George Headley was the first great West Indian batsman and a pioneer for cricket in the Caribbean. Alongside all-rounder Learie Constantine, who was several years older but played with him in many of his Test matches. He did a great deal to put West Indies cricket on the map and accelerate the process of black players being treated more fairly.
The George Headley story is quite fascinating. Only a delayed passport kept him in the game. He was born in Panama where a large West Indian labour force helped to build the Canal. As a boy Spanish was his natural language and his mother, a Jamaican, sent him back to her island primarily to become fluent in the English tongue.
While he was there it was decided he should go to America to study dentistry. But he had already become hooked on cricket, and after watching the fluent Yorkshireman Percy Holmes his ambitions were stirred. Still, the plan to go to America was unchanged and he was awaiting passport clearance from Panama. Headley, then only nineteen, hit 78 and 211 of Lord Tennyson’s side. His sights were now firmly on cricket. Dentistry was for-gotten.
George Headley himself probably ought to have captained West Indies more than one time. Which he did against England in his native Jamaica in 1948 – but at least he broke the tradition of the team being led only by whites. It was a start. Headley’s figures were astonishing. Especially for someone batting number 3 in a side without another frontline batsman of real substance, and understandably earned him the sobriquet from Englishmen and Australians of the ‘Black Bradman’.
His supporters preferred to describe Bradman as the ‘White Headley’ – but there was more to it than that. He made runs when they mattered and enabled West Indies to record some important early victories against the most powerful nations. He himself was not powerfully built. His success was down to a determination to dominate, the quickness of his feet, and the precision of his strokes.
George Headley was an expert at hitting the gaps in the field, especially on the leg side. The other batsman Clarrie Grimmett said he never bowled to a stronger leg-side player. Because he watched the ball like a hawk and played it at the last moment. He did more than anyone in the 1930s to show that they could compete with the best.
Therefore, that must have been an inspiration to the great West Indies players who came along later such as Garry Sobers, the three W’s and Sonny Ramadhin, and Alf Valentine. Even when England toured the West Indies in 1981, and he came to one of the Tests, his name evoked reverence and admiration among locals.
When West Indies won their first Test match outside the Caribbean. That was on a rain-affected pitch at Sydney in 1931 that demanded some brave tactics from them, Headley scored a quick century. Then, when they won their first series at home to England in 1934–35. It was Headley’s runs that did as much as anything to turn things around after they had lost the first Test.
George Headley hit 93, the best individual score of the game, in the victory in Trinidad. Moreover, another brilliant unbeaten 270 constituted more than half the West Indies total to set up an innings victory in the fourth and final Test on his home island of Jamaica. That stood as the highest score for a West Indian until it was beaten by Sobers’s world record (at the time) of 365.
George Headley might so easily not have been a cricketer. He was born in Panama where his father, a Bajan, worked on the building of the canal. So, he can speak Spanish as a child and do not move to Jamaica until he was ten years old. There he lived with relatives and the plan was for him to move to the United States and become a dentist.
However, while at the school he discovered cricket, and dentistry’s loss became cricket’s gain, although it was a close-run thing. A delay in getting his passport enabled him to play some matches for Jamaica against a touring English side captained by Lionel Tennyson in 1928. In three games he scored more than 400 runs, including a double century at Melbourne Park in Kingston.
Headley was only 18 years of age. The plan to emigrate was abandoned. Despite his youth, he probably should have been chosen for West Indies. Hence, his first full tour of England a few months later, on which they lost all three Tests by big margins. But the selectors did not make the same mistake again.
When an English side next toured West Indies and played four Tests. Headley made an immediate and spectacular impact. The bowling was not the best England had but nor was it the worst (it included a 52-year-old but still canny Wilfred Rhodes as well as Bill Voce).
George Headley scored 176 on the first Test. And continue brilliant performance of 114 and 112 in the third and 223 to save the fourth test match. And thereby ensuring the series was drawn 1–1. England thought carefully in the future about the bowlers they put out against the West Indians. The message was reinforced when Tennyson took another side to Jamaica in 1932 and Headley scored 344 not out, 84 and 155 not out, and 140.
Once chosen, George Headley appeared in every Test West Indies played up to the Second World War. However, inter-island rivalries meant selection often varied wildly from one home venue to another. He did not have one bad series, whether in the West Indies, England, or Australia.
Test matches were of course far less frequent in those days and opportunities for newer international sides such as West Indies were fewer still but there was no arguing with Headley’s statistics: in 19 Test matches against England in this period he scored 2,135 runs at an average of 66.71 including ten centuries, two of them doubles.
He played a few further games after the war with little success. His overall Test record (2,190 runs, average 60.83) and first-class record (9,921 runs, average 69.86) make him the only person besides Bradman to average more than 60 in both spheres.
There would have been the usual doubts expressed about Headley’s ability to translate his big scores in the West Indies to English conditions but when he finally made his first tour of England in 1933, he lived up to expectations, scoring almost twice as many runs as anyone else on his side even though he missed games.
George Headley unbeaten 169 earned West Indies a draw in the Old Trafford Test and helped secure him a contract in the Lancashire League with Haslingden, with whom he spent several seasons. When he toured a second time in 1939, he became the first man to score a century in both innings of a Test at Lord’s. Some cricketers believe he is a more capable batsman than the Great Viv Richards.
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