Gordon Greenidge: English foundation, Caribbean flair


Gordon Greenidge, born May 1, 1951, was one of the most destructive opening batsmen ever.  Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who combined English defence with Caribbean flair.

David Gower backed his bowlers when he declared the innings at Lord’s, leaving West Indies 342 to win in five-and-a-half hours. It was the second match of the 1984 series and the teams had traded largely equal blows during the Test, with the balance slightly tilted in favour of England. On a fifth-day wicket, getting more than a run a minute was acknowledged to be enormously difficult.

In the end, West Indies romped home by 9 wickets, with 11 overs and five balls of the last 20 overs to spare. In the very third over, bowled by Bob Willis, the famous square cut of Gordon Greenidge had thundered past point and crashed into the fence. Throughout the innings, balls had continued to be hit with immense power and immaculate placement that characterised the batsman. At the stroke of five hours of his tenure at the crease, Greenidge had sent Neil Foster orbiting into the stands off a scorching hook to bring up his double hundred. By the end of the match, Ian Botham was reduced to taking a couple of steps to send down off-breaks.

Wisden described the 214 run innings as ‘powerful’ and Greenidge the batsman as ‘phlegmatic’. Frank Keating likened him to “a sadistic uncle enjoying an afternoon’s beach cricket against his nieces and nephews back home in Barbados”.

Two Tests later, Greenidge notched up a composed 223 at Old Trafford as West Indies cruised to a 4-0 lead on the way to the famed Blackwash. The Barbados opener had by now moulded the violent — and often erratic — strokeplay of his youth into a supreme combination of English defence and West Indian belligerence. He had developed into a senior statesman who approached his job of the opening batsman with brooding ruthlessness and unerring efficiency.

A search for his roots

Greenidge was as much an integral part of the Caribbean dominance from the mid-1970s into the 1990s as the celebrated pool of supreme fast bowlers, and the great names in the middle like Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd. In the summer of 1987, when he hit 52 and 122 for MCC against the Rest of the World XI in the Bicentennial ‘Test’ at Lord’s, Sunil Gavaskar hailed him as the best batsman in the world. Admittedly, Gavaskar’s assessment reflected his natural partiality towards men who opened the innings and negligible regard for the numbers of the last few years. But, even if not the best, Greenidge was indeed one of the top batsmen during the mid-eighties. In fact, his record during that period was better than any other West Indian batsman, including Richards and his opening partner Desmond Haynes.

Yet, somehow, Greenidge often failed to receive the recognition that he rightfully deserved.  The charisma and confrontations of Richards, the leadership lore of Lloyd and the fury and menace of the great fast bowlers dominated the Caribbean cricketing consciousness and headlines. On the pitch, Greenidge exuded every bit of confidence and panache worthy of a player of his ability. But off it, he seldom appealed to the West Indian cricket fan in the same way as a Viv Richards.

Part of this was perhaps due to the natural introverted sophistication of his character. And some of it was clearly indebted to his migration to England in the late sixties. The latter left him struggling to adjust as an immigrant exposed to the frosty insularity of British society, and made him subject of infinite suspicion once he returned to his native Barbados.

His career seemed a lifelong journey to discover his roots. When in 1990-91, battling his against all odds and coming off a spate of low scores, he scored a career best-226 in the penultimate Test of his long career on his home ground at Bridgetown, his career seemed to have run its full circle. He departed with a wave of his magnificent willow towards all parts of the crowd, and the Bajan fans cheered wildly for their departing hero. Greenidge had finally been welcomed back into the fold.

The Man in the Middle, the premature autobiography of Greenidge, was published in 1980 — when he was already a major name in cricket, but not yet a great one. It follows the journey of the young Bajan in a strange land in the days when many in England were still antagonistic to the concept of immigration.

His mother had settled in Reading when Greenidge, in his mid-teens, came to England to join her. His early years in the United Kingdom were both turbulent and depressing. The necessary cultural adjustments had to be made while racist taunts reverberated in the background. It was perhaps this period of his life that forged his character, making him brooding and reclusive. His accent grew polished and impeccably British, but the Caribbean joviality was buried under the shell of self-preservation. From here on it was a lifelong quest to fit into the life both in England and Barbados.

The young cricketer

Greenidge studied at the Alfred Sutton School at Reading, and it was there that he took the initial steps in cricket. He writes in his autobiography that he was not an outstanding player as a youngster. It can perhaps be the effect of the very English self-effacement rubbing off on him when he writes: ‘I don’t remember ever making more than a very ordinary contribution…my achievements were minor and there was nothing about me to suggest that I would be anything other than a reasonable weekend club player.’

However, the supposed mediocrity of his early performances did not stop him from making it to the Berkshire Schools side. More importantly, after an unexceptional trial, he made it into the staff of Hampshire for the start of the 1968 English season.  He did not really set the English grounds on fire immediately. The initial days were plagued by poor fielding, lapses in concentration and feelings of isolation and loneliness.  He almost lost his place in the county staff at the end of 1969 but was given another chance. It prompted him to work hard on his fitness and concentration. In 1970 the county circuit saw a changed Greenidge who made it into the first team.

He did not score much on debut against Sussex, but many were impressed by his show against the scorching pace of John Snow. Wisden reported that Greenidge “played a most promising innings on his debut.  A hook for six high into a nearby garden hedge was a memorable shot and it took five minutes for the ball to be found.” In another decade, bowlers across the world would be in dread of that hook shot.

Soon Greenidge was opening the batting for Hampshire with Barry Richards at the other end. While Richards, the more experienced and established name, brought perfection and poise into the Hampshire starts, Greenidge’s spontaneity and belligerence made them a formidable and immensely attractive pair.  The collaboration continued till Richards, frustrated with South Africa’s continuing isolation, left the county game in 1978.  Later, Greenidge acknowledged the amount of influence of Richards, on his early days at Hampshire and subsequent success.  The mastery of the great batsman, viewed from a distance of twenty-two yards, did a lot to groom Greenidge’s own batting into a degree of technical correctness that delighted purists perhaps more than any other West Indian batsman.

With Richards the other end, Greenidge scored more than thousand in 1971 and 1972, his highest score being an innings of 142 against Sussex at Hove. It was this knock, made over five hours, that demonstrated to the last of the doubters that the flamboyance and often outrageously powerful strokeplay could be nurtured through reservoirs of patience as well. Greenidge was destructive as well as dour.

The opener of West Indies

It was an important phase for Greenidge. He had to decide whether he was prepared to make himself available for England. There was enough reason for Greenidge to agree, not least due to the decision of the West Indian tour management to ignore him in favour of Ron Headley when an English-based replacement was required for the injured Steve Camacho. However, he decided against the offer and waited for an opportunity to play for the West Indies.

One wonders how his career and cricket history would have evolved if he had been a part of the side he helped maul for one-and-a-half decades, against whom he plundered 2,318 runs. The mind boggles too when one imagines Geoff Boycott at one end and Gordon Greenidge at the other. However, it was not to be.

In 1973-74, Greenidge returned to Barbados to play Shell Shield. Perceived as a foreigner and a turncoat of sorts by his fellow Bajans, Greenidge felt the first currents of resentment that he battled throughout his career. That summer, his performances for Hampshire were limited, but he did catch the eye strikingly while scoring a run-a-minute 273 not out for Derrick Robins’ XI against the touring Pakistanis at Eastbourne. This innings ensured his selection in the West Indian team for the tour of India.

The first Test at Bangalore launched two glittering Caribbean careers, a simultaneous start seldom paralleled in cricket history. Viv Richards managed just 4 and 3 against the Indian spinners. Greenidge, tragically run out for 93 in the first innings, slammed 14 fours and 2 sixes in a second-innings effort of 103.

He did not score too many in the remaining matches, and failed in a couple of Tests in Australia during that dreaded 1975-76 tour. However, his reputation was made in England the following summer. Egged on by Tony Greig’s ‘grovel’ remark, West Indies demolished England, and Greenidge plundered centuries in each innings at Old Trafford and followed it up with 115 at Headingley. By this time, he had forged a formidable partnership at the top of the order with Roy Fredericks.

He matched the ebullient Fredericks stroke for stroke, especially at The Oval when racing towards declaration, and laid the foundations for the systematic annihilation carried out by Lloyd, Lawrence Rowe, Alvin Kallicharran and Viv Richards.  It was the first true glimpse the cricketing world got of the shabby and discoloured pads mingling with the extraordinary force of strokeplay. The bullet-like square cut traced its way through the off-side often enough, but the most blistering of his strokes was perhaps the straight drive off Willis that landed in the upper regions of the Oval pavilion.

When Pakistan visited in 1976-77, Greenidge was still riding the crest of his form, and plundered 592 runs in 5 Tests, including 100 and 82 at Kingston.

Period of mediocrity and peak form

Through the late seventies and the early eighties, Greenidge did remain a permanent fixture as an opener, eventually forming one of the most successful associations at the top with Desmond Haynes. However, his stroke-play, powerful and uninhibited as ever, was prone to be a little too reckless. The runs did come, but the exuberance brought about downfalls too frequently.

Back from the Kerry Packer affair, Greenidge failed in England and Australia. Indeed, he took his time to adjust to the quick and bouncy pitches Down Under and managed his only century Down Under in his last Test in that country in 1989. He scored at less than 31 in that land.

After the interlude of World Series Cricket, Greenidge struggled to play a big innings through the next few years. There were decent scores, but he managed to get dismissed when set — a most disturbing symptom demarcating the very good from the great.

When the long awaited century arrived at last, it did so along with the gravest of personal tragedy.

Having scored 154 not out against India at Antigua, Greenidge had to retire and fly back to be with his two-year-old daughter who was suffering from kidney infection. The child died two days after that in a Barbados hospital.

Greenidge put the personal loss behind him and embarked on the most phenomenal phase of his career. The enduring image in our minds is of the Barbados opener shouldering arms to a Balwinder Sandhu delivery in the Prudential Cup final to find his off-stump pegged back. However, Greenidge had batted well all through the World Cup.

And when West Indies went on the much publicised revenge tour of India that winter, he started with 194 in the Kanpur Test and blasted 63, 96 and 115 in consecutive innings in the ODIs, the final innings at Jamshedpur witnessing a pulverising 221 run association for the second wicket with Richards.

Two centuries followed in the series against Australia at home, and two double centuries in the 1984 Blackwash of England. Greenidge had evolved into one of the best batsmen of the day. By now he was the ideal opener, punishing and impregnable at the same time.

The slide and swansong

The summer of 1984 can be considered the peak of his career, after which the performances remained consistent but failed to soar to similar heights.

Hundreds did come against New Zealand, and during an explosive innings on a flat featherbed at Eden Gardens where even the West Indian pacemen struggled to make an impact.  But, these were punctuated by failures in a poor series against England and two against Pakistan. With Richards injured, Greenidge did lead West Indies in a solitary Test against Pakistan at Georgetown. However, West Indians suffered a rare defeat in the match as Imran Khan, fresh out of retirement, picked up seven first innings wickets. That was Greenidge’s only Test as captain.

Greenidge did score a hundred at Lord’s in 1988, but it was obvious that his powers were on the wane. And his long-awaited hundred in Australia came in an inconsequential fourth innings of a dead rubber encounter at Adelaide.

Greenidge did return close to his peak form against the visiting Indians in 1988-89, when he scored 70, 117 and 80 in the ODIs and 82 at Georgetown and 117 at Bridgetown in the Tests. However, he ran out of form during the latter half of the series. With growing murmurs about his performance, it was evident that the end was near.

With the amount pressure weighing down on him, Greenidge’s last hurrah was both spectacular and pleasing. His last Test century was also his highest, an innings of 226 in the second innings of his penultimate Test. It came at his home ground of Kensington Oval against Australia in April 1991.

In his book Caribbean Odyssey, Mike Coward speaks of the many on the island who felt that the Bridgetown game was certain to be Greenidge’s last, and that he would not be going to England.  In his previous six Tests he had made just 139 runs. Yet, he scored a double century after characteristically ‘…driving and cutting at will against the dispirited attack …Greenidge pointedly raised his bat to spectators around the ground in what generally was seen as a farewell salute.’

It was as if at long last, mutual acceptance had taken place. The Bajan crowd no longer saw Greenidge as an expatriate, while he himself finally managed to enjoy the adulation of his home country.

Greenidge did tour England for one last time in 1991, at the age of 40. And he departed limping, after his knee collapsed during the Texaco Trophy match at Old Trafford. He never played international cricket again.

Greenidge left the scene with 7,558 runs at 44.72 in 108 Tests, with 19 hundreds. In One-Day cricket, his record reads as impressive, 5,134 runs in 128 matches at 45.03, with 11 hundreds. The collaboration with Desmond Haynes at the top of the order produced 6,482 runs at 47.31 with 16 hundred run partnerships, and stands only second to the Sachin Tendulkar-Rahul Dravid associations in terms of runs accumulated.

Conjectures and Refutations

Greenidge’s career is a fascinating study of the effects of different cultures, migration, Diasporas, racial problems and adaptation. The batsman himself often observed that the extraordinary power behind his strokes was generated from the simmering resentment against racial vilification faced during his early days in England. At the same time, it is debatable if he would have become as great a batsman had he grown up in Barbados. One can only wonder.

Peter Roebuck later speculated that the presence of Richards might have been a niggling factor throughout the career of Greenidge, and that the opener: “…may have resented his more gregarious and greater contemporary…” However, it may also have been the presence of the champion batsman in the middle that allowed Greenidge sufficient freedom to become the devastatingly destructive opening batsman that he was.  And all the while, the effect of the calm and elegant presence of Desmond Haynes at the other end also cannot be overemphasised. All these factors contributed to the Greenidge about whom Roebuck himself wrote:

“In full flight, he was a glorious sight, and impossible to contain. So awesome was his power, so complete his authority, that once a bombardment was under way not a ball could be bowled to him.  In this mood he was like an orator suddenly aroused with passion, devouring opposition with a tongue-lashing which was vivid, inspired and devastating.”