Gordon Greenidge – From ‘The Man in the Middle’ to Beyond the Boundary

When people think and talk about the West Indian sides which dominated global cricket from the middle of the 1970s until the early 1990s, they tend to talk about the contributions of Viv Richards, of Clive Lloyd, of Michael Holding, of Malcolm Marshall, of Curtly Ambrose, of Brian Lara.

The value of other players – including Andy Roberts, Desmond Haynes and Jeff Dujon – never quite seems to be as fluently or instinctively recalled.

Gordon Greenidge is another player who falls into this category.  He was a great opening batsman who did more than most to make the West Indies dynasty what it became, but I felt that by 1995, just a few short years after his retirement, he had almost been forgotten.

This piece was an attempt to redress the balance.

Gordon Greenidge’s autobiography The Man in the Middle, was, despite the prematurity of its publication (it appeared in 1980, when he was an established international batsman but was yet to reach his peak), a revealing and often sad account of the difficulties that confronted a young immigrant exposed to the frosty insularity of British society – of which cricket was an integral and representative part – in the middle of the 1960s.  That Greenidge overcame such uncertain and hostile beginnings to become one of the most successful batsmen to represent the region of his birth, and part of the greatest opening partnership modern Test cricket has seen, says much for his strength of character.  It also renders him a fascinating subject for anyone interested in the contemporary history of both English and West Indian cricket, and, in a British context, the complex inter-relationship between race and sporting achievement.

Although he played an intrinsically important role in the West Indies side from the mid-1970s until the turn of the nineties and was as much a success in county cricket as any of his Caribbean contemporaries, my impression, with the benefit of hindsight, is that Greenidge often failed to receive the recognition that he deserved.  The proud, charismatic, frequently angry and confrontational Richards, the powerful and paternal Lloyd, any of the great fast bowlers with their respective charms and menaces, all were quicker into the headlines and slower to depart the stage than Greenidge.  As his years in the side rolled by, Greenidge increasingly left the violent, often erratic, strokeplay of his youth behind and became a man who did a profoundly difficult job with an enigmatic air of unemotional command.

It seemed to me as though Greenidge rapidly drifted into obscurity after his retirement from major cricket, and this view is supported by the fact that he could, in 1995 – just four years later – be the subject for a ‘Where Are They Now?’ feature in a national newspaper.

In 1992 (or was it 93?  Or 94?), I was vaguely aware that he was playing in Scotland, but the name I occasionally noticed somehow seemed detached from the player who’d appeared in all those Tests and scored all those runs, the young man in the cream pads, 1976 vintage, who could wither any bowler in the world with the power of his square-cut.  In 1995, though, with the West Indies returning to England, Greenidge also started to slide back into the wider cricketing consciousness.  The fact that he had left the insular world of professional cricket behind and was now a full-time student in his adopted home city of Nottingham, together with some appearances on Test Match Special, during which he displayed impressive modesty and intelligence, captured my interest and set me thinking about his life and career once more.

A Barbadian by birth, Greenidge was in his mid-teens when he came to England to join his mother, who had settled in Reading.  His early years in the United Kingdom were turbulent and depressing ones in which his exposure to racist taunts and the need to adjust to new cultural circumstances conspired to erode what self-confidence he may have brought with him from the West Indies.  It seems likely that this period of his life cast a long shadow over his subsequent career in the professional game.  To bear this out, probably the most surprising aspect of a re-reading of The Man in the Middle is Greenidge’s admission that, in his early years in England, at Alfred Sutton School in Reading, he was by no means an outstanding player:

‘…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…’

Even allowing for some false modesty, the words reflect the underlying diffidence of the young Greenidge’s character.  From this distance, it seems probable that the decline in confidence which the young Greenidge must have suffered after his arrival in the United Kingdom retarded his development during a particularly important period of his life, and this prompts important additional questions.  What were the circumstances and influences which led him to become a great player after such an inauspicious beginning and how might his career have evolved if he had elected to represent England when he had the chance in 1973?  Conversely, if he had remained in Barbados and had grown up in the sporting and social culture of a West Indian island, would he have been even better?

In spite of the relative mediocrity of his early performances in England, Greenidge found his way into the Berkshire Schools side and then, after an unexceptional trial, joined Hampshire for the start of the 1968 English season.  His progress was again slow, with poor fielding, lapses of concentration at the wicket and personal problems, centred on his feelings of isolation and loneliness, holding him back.  He came very close to losing his place on the staff at the end of 1969, his reprieve prompting him to work hard on his fitness and concentration to ensure that he returned a changed man for the following season.

The latter part of the 1970 season brought an injury-prompted run in the county’s first team; Greenidge impressed with the spontaneity and aggression of his batting and the 1971 Wisden carried a prescient report of Greenidge’s debut against Sussex, John Snow and all: Greenidge ‘…played a most promising innings on his debut.  A hook for 6 high into a nearby garden hedge was a memorable shot and it took five minutes for the ball to be found.’

His opening partner was Barry Richards, already established as a player of world-wide repute. It was rapidly apparent that Greenidge’s uninhibited natural belligerence complemented his partner’s more cerebral skills perfectly and they were to become synonymous with Hampshire until Richards, disillusioned by the futility of life without Test cricket, left the county game in 1978.  Greenidge subsequently paid tribute to the influence which Richards brought to bear on his early progress with Hampshire.  The experience of repeatedly observing a player of such assurance from a distance of twenty-two yards did much to bolster Greenidge’s uncertain self-esteem, while resonant echoes of Richards’ technical skill could be seen in the mature and masterful player who was later to repeatedly lay waste to England’s bowlers.  Despite his premature leaving of the English game, the importance of Richards in encouraging Greenidge to be the player he later became should not be underestimated.

With Richards safely at the other end, Greenidge cemented his position at the top of the Hampshire order with increasing certainty in 1971 and 72, reaching 1000 first-class runs in each season and extending his highest score with an innings of 142, made in five hours against Sussex at Hove in 1972.  He later ascribed great significance to this performance in that it demonstrated to himself, and others, that he was developing the ability to bat for long periods when necessary.  Clearly, many observers, prior to this stage of his career, still doubted his ability to match the vehemence and power of his strokes with the restraint necessary to frustrate the most accomplished bowlers, but his performances in 1972, the season of twenty-first birthday, showed that he was learning quickly.  This was further illustrated in 1973, when he played a crucial part in Hampshire’s unexpected Championship success and confirmed his status as one of the most destructive limited-overs batsmen around by making the highest score to date in the embryonic Benson and Hedges Cup.

At this time he was also required to formally confront the ambiguity of his roots.  Although unhappy with 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, he rejected an indirect approach to see whether he was prepared to make himself available for England.  This decision to keep his options open for a further couple of years was proved correct in the light of his elevation to the West Indian side in 1974.

Although Greenidge might have become an English Test player before he made his West Indian debut, it is hard to believe, given the respective fortunes of the two sides, that he would have become as good a player as he eventually did if he had represented his adopted nation.  In the same way as he took much from Barry Richards at Hampshire, Greenidge surely learned an incalculable amount from such men as Roy Fredericks, his first international opening partner, Clive Lloyd and Alvin Kallicharran, while relishing the opportunity to develop alongside a player of the ability, and, more importantly, the confidence, of Vivian Richards.  There may be some credence in Peter Roebuck’s speculation, in his tribute to the Greenidge-Haynes axis in the 1992 Wisden, that Greenidge ‘…may have resented his more gregarious and greater contemporary…’, but the important influence of the West Indian Richards on Greenidge’s career should not be underestimated.  Although they were fundamentally contrasting personalities and never had a particularly close personal relationship during their near twenty-year run in the West Indian Test team, the self-possessed and brilliant Richards, who came into the side at precisely the same time, removed the need for Greenidge to assume too great a level of responsibility too soon.  Had he been cast into the England side he would have been under far greater media scrutiny and social pressure, which, while he still bore the scars of his harsh introduction to English life, he would, almost certainly, have struggled to come to terms with.  He would also later have had to carry the cares of a fading side in a way he was never required to do by the West Indies.  Greenidge made a mature and sensible decision in opting to wait his turn with the West Indies: it was unquestionably one of the pivotal points of his career.

After his first return to Barbados to play Shell Shield cricket – where, perceived as an Englishman and a turncoat, he encountered similar resentment to that which had confronted him when he came to England – Greenidge was a reliable if reduced contributor to the Hampshire cause in 1974.  He was overshadowed by the meteoric Andy Roberts, as the county narrowly failed to retain the Championship.  Nevertheless, he significantly increased his profile in the eyes of the cricket public beyond his adopted county.  A stunningly powerful innings of 273 not out in just four and a quarter hours for a Derrick Robins’ XI against the touring Pakistanis at Eastbourne confirmed his ability to accumulate runs with unrivalled power and ensured his selection for the West Indian tour to the Indian sub-continent the following English winter.  He commenced his Test career with a second innings debut century at Bangalore, but struggled thereafter.

From those initial, faltering steps into the West Indian Test side to his final leaving of the international arena in England some seventeen years later, Greenidge was as closely identified with the perennial aura of Caribbean invincibility as anyone else, although, as has been indicated, he always lacked the type of defining charisma which the more assured Richards exuded.  In the early years this was probably a result of the self-doubt which came with the uneasiness of his early English upbringing and later, once his place in the side had long since been confirmed, of the way in which he frequently appeared as a morose, injured, figure. However, this demeanour never seemed to affect the way in which he batted.  Indeed, the belief, current in the eighties, that Greenidge was at his most dangerous when limping, has since been repeated so often as to have become a truism.

Visions from different English times in the great West Indian era scroll into the memory when one thinks of Greenidge.  Despite being a member of the inaugural World Cup winning side in 1975, he came of age, in the eyes of most followers of Test cricket, in England the following year.  He operated with bristling urgency at the top of his side’s order, making a century in each innings at Old Trafford and another at Headingley, matching Fredericks stroke for stroke, laying the foundations for Lloyd, Rowe and Kallicharran, and paving the way for Richards.  The most vivid lasting memories are of his shabby and discoloured pads and the coruscating force of his strokeplay.  The square cut became his trademark that parched summer, but still clear in the memory is the straight drive with which he lifted Willis into the upper reaches of the Oval pavilion as he and Fredericks destroyed the English attack in a pre-declaration massacre. In 1980, after the obligatory flirtation with Packer, Greenidge struggled against the English seamers and his efforts are overshadowed in the memory by Haynes’ 184 at Lord’s.  However, in 1984, another hot and dry summer, he dominated the English bowlers once again and appeared to be the perfect opening batsman – punishing and impregnable by turns and a living tribute to the South African at whose feet he had learned so much at Hampshire. Although the peerless square cut was as much in evidence as ever during his unforgettable 214 not out at Lord’s, his second double-century of the summer, at Old Trafford, showed that there was a greater air of control and authority about Greenidge, now a senior player in his side.

His last two tours, in 1988 and 1991, saw a gradual waning of both his own powers and those of his team, but there was a final Lord’s hundred, in 1988, before a largely unheralded departure from international cricket when his knee collapsed during a Texaco Trophy match at Old Trafford in May 1991.  England was really always Greenidge’s home, and the arena in which his gifts flourished to their greatest extent, so, in retrospect, it seems appropriate that his career ended where it began.

In Australia he took much longer to show his hand, struggling to surmount the harder and quicker pitches that confronted him tour after tour, and failing to pass 100 in a Test there until his last appearance, at Adelaide, in 1989.  In the West Indies his form fluctuated as well; he often laboured in his three home series against England, although Australia, India, and Pakistan suffered more.  But things were often not as easy as they seemed.  He took a long time to convince his countrymen that he was one of them, and he also had to contend with the personal tragedy of his three year-old daughter’s illness and subsequent death while he tried to concentrate on a home series against India in 1983.

Given these oscillations of performance and his uncertain popularity with his fellow Barbadians, his last and highest Test century, an innings of 226 in the second innings of his penultimate Test, at the Kensington Oval against Australia in April 1991, was especially pleasing.  It confirmed his gifts to opponents against whom he had frequently failed and fittingly concluded a great Test career.  In his book Caribbean Odyssey, Mike Coward tells how many on the island 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, but, when he reached 200 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.’ Greenidge’s response to the approbation of his people revealed the extent of the mutual forgiveness that had taken place.  The Barbadian crowd no longer saw Greenidge as anything other than West Indian, while he himself, in cricketing middle-age, had clearly surrendered much of the suspicion and defensiveness which had been an unwelcome product of his early experiences in both England and Barbados.

A concise summation of Greenidge’s qualities is difficult, because of the way in which his game evolved over his time with both Hampshire and the West Indies. Roebuck, in Wisden, chose to focus upon the devastating batsman of his youth:

‘In full flight, Greenidge 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.’

To Frank Keating at Lord’s in 1984, he ‘…looked like a sadistic uncle enjoying an afternoon’s beach cricket against his nieces and nephews back home in Barbados.’  My own enduring impression is of the later Greenidge – his authoritative century on the fourth day of the MCC Bicentenary match in 1987 is a memorable example – assured, technically adept, utterly aware of his strengths and weaknesses, with the self-confidence not to require the psychological support of permanent and crushing domination of the bowler, but never willing to allow any bowler to dominate him.  Actually, all his major Lord’s hundreds – 1984, 87 and 88 – illustrated the way Greenidge had developed, both as a cricketer and an individual, from the reticent young Barbadian who joined the Hampshire staff in the late sixties.  This progression can be attributed to a number of factors.  The natural maturity and self-awareness that comes with age, the equally important but contrasting influences of both Richards, Clive Lloyd, Desmond Haynes and others, the belief and pride that inexorably swelled through his association with the imperious West Indies sides of the seventies and eighties.

The question of whether Greenidge would have been an even greater player if he had spent his adolescent years in Barbados rather than Reading and Southampton is a difficult one to answer.  The influence brought to his career by Barry Richards and the vital grounding he received on the English county circuit in an era when there were still a number of genuinely high quality English bowlers around, make it difficult to believe that he would have become more accomplished if he had remained in the Caribbean.  Yet, as has been implied earlier, the violence of the younger Greenidge’s strokeplay may have been a physical manifestation of his resentment at his treatment during his early years in England, his need to break the will of any bowler he faced an illustration of an underlying lack of confidence which was a product of the same experiences.  With this in mind, it could be argued that he may have become a less instinctive, more technically expert, batsman earlier if his confidence had not been jolted by factors beyond his control, but this is countered by the feeling that he may have become just another Bajan hopeful if he had not received the stimulus of the social rejection that came with his arrival in England.  Like many other immigrants to British society, Greenidge, whether consciously or not, probably viewed sporting success as a means of gaining the universal social acceptance which was denied to him because of the colour of his skin.  That he was later required to confront similar demons in the land of his birth is an example of human perverseness, that he eventually conquered them a further illustration of his courage.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Greenidge has been his irreplaceability,  The West Indies selectors have been trying to pick up the pieces ever since he retired.  Simmons, Richardson, Williams, Samuels; players have come and gone from their team in vain attempts to re-establish the tone of effortless permanence which Greenidge and Haynes created, but, with the young, correct Barbadian Sherwin Campbell, they still only have half an opening partnership, and the methodical Campbell is far more Haynes than Greenidge.

At the close of his autobiography Greenidge evinced his love for the game by stating that ‘it will be a sad day when I am forced to retire and the greatest compliment for which I could wish would be for other people to regret my retirement as well.’

Anybody who ever saw Greenidge bat well would have regretted his departure from the game. Far too many of us failed to notice.

Cricket Lore, Volume 2, Issue 9, November 1996

Reprinted in the Hampshire C.C.C. Handbook, 1997