– Professionalism Personified
By Albert Baldeo
“Kalicharran is one of the best players of spin bowling I have seen…This is not to say that he was inadequate against pace, and, at his best, is the complete player.” – Clive Lloyd
“Once we walk out to bat, there is no rich or poor and there is no black or white. It is just me and you. So I was brought up in that culture of being a streetfighter – that you don’t see danger, you don’t see anxiety. All you are looking at is tomorrow – how will you fight again. So Lillee bowling to me is, just… I’m going to bat again tomorrow. Not that I don’t respect him. I respect what opposition we are playing against, but if you say that you are going to walk out and feel intimidated, what are we going out there for? Why did they select me if I am not going to fight?” – Alvin Kalicharran
In 1979, the smallest international batsman, standing a mere 5ft 4in at full height, took apart a rampaging Vanburn Holder in a dazzling innings of 107* when Warwickshire defeated Worcestershire.It was an innings characterised by such ferocious hooks, pulls and drives of sheer genius, that Holder was immediately taken off. In 1982, against Somerset, he played one of the great limited-overs innings in hammering 141*. When the 6ft 8in Joel Garner bounced at his head, he swivelled beautifully in trademark style and hooked his towering adversary high over square leg for six, with stunning power. It travelled like a laser bullet out of the ground. Warwickshire’s captain Bob Willis said that the little man’s “knock contained a myriad of high-class shots. His stock-in-trade pulls and hooks were supplemented by a series of silken drives on the rise through the off. Somerset came apart at the seams.”
In 1983, after Warwickshire had been swept aside for 43 by Sussex, he lifted them from the doldrums with 210 at Leicester. He carved up Gloucestershire for 173 at Nuneaton. A week later came the Southport saga, when he blasted 230* in an English record fourth-wicket stand of 470 with Geoff Humpage. A marvellous 195 against Surrey, followed by 109* in the return against Worcestershire preceded the big battle at Southampton. It pitted the little master, the country’s leading run scorer, against Malcolm Marshall, the leading wicket-taker – a clash of titans. The little dynamo won that contest, taming the great Marshall’s hostile pace with genius, and enthralled again with a superb 131, raising him past 2,000 runs in a season for the first time in his career. His eight centuries in a summer equalled the Warwickshire record held jointly by R. E. S. Wyatt (1937) and his idol, Rohan Kanhai (1972).
In 1975, this was the same batsman who set cricket’s biggest inaugural tournament on fire when he tamed the hostile Dennis Lillee by hooking, cutting, cover driving and pulling the demon fast bowler astonishingly all around the ground in a spellbinding, 10-ball sequence of 4,4,4,4,4,1,4,6,0,4 – 35 runs, which sent the crowd into pandemonium;real high-class batting artistry and stroke play. Lillee had seen Mother Kali at her best, which is all-pervading power, in Hindu philosophy. He retreated out of the attack, struck with both pain and awe at “Kalli’s” prowess. No other batsman has completely dominated a bowler with such authority.
Who was this little maestro and why, with so much class and technique, was he not playing for his country, having just been chosen as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year in 1983, the benchmark of cricket recognition?
He was Alvin Kalicharran, and the rest is history. Although amongst the very top tier of batsmen in the world of his era, Alvin Isaac Kallicharran is hardly given the thanks and commendations he earned. Playing cricket in South Africa did not help his cause, but he is a genuine, yet unsung, hero.
“Kalli,” as he is affectionately called, was believed to bear more than just a namesake to the legendary Hindu deity when he unleashed his incomparable batting skills all over the world, packing such power and genius in his batting that it seemed divinely granted. When he toured India, a country where cricketers are treated like deity, many spectators came to see him bat, and left convinced that he was, indeed, the Hindu deity, “Kali” incarnate.
He was indisputably considered one of the most complete, accomplished and versatile batsmen ever produced by the West Indies, one whose artistry was not brooked by limitations and one who was the master of all types of bowlers and wickets. He was a man for all seasons, a quintessential gem in any batting lineup. If I were a betting man, and the West Indies needed a saviour in a crisis, I would have betted my money on Alvin Kalicharran in front of anyone else.
His professionalism to the game and his clinical and spellbinding annihilation of Dennis Lillee in the 1975 World Cup are two of the game’s most enduring memories. His encounter with Lillee pitted a cricketing David against a virtual Goliath in Lillee. Lillee, one of the game’s most feared pace merchants and an automatic pick in any all-time World XI, was at his prime, and had destroyed batsmen literally and figuratively the world over with peerless pace and accuracy. Kalicharran, batting without a helmet, thigh pad or arm guard, played a succession of magnificent shots which sent Lillee into vanquished submission. The more “Kalli” dispatched him, the faster and more hostile he bowled, and the more the Guyanese savaged him, enthralling the crowd with rare virtuosity and gifted stroke play.
A solid beginning
Born in Port Mourant, the Mecca of Guyanese batsmen, Kallicharran represented the Guyana school team in the West Indies championship in 1966. A mere year later, at the age of 16, he became the youngest player to appear for Guyana in the Shell Shield. He later inspired Guyanese sportsmen to reach for cricket’s greatest accolades. “Kalli” was a lightweight who packed a knockout punch and a killer instinct which floored many bowlers around the world, keeping them down for the count. Like his idol and hero, the legendary Rohan Kanhai, the diminutive Kalicharran was a stroke player who derived his power from tremendous talent, the heart of a lion, a hawk’s eyesight,a panther’s reflexes and immaculate timing. He struck the ball far beyond the capacity of his diminutive frame. Whereas other batsmen such as Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Clive Lloyd bludgeoned the ball, “Kalli” mostly caressed it, surgically bisecting gaps in the field with his supple wrists and an impressive array of breathtaking strokes to all corners of the ground, while also unleashing shots of unbelievable power.
His greatest asset was his determination and masterful assessment and appreciation of the game as it stood, and his application thereafter to give his team the edge in winning. Kalicharran’s best performances were made when everyone was at odds with the bowling and when his world-class ability to bat was sorely needed by his team – whether it was for Guyana, Berbice, the West Indies, Warwickshire, Queensland, Transvaal or Orange Free State, or whether it was the long or short version of the game. This wristy genius had every stroke at his command and in his armoury, and that was why he was easily acknowledged around the world as one of the best exponents in the art of batting in his heyday. His technique and temperament were among the best in the game, whether he was playing the fiery pace like fire of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thompson, or Bob Willis, the menacing swing of Imran Khan, Kapil Dev or Sarfraz Nawaz, the blistering yorkers of Ian Botham or Bruce Taylor, the befuddling spin of Intikhab Alam, Bishen Bedi or Terry Jenner, the mesmerising guile of Derek Underwood or the unique magic of Bhagwat Chandrashekar. Or whether he was batting at a batsman’s paradise such as Bourda or Kingston, the spinners’ pitches such as Port of Spain, Bangalore, Karachi, Lahore, Madras or Kanpur, or the lightning-fast tracks of Perth, Brisbane or Headingly, or at the home of cricket-Lord’s. No occasion was too big for him. “Kalli” was professionalism personified.
He made his international debut against New Zealand in the fourth Test in sensational fashion at Bourda, Georgetown, in 1972, and thrilled the spectators with an unbeaten century when he joined the revered and distinguished band of players who have made centuries on their Test debuts. Sobers gave him a mere hour to complete his century, having been overnight on 58, in an attempt to inject life into the game, and “Kalli” smashed the New Zealanders all over and out of the ground. One wonders how much more runs he may have made if Sobers had not declared the innings, as Glenn Turner and Terry Jarvis then put on a 387 opening partnership in seven hours. In his next Test innings in the final match at Port-of-Spain, Kallicharran scored another magnificent century to cement his place in the side.
Against the touring Australians the following year, the world had to take notice of cricket’s little dynamo. His consistency, solidity, poise and temperament were unequalled and “Kalli” could not be denied his rightful place in the side as the linchpin of the batting, and he gracefully joined fellow compatriots Fredericks, Lloyd and Kanhai onto the world stage.
As was his trademark throughout his career, the Guyanese opened his account with a solid score (50), at Kingston and confirmed his class with 53 and 91 in the third match at Port-of-Spain. West Indies looked to “Kalli” for salvation and a memorable victory here, but “Kalli,” after a long and valiant vigil, lost a nerve-wracking fight to the indefatigable Aussies. He had so narrowly failed to win the game for the West Indies on his own on a treacherous pitch. Tony Cozier chronicled “Kalli’s” batting thus, “Meeting every delivery with a broad bat and superb technique…” Cozier later justifiably predicted that “the world would someday pay in centuries for this character-building innings.” Kalicharran’s continuing good form continued in England later that year and he hit 80 in each innings in the first Test at the Oval, sharing in a double-century partnership with his skipper Lloyd in the first.
He hit three centuries against county sides and finished the tour with an impressive average of 64.78. In the return series, “Kalli” consolidated his growing international reputation by hitting 158 in the first Test at Port-of-Spain, and followed that up with 93 in the second match at Kingston. In the third game at Bridgetown, Kallicharran scored 119, sharing in a record second-wicket partnership of 249 with Lawrence Rowe.
On the West Indies tour to India and Pakistan in 1974-75, he passed 50 in six of the seven Tests and was often the foundation for his team’s batting. In the first match at Bangalore, he hit a magnificent 100 on a difficult wicket. Tony Cozier reminisces that, “With further rain during the night, the pitch became a vicious turner, fully exploited by the classy Indian spinners, but it was a masterful technical display by ‘Kalli,’ which was the highlight of the exchanges. He carried his score from 64 to 124 before he was last out-in other words 60 out of 77 added by his team on the second day.”
The iconic Sunil Gavaskar, the Little Master who was romanticised in calypso for his incomparable batting exploits, in his book “Idols,” said that “it was batting of the highest class. With the ball turning and popping, Kalicharran gave us a tremendous batting lesson. The ball dropped dead at his feet when he played defensively forward. But when he hit the ball, it invariably went to the boundary. A six off Chandrasekhar showed his quick reflexes. He was preparing for a defensive shot when he heard the no-ball call from the umpire and he changed his shot to swing it over the mid-wicket fence.” In the deciding game at Bombay, he made 98, sharing in century partnerships with Roy Fredericks and Lloyd to win the series for the West Indies. Kalicharran top-scored with an unbeaten 92 in the first Test on the Pakistan leg of the tour, at Lahore, and in the final match at Karachi he scored 115, sharing in a three-figure stand with Lloyd. Of his 92*, Cozier wrote, “Kalicharran’s mastery of the problems which troubled all the other batsmen was almost completely responsible for a West Indian reply of 214. Sarfraz (Nawaz) took 6-89 for Pakistan but the left-handed Kalicharran was seldom bothered and finished 92*, denied a well-deserved century by a lack of adequate support.”
When the West Indies visited Australia later that year, Kalicharran was one of the Caribbean’s few who stood up to the deadly and lightning pace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson. Jeff Thompson was clocked at 99.7 mph in 1975, which was then the highest electronically measured speed for a bowled ball in the Guinness Book of Records. In the first Test at Brisbane, he scored a century, adding 198 with Rowe for the fourth wicket and an exemplary 57 in the second match at Perth, one of cricket’s greatest courageous moments despite a broken nose. In these battles, “Kalli” never had the luxury of a helmet. Any split-second mistake when hooking Lillee and Thompson off the eyebrows would have constituted fatal error. Many batsmen actually died from such injuries in the sport in those days. He crafted another two half-centuries in the fifth game at Adelaide. When comparisons are made with today’s batsmen, one must consider the vulnerability a batsman faced in Kalli’s days when batting without a helmet. There were few better sights in batting than “little Kalli” hitting thunderous boundaries against bowlers, wearing only a box as protective gear.
The most memorable sight in World Cup cricket history for many is “Kalli” blasting Dennis Lillee in the 1975 World Cup against Australia at the Oval. Gordon Ross, the noted commentator, described his onslaught as akin to “a firecracker, exploding all round.” Kalicharran cut, pulled, slashed, drove and hooked Australia’s greatest fast bowler with unprecedented majesty and skill. The Golden Arrowhead never flew higher. It was a rare sight in batting as “Kalli” showed he was “the real master.” He paralysed the Australians with his genius in that mesmerising innings of 78. Few batsmen have catapulted a crowd into such a frenzy. He then played another magnificent innings in the win against New Zealand, thus setting up West Indies in a memorable victory in the World Cup final. He was also part of the victorious 1979 World Cup squad.
Kallicharran had a consistent series against India when they visited the Caribbean in 1976, finishing second in the averages to the ascending Viv Richards, who was to later dominate the cricket world. After the pair had shared in a double-century, third-wicket stand in the first test at Bridgetown, “Kalli” hit an unbeaten hundred in the third game on his favourite Port-of-Spain ground, scene of many of his glorious performances. Few batsmen knew how to move their feet to good spin bowling like “Kalli.” He was adept at that and enthralled many with his silken stroke play.
Soon afterwards, Kalicharran was afflicted with fibrosis in his shoulder, a painful condition that seriously affected his performance against England later that year. Yet, espousing the bravery and determination which propelled him to the heights of international fame, he battled valiantly for 97, sharing in a triple-century partnership with Richards, in the Test at Trent Bridge. Ducks at Lord’s and Old Trafford and further injuries ruled him out of the rest of the tour. The left-handed dynamo struggled when Pakistan visited West Indies in 1977, with his only notable innings being 72 in the third match at Georgetown. Apart from his injury, Kalicharran was obviously tired from playing continuous cricket all over the world, and subjected to poor wages. He understandably lost his appetite for the game that underpaid cricketers in his time.
Then came the Kerry Packer affair. Kalicharran was one of the first players to sign for Packer’s World Series tournament. But, he later withdrew from the contract, which conflicted with an earlier one he had signed with a radio station in Queensland, and returned to lead the official West Indies side. Kalicharran’s world-class ability was in sharp contrast to his teammates. The gifted Guyanese had already top-scored in the opening Test against the Australians with his customary century at Port-of-Spain, before the walkout by the Packer players on the eve of the third game at Georgetown. Installed as the new captain, Kalicharran guided his inexperienced colleagues to victory in the fourth Test at Port-of-Spain with 92 and 69, and hit a splendid hundred in the final match at Kingston. “Kalli” led from the front with several breathtaking performances.
He continued to be the fulcrum of the batting in the series against India in 1978-79, playing several captain’s innings. In the first Test at Bombay he hit 187, then 71 at Bangalore, 55 at Calcutta, 98 at Madras, and 45 at New Delhi. He was certainly the one man Kerry Packer needed to complete the constellation of stars in his firmament. Picked for the tours to Australia and New Zealand in 1979-80, he made a century in the third match at Adelaide and 75 and 46 in the second and third Tests in New Zealand. Thereafter he was not the same giant killer on subsequent tours to England and Pakistan.
Controversy and sometimes poor decisions hindered Kalicharran and he was called a pariah by becoming the first West Indian player to appear in South Africa’s Currie Cup competition when he joined Transvaal in 1981-82 for 20,000 pounds. This ill-advised decision should be analysed in the context of Kalicharran’s bread-and-butter needs and his understandable anger at the West Indies administration’s betrayal. Now that South Africa is no longer blacklisted, history may take a kinder look at players like him who committed that error.
His brilliant run-scoring attracted worldwide recognition and the prodigious Guyanese signed contracts with Warwickshire and Queensland. He thrived at Warwickshire and, in the early 1980s, if he had not gone to South Africa, Kalicharran’s sparkling form would have certainly demanded a Test recall. Indeed, after his banning, Kalicharran said he looked on county cricket as sending a strong message to the West Indian selectors for their notorious and perverted historical idiosyncrasies.
In 1982 he scored over 2,000 runs, featuring three championship double centuries-including 230*as he shared in a record fourth-wicket stand of 470 with Geoff Humpage against Lancashire at Southport, which remains the highest partnership in English county cricket, and five single hundreds. In 1982 and 1983 Kalicharran topped Warwickshire’s batting averages while, in five of his first seven seasons with the club, he hit 1,000 first-class runs. Altogether in the championship he scored 46 centuries-including a record nine in 1984 and six double hundreds, where he put all bowlers, including Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner, to the sword in the English circuit. He was eventually registered as an English qualified player. While playing against minor county Oxfordshire in the 1984 one-day Natwest Trophy, he scored 206 and took 6 for 32.
The Port Mourant legend left indelible memories in the game of cricket, not least with his fielding, where he held several remarkable catches. In 1983, along with such cricket greats as Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Malcolm Marshall, he joined the elite group of cricketers chosen as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year, and was awarded the British Empire Medal in the 2019 New Year Honours List for services to cricket and charity. Those who appreciate the genius in a man will never deny “Kalli” his due. Like the immortal Rohan Kanhai, Lance Gibbs and other faithful stewards, it remains a travesty of justice that heroes who flew the flag of their country so high, and earned the respect of so many cricket lovers around the globe, should receive so little in return for their groundbreaking and inspiring achievements.
First-class record: [1966-1990] 505 matches, 32,650 runs (43.64) including 87 centuries, 84 wickets, HS 243*; Tests: 66; Test runs: 4,399 (44.43); 12 centuries; HS: 187 v India, Bombay, 1978.