By Garfield Robinson
His bat was immaculately straight; his movements graceful and assured; his balance impeccable; his timing otherworldly. For a while Lawrence George Rowe’s light shone as brightly as anyone who ever handled a blade--all too briefly for the horde of fans who doted on his every run.He soared to the top of international cricket faster than most; his demise is one of cricket’s great tragedies.
Years ago, the Melbourne cricket club in Jamaica invited Rowe to participate in their annual Milo/Melbourne cricket festival match. The revered batting stylist had retired from cricket by then and was living in the United States in the aftermath of the fallout from the rebel tours that he captained to Apartheid South Africa.
A bigger than usual crowd attended that year and they cheered every stroke from Rowe’s blade, much like they did when he thrilled at Sabina Park in his heyday. Shots were accompanied to the boundary by rapturous cheers, and defensive strokes were greeted by loud shouts of “NO.”
I can’t recall how many runs he got that day; I don’t think he made many. But when he got out a sudden silence swept through the throng, and then, significantly, most of them turned and left. They had come to see Rowe and had little interest in the remainder of the proceedings.
He had a gargantuan appetite for runs from his early days. One acquaintance of mine made the error of trying to motivate the young Rowe by offering him an incentive for runs scored. He soon found that his resources were being depleted at a much more rapid rate than he had anticipated due to Rowe’s relentless scoring.
Few batsmen cultivated more fervent followers than the lithe Jamaican, and his colleaguesalso held him in very high regard.In recalling a period when Rowe reeled off huge scores for Jamaica and the West Indies, The great Jamaican pacer, Michael Holding said this in his first memoir,Whispering Death:
I could not imagine anyone ever batting better or being able to…Like all Jamaicans, I was spellbound and, in that period, what struck me most was that he never, but never, played at a ball and missed. Everything hit the middle of the bat and whatever stroke he chose to play (and he had them all) would have the desired result. His technique was superb, his eyesight like a cat’s and he had all the time in the world to play with captivating ease and elegance. I have not seen such perfection since. (p. 69)
Vivian Richards, perhaps the most intimidating batsman the world has ever seen, worshipped the Jamaican so much that he had “YAGGA” painted on his fence-- “YAGGA” being Rowe’s moniker.Cricket journalists who saw him never tired of rhapsodizing about his majestic stroke-play and fans could never get enough of him. Say you saw him play during any conversation on batting and your status will immediately be elevated within the group.
For a while he was almost deity in Barbados. In 1973/74 he racked up a triple hundred against the visiting Englishmen that had the whole island in a trance. His overnight score of 48 included a hooked six over the square leg boundary off Bob Willis that hardly went over head-height. Geoffrey Boycott, who according to Rowe was standing yards from where the ball cleared the fence, hardly even moved.
The next day a huge and unruly crowd turned up in anticipation of the batting master class to come. According to Barbadian cricket commentator Tony Cozier, “ gates were broken, walls were scaled and even high-tension electric cables were used by people to get in.” It was so chaotic that the teams had to be escorted inside.
The crowd was not disappointed. They were treated to 302 of what many in Barbados will say are the most handsome runs ever scored, and they have been his devotees ever since.
His test record—2047 runs in 30 tests at an average of 43.55—is not outstanding. He had started his test career brilliantly. His 214 and 100 not out on debut against New Zealand in 1972 still stands as a record, and after a dozen tests his average was over 70. But injury, illness, misfortune and whatformer Jamaican Prime Minister,Michael Manley called “a flaw at the centre of his character,” (A History Of West Indies Cricket,p. 305) took a toll on his career.
A misdiagnosed ankle injury in 1973 laid him low for over a year. He returned to dominate England in 1974 but that same year serious eye trouble was discovered when his manager saw him holding the menu too close at a restaurant in London. Cruelly for a cricketer, he was saddled by an allergy to grass and many felt he lacked the mental fortitude to overcome the hardships that he faced.
He survived being bowled by a no-ball to score a good 107 in the first test of the disastrous 1975/76 series in Australia when the West Indies succumbed to the searing pace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. From there only sporadically did he play in the lordly manner that heonce found commonplace.
One such occasion was thedelightful 175 he made for the West Indies in a World Series Cricket Supertest match at VFL Park, Melbourne in January 1979. Richie Benaud, doing commentary at the time, said Rowe’s effort was one the best innings he had seen in a long time. It brought back memories of his triple hundred in Barbados, and especially of the famed 48 he made on the first evening of that innings.
Rowe had rediscovered his most exquisite skills: the assured hooking, his signature drive through the covers off the back-foot; his advancing down the pitch to the spinners; and his late-cutting—one shot so delayed that Ian Chappell, fielding at slip, had no chance of touching though it passed inches from his right foot. It was a gorgeous innings.
In 1982 and 1983 came the unfortunate South African excursions. The anti-apartheid struggle was dear to the hearts of West Indians and to Jamaicans in particular. Realizing that such a path would only bring dishonor and disgrace the authorities pleaded with Rowe to change his mind. He didn’t. And while some fans were sympathetic because of the significant financial rewards, most saw the visit as an act of betrayal.
Feeling unwelcome in his homeland upon his return he migrated to the United States.But emotions cool with time, and many were willing to accept the Jamaica Cricket Association’s (JCA) decision to honour Rowe by naming the player’s pavilion after him. So an apology was arranged which the former batting genius delivered on June 20, 2011, during the lunch break of the West Indies/India test.
Soon afterwards, however, it was clear that the apology was not heartfelt. Rowe’s utterances in the Jamaican media inflamed passions anew and many cringed when helikened himself to a Jamaican National Hero, Paul Bogle, who Rowe said was once regarded as a criminal before being accorded his rightful place in history. The JCA then had no choice but to rescind the honour; a decision for which Rowe is suing them.
It would seem, therefore, that reconciliationwill not come any time soon for the relationship between Rowe and West Indies cricket. Yet most who saw the elegant Jamaican in his prime would certainly agree that few cricketers gave them more pleasure, and that at his best there was no one better.