Column | Lawrence Rowe – the Caribbean enigma

Lawrence Rowe
Lawrence Rowe was a gifted batsman. File photo: Twitter/ICC

Who is the only batsman to score a double century and century on his Test debut? Who is the only batman to score a triple century in Test cricket during the period from 1966 till 1990?Who is the only batman who was so relaxed while batting that he could indulge in such luxuries as whistling?

The answer to all the three questions posed above is Lawrence Rowe, the Jamaica born former West Indian cricketer, who was at one time considered to have the potential to become one of the greatest batsmen in the history of the game. However, destiny plotted otherwise and Rowe’s career spluttered after a promising start, ending up with the ignominy of being banned from all forms of the game for leading a rebel West Indies side to tour South Africa in 1982.

Followers of the game in India first heard of Rowe when the national side toured the West Indies in 1971. Ajit Wadekar, captain of the side, has recalled in his autobiography that Alvin Kallicharan and Rowe were the future prospects who the Indians were told to look out for during the tour matches. Wadekar has recorded that though Rowe did not score too many runs, he looked a very promising player, where as Kallicharan was made to look like a novice, when confronted with the guiles of off spinner S Venkataraghavan.

Rowe took the cricketing world by storm a few months later when he made his bow in Test cricket. Playing against New Zealand in front of his home crowd at Kingston, Jamaica, in February, 1972, he scored a brilliant double hundred (214) in the first innings and followed this up with an unbeaten 100 in the second knock. He batted well in the first three Tests against the touring Australians in 1973 before being laid low by an injury, which prevented his participation in the tour of England later that year. However, when England returned to the West Indies in 1973, Rowe was fit and raring to go and etched his name in the annals of all-time great batsmen by becoming only the 11th cricketer to hit a triple ton in Test cricket.

It would not be an understatement to state that Rowe held the centrestage during the five-Test series which ended with both the West Indies and England winning one match each. After a slow start in the first Test at Port of Spain, Trinidad, that the hosts won with ease, Rowe touched top form to hit 120 in the second Test at his home town of Kingston. He went one better in the next game, which was played at Bridgetown, Barbados, etching a monumental innings of 302 runs, which came of 430 balls with 36 hits to the fence and one that fell beyond it. Rowe opened the innings with Roy Fredricks and batted for more than 10 hours, before becoming the seventh batsman to be dismissed, with the total score at 551. He did not make many runs in the rain-affected fourth Test but came back strongly to strike another century in the last match, which England won by a narrow margin of 26 runs to square the series.

Though Rowe had opened the innings with Fredricks in all Tests in the series against England, he was happier batting in the top order at either one drop or No. 4. When a new opening batsman Gordon Greenidge, who was making waves in English county cricket for Hampshire, was selected to the West Indies side for the tour of India in the winter of 1974-75, it appeared that Rowe would get a chance to play at his favourite position in the order. But fate willed otherwise as a mysterious illness struck Rowe from the time he landed in India. He played in the tour opener but was dismissed when he stepped on to the wicket while trying to hook a bouncer bowled at medium pace by Karsan Ghavri. For a batsman used to hooking bouncers hurled by Andy Roberts and Keith Boyce, Ghavri should have been easy meat but Rowe appeared uncertain while playing this shot. He did not score much in the second innings of this game nor in the First-Class match against South Zone that followed. Soon an announcement came from the team management that Rowe was returning home as there was some problem with his eye that needed attention and expert treatment. Rowe’s place in the playing eleven was taken by Viv Richards, who scored 192 in the second Test to cement his place.

Rowe was back in the West Indies squad when the side toured Australia for a six-Test series in 1975-76. He started the tour well scoring a century in the second innings of the first Test braving the thunderbolts unleashed by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. However, he could not get going after this match and had only one half-century to show to his credit during the remaining five Tests. As none of the West Indian batsmen, barring Richards in the last couple of Tests, could demonstrate the guts and grit required for fighting the Aussie quicks in their backyard, Rowe’s inability to run tall scores did not meet with much adverse criticism.

When India toured the West Indies in 1976, Rowe was back to opening the innings as Greenidge was left out of the squad. He equipped himself adequately but could not score even a fifty in any of the four Tests. Greenidge was back in the side, opening the innings with Fredricks, when West Indies went to England during the summer of 1976. Rowe suffered an injury to his hand and could play only in the last two Tests hitting a half-century in each. However, by this time, he had become a junior partner in the batting order to Richards, who had established himself as the best batsman in contemporary cricket with a run of huge scores, which saw him aggregate 1,710 runs in Tests in 1976 alone.

Rowe was among the players who were first contracted by Kerry Packer for the World Series Cricket (WSC). He was a fixture in the West Indies top order during the “Super Tests”, with a personal best of 175 against the Aussies at Melbourne in 1979. He became a part of the West Indies squad following the dissolution of WSC in 1979 but injuries continued to bog him. He toured Australia and New Zealand in 1979-80 and ended it with a knock of 50 in the second innings of the last Test against the Kiwis. But a shoulder injury saw him sitting out during the series in England in 1980. There were also talks about difficulties with the team management and he was discarded by the selectors when Englishmen toured West Indies in early 1981 and for the tour of Australia in the latter part of the year.

Rebel tour

By the time 1982 dawned, Rowe’s career in international cricket had come to a grinding halt. It was rumoured that he was not on good terms with skipper Clive Lloyd. Further, the team management saw in his recurring injuries a tendency to go soft and not working hard enough on the game and fitness levels. Hence, he was easy picking for the scouts from South Africa who were looking around for contracting a side comprising West Indian players to tour that country. During that period, South Africa was reeling under the impact of being kept away from all international sports and related activities due to the policy of Apartheid, which discriminated against citizens based on the colour of their skin. Rowe was a prize catch and hence chosen to lead this side which consisted of other discarded West Indian cricketers as Kallicharan, Sylvester Clarke, Faoud Bacchus, Collis King and David Murray. Stung by what was considered as “selling of souls for a few Rands” by its former stars, the West Indies Cricket Board struck back imposing a life ban on all those who went on this tour.

Statistics will reveal that Rowe scored 2,047 runs from 30 Tests at an average of 43.55, with seven centuries, including a triple ton and a double hundred. But they do not convey the mastery at his command, which saw his run pile stand at 1266 runs, at a Bradmanesque average of 70.33 after his initial three years in international cricket. During the subsequent five years, Rowe could score only 781 runs, which clearly shows that he could not build on this superb start in international arena. He yielded space to Richards as the prime run-getter of the West Indies side and adjusted to his role as a supporting actor without any demur. Was it due to a lack of focus or absence of overwhelming ambition? Or was it due to sheer bad luck on account of injuries and illnesses that plagued him at critical periods of his career? Or was it a combination of both? We will never know for certain. But Rowe certainly did not fulfil his early promise nor did he do justice to the prodigious talent that he was blessed with. His decision to tour South Africa in exchange of a fat cheque was an act of desperation, probably prompted by the urge to give the finger to the authorities who failed to give him his due during the latter part of his career. But this was not a decision that won Rowe any friends and he certainly lost admirers across the world by agreeing to be part of the rebel outfit.

An attempt was made by the Jamaican cricket authorities to rehabilitate Rowe by naming one of the stands in Sabina Park stadium in Kingston after him. In exchange Rowe was required to tender an apology for his action in taking part in the rebel tour to South Africa. But this ended in a fiasco when the association went back on their commitment after Rowe read out an apology. This setback left him embittered and Rowe stays away from the game these days, making a living by running a profitable vacuum seal business in Miami, Florida.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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