Rowe: Finding redemption in his foundation

In Jamaica, many still recall the days when Lawrence Rowe was the main drawing card at Sabina Park. And while some still feel he made the wrong decision by travelling to South Africa, all regret that they were robbed of seeing more of probably the most graceful batsman the game has seen.

Lawrence Rowe (extreme left) and his West Indian team-mates (from left) Any Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft, share a light moment during the tour of England in 1980.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Who was the most popular sportsman in Jamaica in the 1970s? That was the question I posed to persons who I knew lived on the Island at the time and were of age to remember. Two names kept coming up. One was Donald Quarrie, the famous sprinter who claimed silver in the 100 metres and gold in the 200 metres at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The other was Lawrence Rowe.

Rowe was worshipped in Jamaica. He had an insatiable appetite for runs in his early days, but it was the ease and poise of his strokeplay that enthralled those fortunate enough to see him in action. No batsman was more rapturously cheered as Rowe made his way to the Sabina Park square; and there was none whose dismissal triggered the kind of sudden stillness that his did. Ear-splitting roars accompanied every boundary stroke, while defensive ones attracted equally loud shouts of “NO!”

It was something that had to be seen. I doubt if there could have been many examples of this kind of idolatry in the game’s history. Sachin Tendulkar, for sure, held the Indian fans in the palm of his hand. Sir Don Bradman, too, was much revered in his time. Viv Richards was treated like the cricketing royalty he was all over the Caribbean. Yet not even he, nor Sobers, for that matter, could snatch the top billing away from Rowe in Jamaica.

Richards held Rowe in high esteem as well, going as far as to paint “Yagga” on the fence that enclosed his yard in Antigua. Yagga was Rowe’s nickname.

Legendary fast bowler, Michael Holding, regarded his Jamaican compatriot as the best batsman he had seen — emphasis, he said, on the word “seen.” This is what he had to say in Whispering Death, his first memoir. “I could not imagine anyone ever batting better or being able to. Like all Jamaicans, I was spellbound and, in that period, 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.” Holding is not a man known for dishing out exaggerated praise.

For a long time, I worked in a commercial bank in Jamaica. For a period of about a year or so there was a security guard there who regularly regaled us, cricket fans, with a story. It was the same story every time. He never got tired of telling it and we never grew tired of listening.

It went as follows: Courtney Walsh was a teenaged fast bowler of great promise when, one day, in a friendly match, many were anxious to see how the then scrawny pacer would fare against Rowe. Wanting to impress, Walsh ran in and bowled with all his might. Rowe, tapping his bat, waiting, barely seemed to move (he’d use a folded newspaper to mimic the batsman’s action), and yet the ball was sent rocketing to the boundary. He’d end the story shaking his head, still lost in the wonder of Rowe’s artistry.

  Rowe’s most famous innings was his triple hundred against England in Barbados in 1974. It is still talked about there today, especially the 48 he scored that first evening. Among his best shots that evening was a hooked six off Willis, which, according to legend, travelled no more than head height to the boundary. Geoffrey Boycott, who was stationed mere yards from where the ball cleared the boundary, hardly managed to move.

The next day a jam-packed crowd turned up in anticipation. They were not disappointed. His 302 were some of the most handsome runs ever witnessed in Barbados and the fans there remained Rowe’s devotees for the remainder of his career.

Rowe’s Test record — 2047 runs in 30 matches at an average of 43.55 — isn’t outstanding. He began brilliantly. His 214 and 100 not out on debut against New Zealand in 1972 still stands as a record, and after a dozen Tests, his average was over 70.

But Rowe’s career was hampered by injury, illness, which cruelly included an allergy to grass, misfortune, and what former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley called “a flaw at the centre of his character.”

And then there were the rebel tours to South Africa in the early 1980s.

A few months ago, I had the good fortune of speaking to Rowe about his South Africa excursions. He was very forthcoming about his reasons for going and his experiences in the then racially divided country. Rowe said many were not aware that he was reticent when first approached and actually told the organisers he wouldn’t make the trip. He was captain of the Jamaican team, had hopes of regaining his Test spot and was not in desperate financial need. Also, Rowe was still a very popular man in Jamaican society. He had a lot to lose.

But the organisers came back. The refusal of many of the major players to join meant the squad lacked star players and so Rowe’s participation became even more vital to the feasibility of the enterprise. He considered his more deprived colleagues. Everton Mattis, for instance, recently dropped by the West Indies, “had about five children, no house, no car, no job.” Rowe felt some responsibility for him and others in similar circumstances.

“Arthur Ashe was the most conscientious man I have met in sports,” remarked the famous USA sports broadcaster, Bob Costas, in a recent interview. Known as much for his commitment to social causes as for his ability as a tennis great, Ashe visited South Africa in 1973, much to the dismay of many opponents of Apartheid.

The following is from, the website of the Arthur Ashe Learning Center: “To expose the fallacies of Apartheid and serve as a beacon of hope, Arthur Ashe travelled to South Africa in 1973 to break the color barrier that existed there in tennis. He served as an example of genuine sportsmanship: compelling the stadium to be integrated when he competed, showing the subjugated populations that a black man could compete with the white man and using his popularity as a platform for awareness against the government’s discriminatory practices.”

Rowe was quick to point to Arthur Ashe’s experience. “I’m not comparing myself to Arthur Ashe,” he was quick to add. But this was one of the questions he had, “Could we make it better for black people in South Africa if we beat them?” His answer, of course, was “yes.”

The visit, therefore, became something of a calling. “We could’ve taken things easy and still collected our money,” Rowe said, “but we were determined to beat them. Money became almost irrelevant.”

It turns out that the rebels lost the 50-over games 2-4 in the first season in 1982-83, while the two five-day games were shared 1-1. The next season was better for Rowe and his team as they won the limited-overs games 4-2 and the four-match ‘Test’ series 2-1.

The elegant right-hander feels the rebels made a difference. “Black kids and white kids were on the grounds playing together. White kids ran out to touch us.”

He read a quote from Nelson Mandela, “Sports has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does, it speaks to youths in a language they understand. Sports can create hope where there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.” Those wise words exactly reflected how he felt.

Now the more cynical among us may consider Rowe’s utterances a quest for justification. Feelings still run high in some quarters as evidenced by the uproar that erupted when the Jamaica Cricket Association decided to honour the batsman by naming the players pavilion after him. “Honouring Lawrence Rowe is just not cricket,” screamed one headline from a daily newspaper. The article was written by a former government official who, Rowe said, misrepresented some of his views. The honour was rescinded after Rowe made a few clumsy statements in the media.

I was among those who felt the South African venture was a wrong turn. But thirty-odd years is a long time to nurture such resentments. Additionally, I have become less idealistic and more appreciative of human motivations and failings. Rowe did what he thought was right.

Additionally, Rowe and his wife Audrey have been giving back to the game through the Lawrence Rowe Foundation. As organisers of the “Weekend of Legends,” an annual event in Florida that features many of the game’s past greats, the Foundation raises funds to assist former West Indies cricketers. Basil Butcher and Patrick Patterson are two recent beneficiaries.

In Jamaica, many still recall the days when Rowe was the main drawing card at Sabina Park. And while some still feel he made the wrong decision by travelling to South Africa, all regret that they were robbed of seeing more of probably the most graceful batsman the game has seen.

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