As England’s last wicket fell at Lord’s in June 1950, a handful of West Indies fans spilled over the boundary rope, keen to celebrate their first Test victory at the home of their cricket-inventing colonisers.
At his home in Delph on the edge of Saddleworth Moor, Sonny Ramadhin, the last living player from that history-making West Indies side, remembers the scenes. “Quite a few of the West Indians came on to the ground and we had to run to the dressing room,” the 91-year-old says.
“John Goddard got out a crate of his own rum, Goddard’s Gold Braid, and all the guys were drinking. I didn’t drink in those days. My favourite drink was ginger beer. I met up with a friend who was studying in London and we went out for a meal instead. I was shy, I’ve always been shy.”
The smartly dressed West Indies fans were the first generation of Caribbean people in Britain. Among them, the calypsonians Lord Beginner and Lord Kitchener, who had arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948, led the fans’ parade, singing a newly composed calypso classic, Victory Test Match. Its chorus eulogised the spin bowlers who had devastated the England batsmen, Ramadhin and his pal Alf Valentine.
Ramadhin was 21 and playing in his second Test. On his debut at Old Trafford, he had taken four wickets and Valentine 11 in what turned out to be England’s only win of a four-match series the home side lost 3-1. At Lord’s, Ramadhin dazzled, taking 11 wickets over the two innings.
“After Old Trafford I didn’t think I’d be picked for Lords and of course every youngster wants to play at the home of cricket. But somehow they left me in the side and I got five and six.
“They had a national holiday back home and invented a dance for us but we didn’t have time to party,” he says in an accent half Trinidadian, half Lancastrian. “We’d finish a match, travel by train at night to the next county and play again.”
“The first time I really had a drink was when we went to India on a ship and Frank Worrell said to me: ‘Sooner or later you’ll have to drink so better start now.’”
Worrell, the first black captain of West Indies, became a close friend after they both settled in England but died aged 42 in 1967. After the death of the batsman Everton Weekes at 95 last week, Ramadhin is the last man standing from the sides who met in 1950.
“We had the three W’s, Worrell, Weekes, Walcott. Their hardest man to bowl at was Len Hutton. He was very hard to get out. Fantastic player. He never picked me but he played me off the wicket.”
During that colonial era in the British West Indies, racial hierarchies persisted. The captain was always white. On this tour, Goddard and other white players such as Jeffrey Stollmeyer were high up the batting order but Ramadhin remembers a unity. “We went out and played as a team.”
He broke a significant colour bar himself, becoming the first man of Indian origin to play for West Indies. “I felt very proud, because Indians didn’t have much chance in those days. It was only white or black players, but I opened the doors. After me there were a lot of good ones who made it. You know, Indian people we use our fingers to eat. A friend told me: ‘When you go to dinner, watch what the others are doing with their knife and fork and do the same.’”
Ramadhin’s parents, descendants of indentured labourer grandparents brought from India to Trinidad’s plantations, worked the sugarcane fields of the Picton estate but died suddenly when he was two, leaving him to be brought up by his uncle and grandmother. At school he was fearful of regular corporal punishment. He skipped school to avoid the beatings, swimming and catching crabs instead, and returned to education only when the teacher who tormented him had left.
It was in this rural setting that his natural talent blossomed. “Cricket was in our blood. Everyone played cricket, nothing else. We played in the middle of the road with rubber balls.
“When I was 13 I worked on the Palmiste estate and the overseer would send me at about three o’clock to prepare the cricket pitch. At about four o’clock, the secretary would come and put a penny on the wicket to bowl at him and we used to be there hours and hours bowling. He didn’t give out for lbw or caught, we had to hit the wicket [to win the penny]. I think that’s where I got my ability to bowl straight at the stumps.”
After playing inter-departmental cricket he was called up to trials for Trinidad in 1948 at the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain. A year later, after impressing in a game against Jamaica, he was selected for West Indies. After several tours he settled and married in England, playing for Lancashire and minor league sides before the pressures of playing while running a pub with a wife and two children took its toll.
His wife, June, and daughter, Sharon, have both died in recent years but his son, Craig, still lives nearby and he regularly sees his grandson, the former Lancashire cricketer Kyle Hogg.
“I loved bowling on English wickets,” he says. “I was brought up on matting. Pitches were hard in the West Indies, not like here. In England, if you get a little dampness the ball turns square.”
Arthritis has forced him to abandon his second love, golf, but he remains sharp of mind and looking forward to the England-West Indies Test series.
“England probably have the advantage. If the ball starts swinging, I’m not sure West Indies can cope with that. Jason Holder seems to be the right captain but they haven’t got a genuine spin bowler.” And as West Indies’ second-highest wicket-taking spinner of all time, that is a statement he is well qualified to make.