Underrated during his career, undervalued by history

LARRY GOMES must have felt uncomfortable like "Larry Who" during his career with a star-studded West Indies side.

It might not be pushing things too far to say he was the only ordinary player in a team of celebrities during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Larry was the odd man out, the ugly duckling if you like, the one player who was never talked about in world class terms.

Yet his contribution to West Indies cricket and to what made his side the best in the world was invaluable.

Whenever he was going to bat I made a hasty assessment of his ability, but then revised it with every pragmatic run he scored.

The Australian team which toured the West Indies in 1978 was without those players who had signed for WSC, but the West Indies played their "Packer Men" for the first two Tests of the series.

During the early days of the tour, as the conjecture over whether the WSC men would play for the home side raged it was inevitable that we would assess what their strengths would be if the "rebel" stars weren't around.

Gomes played against us for Trinidad and my initial reaction was that here was a country bumpkin and that West Indies cricket couldn't be that strong if a bloke like him could make it to the Trinidad side.

His style was undistinguished, a bit unorthodox, and he was slightly built where so many West Indians were powerful. Put it simply, there was nothing about him that suggested he was a Caribbean.

However, he had a great ability to put the bat on the ball, guard his stumps and accumulate runs. And he kept on showing this throughout a career in which he always played second fiddle to the stars in the side, always dug West Indies out of a hole when he had to, and frustrated bowlers who thought he would be relatively easy picking in a side jammed with so many power batsmen.

I would be hard pressed to remember a shot Larry played and describing his style is no easy matter. He had a minimal backswing, invariably worked the ball through the on side from a line on the off stump and never ever played the ball with the full face of the bat.

This was not the sort of foundation you would expect to build an international career on. And not the sort of stuff that commands full page pictures in the ACB coaching manual.

Yet he was mightily efficient and in a team of dashers, his ability to shore up the middle order was great. West Indies might not have been in a crisis very often in those days, but when they were, Gomes was usually the man who resolved it with gritty and unglamorous innings which might well have been forgotten by the time the rehabilitation was complete and the Windies were in a position to bowl to another victory. Then it was the bowlers who grabbed all the plaudits.

Gomes' range was very limited. The twitch to leg, the odd cover drive, some slides down the gully and a sort of hook.

But he was a devil of a bloke to bowl at because if you tempted him with anything wide he left it alone and if you bowled off-stump line he worked it away on the leg side.

If you do not have the perfect technique - and that was Larry all the way then the next best thing is the ability to watch the ball onto the bat. Get your head over the line, watch the ball onto the bat and you can get away with murder.

Interestingly, I know of three other left handers who remind me of Gomes - Bill Lawry, John Edrich and India's current coach John Wright.

All of them looked awkward and even a little clumsy at the crease but they all had guts and determination a full understanding of their own talents and how to take advantage of their own personal strengths. They also had the total respect of their teammates.

Larry Gomes did not have a technique to take him far but he had obviously mastered that.

He never gave up, rarely went outside what he knew he could do, and built an enviable career on very little. I admire him for that.

At first sight, it was incongruous that he should make the West Indies one-day side, given their wealth of talented explosive batsmen.

But every team of dashers needs a steadying influence, just in case, and he was the perfect foil. The perfect team man who would rotate the strike in favour of the big guns, pick off his own runs with a doggedness which drove bowlers silly and often derailed a rival team's game plan.

His value in a team and a player of his type is clearly missed by the West Indies now, with nobody in the middle order briefed to hold the innings together, keep it tight and frustrate the opposition when things go wrong.

Larry Gomes had a fine grasp of what he could contribute to his side. Perhaps inevitably, given the charisma of so many fine players around him, he was underrated during his career and will be undervalued by histories of the game. But not by those who played against him.