Sonny Ramadhin, born May 1, 1929, was the first player of Indian origin to play Test cricket for West Indies. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at one half of the spin duo that had once taken the cricket world by storm.
They said you kept a wily secret
up your rolled-down sleeve, the Englishmen
who fell before you like a crop of canes.
Three steps and a subtle turn of wrist
wrought apertures spread-eagling their stumps.
They looked behind bewildered, open-mouthed.
Here in these islands we screamed joyous shouts
as every wicket fell. We d taught our masters
how to play their game. The name of Ramadhin
made pride flush our veins. Then we sent you with
your guile to beat Australia. Our little marvel
off to twist the mighty giants by their tails.
At four o’clock one morning, Christmas Day,
you had Doug Ring out. We’d won. The umpire
said no. Oceans away here, like you, we wept.
What you sent down for over after over
was not a ball with stitches in red leather.
It was an orb investing us with power.
So in our hearts we placed your statue up.
How strange that time has caked its bronze with rust,
and children playing now trample your dust!
— Sonny Ramadhin, by Cecil Gray
Sonny Ramadhin did not have a first name when he was born, and generally referred to as ‘boy’. This gradually gave way to ‘sonny’, and the name stuck. Then, something very strange happened when he toured England in 1950. In Ramadhin’s own words, “when I got to England they insisted that nobody could go through life without initials. The next time I picked up the paper I’d become KT Ramadhin. I never did find out what my new English names were supposed to be!”
Irrespective of what the English press did, he was, and will forever be referred to as Sonny Ramadhin — the mystery of the East who took the world by storm in 1950. He had an Indian grandparent. Andy Ganteaume, his West Indian teammate, said that Ramadin was ‘a very quiet man who didn’t say much’.
A frail, 5’4″ frame, with his sleeves perpetually buttoned up, bowling with the cap on, turning the ball in either direction with an unconventional wrist turn followed by a flick of the fingers: Ramadhin was a mystery England never seemed to get over in the 1950 tour. He ran in with a whippy action, and along with his impeccable accuracy, he bamboozled the batsmen with amazing variations in flight and pace. Along with Alf Valentine, Ramadhin spun an indecipherable web on the hapless Englishmen. While ‘Val’ was the master of turn and accuracy, ‘Ram’ was the epitome of wizardry.
Calypso tour, 1950
Just like Valentine, Ramadhin got selected for the 1950 tour after two First-Class matches — for Trinidad against Jamaica on matting wickets. He took 8 for 106 and 4 for 125 in the two matches, and made it comfortably to the boat that left for England later that year — more so because Trinidad captain Jeffrey Stollmeyer spoke very highly of him.
He found his groove in no time, taking four for 30 against Yorkshire in only his second tour match. A spell of 5 for 42 against Glamorgan followed by 6 for 57 and 5 for 98 against Somerset earned him a place in the first Test at Old Trafford along with Valentine.
England won the first Test despite Valentine’s heroics. Ramadhin had a reasonable debut with two for 90 and two for 77. The sides then moved on to Lord’s for the second Test.
Ramadhin came to his elements at Lord’s. While Valentine played a decent supporting role with four for 48 and three for 79, Ramadhin was the hero of the Test with figures of 43-27-66-5 and 72-43-86-6. With an enormous lead of 175, thanks to Allan Rae’s patient 106, and a destructive innings from Clyde Walcott, West Indies won the Test by 326 runs — their first victory on English soil. Ramadhin took 70 maidens in the Test, which still ranks second in the all-time list of six-ball overs – next only to the 75 maidens bowled by Valentine in the same Test.
It was a watershed moment in the history of West Indies cricket. The crowd, patient till now and enduring Ramadhin and Valentine’s long spells, now spilled on to the grounds, dancing and manufacturing music from all sorts of equipments — like dustbin lids, and a carving knife grazing a cheese-grater. John Arlott went on to call the match “The first truly bipartisan Test match”.
On the final day of the Lord’s Test, Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), the famous calypso star, penned down on the final day of the Lord’s Test:
Walcott, Weekes and Worrell held up their name
With wonder shots throughout the game
But England was beaten clean out of time
With the spin bowling of Ramadhin and Valentine.
Lord Kitchener would go on to compose another Ramadhin song — ‘Ramadhin, you deserve a title, Sri Ramadhin, followed by a medal’. ‘We Want Ramadhin on the ball’, another Calypso, was composed by King Radio.
This, eventually led to Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore)’s more famous version — the famous Victory Test Match calypso — a five-stanza composition that had the same lines after the first four stanzas:
With those two little pals of mine,
Ramadhin and Valentine.
Ramadhin continued at Trent Bridge. After the wonderfully named speedster Hophine Hobah Hines Johnson took the first three wickets, ‘Ram’ and ‘Val’ picked up a couple of wickets each. Then Everton Weekes and Frank Worrell scored 129 and 261 respectively, putting up 283 for the fourth wicket and virtually batting England out of the Test.
Starting their innings 335 runs ahead, Goddard brought on ‘Ram’ and ‘Val’ again — and this time they crossed all barriers of endurance: in a phenomenal Duracellesque display, Ramadhin sent down 81.2 overs, picking up 5 for 135, and Valentine went past Chuck Fleetwood-Smith’s record of 87 overs, and finishing with figures of 92-49-140-3.
It was all down to the last Test at The Oval, then. England made eight changes, bringing back the injured Denis Compton (who made his first appearance in the series), Len Hutton, and Trevor Bailey. With Washbrook missing the Test, it meant that no one played for England in all four Tests.
The reliable Rae and the elegant Worrell scored hundreds; West Indies reached 503. It was déjà vu after that. Things looked fine at 229 for 2 with Compton looking in control, but the great man was run out for a potentially dangerous 44. After that the English batsmen collapsed in a heap for 344, with Hutton carrying his bat with an emphatic 202.
Goddard enforced the follow-on and opened the bowling with his spin twins. They continued to do what they had done throughout the series: Ramadhin picked up 26-11-38-3, while Valentine had 26.3-10-39-6, and England lost by an innings. It was his second ten-for, and West Indies had finished the series on top with a resounding 3-1 victory.
Those two little pals of mine, Ramadhin (left) and Valentine © Getty Images
Valentine finished the series with the ridiculous figures of 422.3-197-674-33 at 20.42, but Ramadhin wasn’t too behind, either, with 377.5-170-604-26 at 23.23. Both of them had almost identical economy rates of 1.59. Valentine finished the tour with 123 wickets at 17.94, while Ramadhin topped the chart with 135 wickets at an astonishing 14.88. This included 8 for 55 against Sussex, 10 for 117 against Leicestershire, 11 for 137 against South, and above all, 13 for 49 against Gloucestershire (including his career-best of 8 for 15 in the first innings).
Both spinners were named Wisden Cricketers of the Year for their performances. Wisden wrote on Ramadhin: “No blame could be attached to the pitch… Ramadhin bowled with the guile of a veteran. He pitched a tantalizing length, bowled straight at the wicket and spun enough to beat the bat. No English batsman showed evidence of having mastered the problem of deciding which way Ramadhin would spin.” It was after this series that Denis Compton called him “the best match-winning bowler in the world”.
Ramadhin often used three short-legs along with close-in fielders on the off-side to exert more pressure on the batsmen. There have been rumours that he indicated to the wicket-keeper and the close on fielders regarding which way the ball would turn, but ‘Ram’ has himself mentioned otherwise.
As Ramadhin would send down over after over, the forefinger could not handle the wear and tear, and often bled. The finger became thicker and stronger with time, and Ramadhin had to keep it dipped in hot water to relief himself of the pain and numbness.
The middle years
Though Ramadhin never reached the heights he had scaled in 1950, he still continued to be a formidable bowler in the international circuit. Touring Australia (which he had mentioned as his ‘dream’), Ramadhin picked up five for 90 at Brisbane, and though it was a rather ordinary series display, he emerged out of the series as a seasoned and better bowler.
New Zealand was a cakewalk, though. He took 12 wickets for 166 runs in 2 Tests, and demolished New Zealand single-handedly at Christchurch. When India toured West Indies later that year, Ramadhin wrecked them with a spell of 5 for 26 at Kensington Oval.
He saved his best for the English, though. In the subsequent home series, Ramadhin took 6 wickets at Sabina Park, 7 at Kensington Oval, and 6 more at Bourda. From 5 Tests he finished with 23 wickets from 5 Tests at 24.30. Though he was read, like before, by the Australians, he demolished the Kiwis again with 20 wickets from 4 Tests at 15.80.
The 1957 series
It was in the 1957 series that the wheels began to turn for ‘Ram’. It seemed to be déjà vu when Ramadhin took 7 for 49 in the first innings at Edgbaston, England scored 186, and West Indies looked comfortable after scoring 474. England lost 3 wickets for 113 (Ramadhin took 2 of these), and the Test seemed to be as good as over.
Then Colin Cowdrey walked out to join Peter May. Cowdrey, who had earlier called Ramadhin “a mean spinner who demolished England on a number of occasions”, put up a dogged effort: along with the dominant May, Cowdrey uncovered the mysteries of Ramadhin. Ramadhin sent down over after over, and the two batsmen kept on bringing their front-foot as close to the ball as possible, unhesitant to use their pads whenever necessary.
On close to two sunny days at Birmingham, May and Cowdrey put up 411 runs for the fourth wicket — a record that stood till 2008-09 until Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera — added 437, May scoring 285 and Cowdrey 154. Ramadhin sent down 98 overs — still a world record, going past Valentine’s 92 overs – picking up 2 for 179; he also sent down 774 balls in the over, going past Hedley Verity’s record of 766, which also remains a world record. West Indies, requiring to bat out close to two sessions, ended up marginally avoiding a defeat, finishing with 72 for seven.
That one innings changed everything. England reclaimed the rubber 3-0. West Indies reached their nadir in the last Test at The Oval, when after England scored 412, Tony Lock bowled out West Indies for 89 and 86. Ramadhin, after that first-innings haul at Edgbaston, took only 7 more wickets in the series, and finished with 14 wickets at 39.07.
The final years
Ramadhin went on to play for three more years with limited success. He did not take a five-for again, and though he picked up 9 wickets from 2 Tests in Pakistan in 13.88, and 17 wickets from 4 Tests in the home series against England at 28.88, he had been reduced to a shadow of the past.
The arrival of Lance Gibbs was the final nail to the coffin. In the historic 1960-61 series when they had toured together, Ramadhin picked up only 3 wickets from 2 Tests, and was shelved permanently. Gibbs, with series figures of 19 wickets from 3 Tests at 20.78, had emerged as a more than competent replacement. Ramadhin’s last Test was also the 500th Test ever played.
Ramadhin finished with Test figures of 158 wickets at 28.98 from 43 Tests with 10 five-fors and a ten-for. His economy rate of 1.97 is the second-best (after Valentine’s 1.95) for any West Indian with 100 of more Test wickets. At the time of his retirement he was the highest wicket-taker for West Indies. In 184 First-Class matches Ramadhin took 758 scalps at 20.24 with 51 five-fors and 15 ten-fors — which included a post-retirement stint for Lancashire.
Ramadhin settled down in England after quitting First-Class cricket in 1965 with reasonable success. In a benefit match in the 1970s the West Indian batsman Charlie Davis had trouble picking him, and said “I couldn’t read this man and Ramadhin was in his forties!” There was a testimonial event in England in 2000 to commemorate the 50th year of the 1950 series when Valentine was asked to join his old friend Ramadhin, but the event passed without much success.
Other than being a Wisden Cricketer of the Year, Ramadhin was also named an Honorary Member of MCC and a Life Member of Queen’s Park CC. Additionally, he was inducted into the Witco Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, and won the Humming Bird Gold Medal in 1972 and the Chaconia Gold Medal in 1995. There has also been a road named after him in Balmain, Couva in Trinidad & Tobago, and he featured on a 75c Trinidad and Tobago postage stamp in 1998.