, taking 15 wickets.
Despite the fact that he also displayed all-round brilliance and was instrumental in his team's 4-1 triumph in the limited-overs series, Curtly Ambrose was surprisingly chosen as Man-of-the Series.
Hooper had picked up from where he left off in Pakistan, where everyone on the team-with the exception of Sherwin Campbell and himself-failed miserably.
The visitors lost the first two Tests by an innings and the final one by 10 wickets but Hooper still managed to average 45.60 (Chanderpaul averaged 25.50 and Lara, four runs less) and almost 75 in the overall series.
He had also topped the batting averages in two of the three Test series before Pakistan. So it seemed that Hooper was turning over a new leaf.
But those of his supporters who were celebrating the new beginning had not the slightest inclination that it was the beginning of the end. After he, like everyone else, failed in the 5-0 whitewash by South Africa, the vice-captain chose to travel to Australia to spend time with wife and ill new-born son instead of returning home to face the powerful Australians.
However, after seeing his side totally embarrassed in the opening Test when they were dismissed for an all-time low of 51, he declared: "I cannot desert a sinking ship." He then packed up and left Australia earlier than planned.
This seemingly brave and noble gesture proved to be a serious mistake. Hooper was neither physically nor mentally prepared to play cricket at the highest level-especially not against the strongest team in the world. That became obvious both from his results and from his demeanour on the field.
He should have taken enough time to get the tragedy of his son's illness out of his system and then started to get into shape for the World Cup.
Nevertheless, Hooper should still be commended for showing his commitment to West Indies cricket and the West Indies Cricket Board did just that by demoting him.
Hooper received a slap in the face when former captain Courtney Walsh, a great fast bowler but a surprising pick on the World Cup team because of age and weak batting, fielding and throwing, was chosen as Lara's deputy for the tournament which starts in England on Friday.
And Jimmy Adams, generally not even considered a One-day cricketer and who has been having difficulty cementing his place on the side in recent times, led the team against Australia when Lara was unable to.
Hooper, whose record in One-day cricket is very good, (he averages almost 36 with six centuries from just over 180 matches and has collected more than 160 wickets) scoffed at reports that he had quit because of the demotion.
But the timing of his premature retirement seems to suggest otherwise. It also does not sound logical that a cricketer would end his career before the completion of a series as Hooper did at Kensington Oval, Barbados, after the sixth of the seven limited-overs internationals.
What is even more bizarre is his decision to go before the treasured World Cup tournament, for which he would have been handsomely paid.
Despite his denials, his decision seems to have been a hasty one and although he revealed that he has no intention of changing his mind after making an important decision it would not surprise many if he returns in the near future.
West Indies cricket would be happy to welcome home the prodigal son. But it may be difficult to forget that a man who had accumulated a wealth of experience over a decade playing for Kent in English County cricket denied his team the benefit of that knowledge when the World Cup chips were down.
Having proven his commitment in no uncertain terms just over a month ago, the enigmatic Hooper would be hard-pressed to convince many that he had so lost his taste and zeal for the game that he could not continue for six more weeks.
And so he leaves intact the impression that he did desert a ship that was starting to float again.