“A ( SLIGHT ) BRUSH WITH FAME………..”

To a thirteen year-old boy from the bush, it was my nirvana.

It was shaping to be a blistering hot late-December day when we approached our destination, after a journey that seemed to take an eternity……excitement-levels soared…….. we pushed through the bustling crowd, joined a snail-like queue which inched towards the ticket-box, negotiated turnstiles, scuttled along dim corridors, up flights of stairs……….

“Get a wriggle on,” says Dad ( the keenest of us all ), “It’s almost 11……We don’t want to miss the first ball……”

And there it appeared…….out of the gloom, a ‘vision’, bathed in bright sunshine…… the delightful green sward of the Melbourne Cricket Ground………..

We took our seats, just in time to catch a glimpse of a superb specimen; dark skin glistening, gold crucifix jangling, chiselled 6’5” broad-shouldered frame swinging rhythmically from side to side, as he approached the crease.

Wesley Winfield Hall, the world’s fastest bowler, was a sight to behold.

His run-up had seemed to kick-start from beneath the sight-screen and I felt for the slightly-built Australian opener Colin McDonald, as he powered towards him………….

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My curiosity about big Wes had been piqued a fortnight earlier, when he played a significant role in one of the most exciting matches of all-time – the Tied Test at the ‘Gabba.

I can remember being absorbed in a game of backyard cricket at the time, whilst, in the background, the dulcet tones of Johnny Moyes and Clive Harburg provided a graphic description of the closing stages of a game for the ages.

Just to set the scene, the West Indies tail had wagged on the final morning, setting the Australians a victory target of 232………When Hall got to work, he left the Aussie top-order in disarray, removing four of the top five, with the score on a paltry 57. After ‘Slasher’ Mackay fell to the spinner Sonny Ramadhin it was 6/92

Wes, the Windies tearaway had already played a significant part in the game, scoring 50 and 18, and taking 4/140 off a marathon 29.3 overs in the first innings.

As the afternoon wore on, a partnership between all-rounders Alan Davidson and captain Richie Benaud developed, and changed the game’s dimension. They added 134, before Davidson was run out for 80, leaving the Aussies within striking distance.

When the ball was thrown to Wes Hall, they needed 6 runs to win, with three wickets in hand……..It was time for us, by now, to put down the bat and ball and focus on the Test……..

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Who better than the man himself to give you an insight to what happened next:

“The over took 15 minutes…..( After Grout had run through for a bye ), the captain called to me and said :’Wesley, I’m watching you….Whatever you do now, do not bowl a bouncer to Richie Benaud……I said: ‘OK Skipper, you just watch me.’ “

“As I walked back, still very hurt at the shame, the scandal of dropping a vital catch and allowing them another run, my team-mates were saying: ‘We are with you. You cannot even catch a cold’.”

“But as I walked back I had other things on my mind. I turned around, fingered my cross, prayed a little prayer, pulled at my trousers, and took off.”

God was merciful because I found a little pep in my step and a little spring in my heels, and I said: ‘Eh, eh, let’s go Benaud. I’m bowling the fastest bouncer that I’ve ever bowled in my life……..”

“Benaud, feeling surprised, shaped for the hook, it took the glove, and there was Alexander, triumphantly in the air, taking the catch and rolling over in great triumph.”

“I swung around, my arms raised, going towards my captain, hoping he will embrace me. But all I got was stony silence and a wicked stare.”

“So I said: ‘He’s out skipper…He’s out…’ “

He says: ‘What did I tell you.’ “

“I said: ‘But he’s out. He’s out.’ “

“And then the joke was no more. He said: ‘Do you really understand what would have happened if that ball had taken the top edge and gone for four runs ? ‘ “

“For the first time in 12 minutes I realised that Australia needed 4 to win. So there again, in deep despair, a batsman out, but still no joy.”

As the new batsman came in to bat, Meckiff was his name…..A monumental rabbit…Surely he would not stand the test of time, as I moved in….”

But my spirit was broken…How could you expect a man to get a wicket, yet be admonished by his captain ? I walked in meekly, bowled just as meekly, and Meckiff hit it just as sweetly to the mid-wicket boundary.”

He ran one……he ran 2….he ran 3….The ball went right to the boundary….about a metre away….and there was Conrad Hunte, not giving up, chasing all the way, picking the ball just a metre from the boundary and throwing it with remarkable accuracy back to the wicket-keeper, who did not have to move a centimetre. He took the ball……”

”And there was Grout, sprawled out on the ground, two metres out of his crease.”

“So another man was out, and Sir Frank Worrell came up to me and said: ‘You’ve got one ball to go.’ “

“I said: ‘I know.’ “

He says: ‘And what is more, the umpire is watching you too.’ “

I didn’t know what he was saying, so I said to him: ‘What are you saying ?’ “

He said: ‘Well, listen….. If you bowl a no-ball you will never land in Barbados again.’

And I made my last lonesome trek back, 40 yards from the stumps. As I came in, gasping for air, pressing through for the last ball, my feet planted three yards behind the crease, just in case we had a benevolent Australian umpire.

And so, Lindsay Kline turned the ball backward of square for what seemed like an easy run…….It was, really…..until Soloman, little Joe Soloman, moved smartly to his left, picked up the ball and, with just one stump to see, threw and hit it bulls-eye…….The square-leg umpire – an Australian – jumped four feet in the air and still gave him out.”

The West Indian cricketers were sure we had not lost. Ten men were out weren’t they ? But we didn’t know if we had won, either.”

So we all went off the ground – umpires, those who were not playing, and the extras – all gathered in the one Dressing-Room.”

We drank beer, we drank champagne, and Dinner was summoned……and we did not leave there until 10.30 that night……….”

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There were many stars in the Series that revitalised cricket……And Hall was principal among them.

He took 21 wickets, and like all of the Windies players, possessed a magnetic personality. By the time of the deciding Fifth Test at Melbourne, interest in cricket had reached fever-pitch.

A world-record 90,800 people flocked to see the day’s play on the Saturday, and continued to be enthralled throughout a game which eventually went the way of the Aussies.

Upon their departure, the visitors were afforded a ticker-tape farewell throughout the streets of Melbourne, usually only accorded to royalty, or The Beatles………The following summer, when Wes Hall arrived at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm Airport to fulfill the first of a two-year contract to play Sheffield Shield cricket for Queensland, he was greeted by a swarming, adoring crowd.

His 43 Shield wickets set a state record for a first-class season…….He followed that up with 33 the following year, to accentuate his popularity in the Sunshine state.

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The next time I see Wes in the skin, is six years later. He’s playing in an up-country match…….. methodically pacing out his run-up, and preparing to send down his thunderbolts to a jittery left-hand opening batsman……….

Me…..

From 62 yards away he looks positively menacing……

My fitful sleep the previous night included nightmares of waking up to stumps clattering everywhere after his opening delivery……… of forgetting to wear a box…….and ducking and weaving a succession of 105 mile-an-hour red ‘cherries’………

In this era – which preceded Helmets, thigh-pads and chest-guards – I have taken the precaution of including an extra hankie in my right pocket, to cushion the possible stinging sensation of a Kookaburra thudding into raw flesh.

Wes, of course, has been confronted with this scenario on countless occasions………He knows a sitting-duck when he sees one………And after all, he doesn’t want to impinge too early upon the entertainment of the locals, who are still scampering to take up vantage spots around this scenic bush oval.

So he sends down a harmless half-volley, just outside off-stump, which any leftie worth his salt should be able to despatch satisfactorily………

It skims through the cover field to the boundary……..To the accompaniment of a polite ripple of applause from the crowd…..

The following delivery is yards quicker……..As I shape to play a defensive shot it’s already in the gloves of ‘keeper Hendricks……..

The next is on me in a flash……It thuds into my pad….There’s a muted appeal from someone ( not Wes )……It feels out to me………But the kindly local umpire answers in the negative and my partner ushers me ( I limp ) through for a leg bye.

I’d like to be able to tell you that what followed was an innings marked by defiance and aggression……….Alas, the very next over, Richard Edwards, a strongly-built Barbadian yet to be honoured with a Test cap, crashes through my flimsy defence and sends the off-stump cartwheeling.

Richard certainly means business……The incoming batsman, Brian Hayes ( one of the best country players you’d find ) tries to fend off a rearing delivery, which breaks his left hand. He bravely stays on, but nicks the next ball to the waiting slips cordon.

We’ve played Edwards into the Test side……….

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FOOTNOTE:

Wes Hall’s next visit to our neck of the woods came 15 years later. He was, by now, Manager of Clive Lloyd’s emerging team of superstars, and a highly-respected administrator. He later took over as Chairman of the West Indies Board of Control.

Entering politics, he served in the Barbadian Senate and House of Assembly, and was appointed Minister for Tourism of the tiny island.

On a visit to Florida in 1990 he attended a Christian service. Impressed by the Preacher, he made a decision to devote the rest of his life tending to those in need.

He attended Bible School and was subsequently ordained a minister in the Christian Pentecostal Church, in which he is still involved, at the age of 84……………

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