It is always a great starting point for an argument to propose your view on who is the greatest batsman ever. Whilst Bradman would appear to have a clear right to this title, other people will put forward convincing counterclaims for players like Sachin Tendulkar, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond or Graeme Pollock. To narrow it down to the best batsman from a specific country would appear easier, but that is still immensely difficult. If the question was targeted to the West Indies, any number of great cricketers come to mind. Viv Richards has been the recipient of any number of awards, as have other players like Brian Lara, Rohan Khanai, Gary Sobers, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes. However, the first ever truly great West Indian batsman was George Headley, and his career provides compelling evidence in considering him one of the top five batsman of all time, not just of those players from the West Indies.
George was born on the 30th of May, 1909 in Panama to a Barbadian mother and a Jamaican father who was working on the Panama Canal. The first ten years of George's life were spent in Cuba, playing baseball rather than cricket. He also participated in other sports such as athletics and swimming, however his love of ball sports was apparent even then. In 1919 the family moved back to his father's homeland of Jamaica, where George was introduced to cricket. The common game that schoolboys played was called 'catch and bowl'. This version of cricket, played all over the world, involves a simplified rule structure whereby the person who fields the ball bowls next, and if a bowler gets a wicket, he takes over batting. George had remarkable concentration, and it was not uncommon for him to bat for very long periods. On one occasion, George started batting on early on Monday, however when he still had not been dismissed by Friday, the rest of the boys terminated the game.
Even though he had only started playing cricket at age ten, George rapidly overtook the other boys of his age. He played for the local St Catherine's Cricket Club and his performances impressive enough that by the age of nineteen, he was selected to make his debut for Jamaica against an English touring team in 1928. This side, led by Lord Tennyson, was not the true test lineup, however it featured many current and former test players. George immediately showed his ability, scoring a total of 409 runs in five innings at the impressive average of 81.8. The highlight was a magnificent double century, finishing with 211. The England team and Tennyson in particular were very impressed with George's technique.
Following George's imposing first class debut, his family made the decision, common to many people from the West Indies, to move from their homeland to the United States. The USA was the preference of people who lived on the western islands within the Caribbean, whereas the residents of the eastern parts would look towards England as a destination. The emigration, and with it the finish of George's cricketing career, was to take place in 1929, however his passport was delayed due to a bureaucratic oversight. This allowed George to play for Jamaica against the 1929/30 touring English team, a happy situation that resulted in him scoring yet another century. This century was enough to result in his selection to make his debut for the West Indies team, and the move was not again considered for George. Even at this early age, his capacity to watch the ball closely and his ability to play the ball later were very evident.
George's test debut at age twenty was against an England side in the infamous 1930 series, so described as another England team was also playing official test matches against New Zealand. Quite how the governing bodies of cricket could countenance this situation would appear beyond understanding, but nonetheless it was accepted then. Irrespective of this, George made his debut in the first test against England, played in Bridgestone, Barbados from the 11th of January. George's first test innings was cut short for only 21, being bowled by the English allrounder O'Connor. The West Indies trailed England by ninety eight runs, however George guided his team through to a draw by scoring 176 before being caught by O'Connor off Wilfred Rhodes. George had twin failures in the second test at Port of Spain with scores of 8 and 39, however redemption followed quickly in the next game. The West Indies won their first ever test match at Bourda by 289 runs, largely on the back of George's twin centuries of 114 and 112. George continued his excellent form in the next game with his first test double century, scoring 223 on his home ground in Kingston, Jamaica.
George was now only twenty, however he was quickly establishing himself as the best batsman in the West Indies. He finished this series against England by scoring 703 runs at an average of 87.87. The West Indies set off for their first overseas tour of Australia in 1930/31. Australia won the series four games to one, with the single West Indies victory coming courtesy of catching Australia on a sticky wicket following a downpour. The significant problem that the team faced was the lack of quality batting, with George quickly becoming the mainstay of the side. He had a great deal of difficulty early in the series, with his predominantly off-side play struggling greatly with leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett. His scores in the first two tests were 0 and 11 in Adelaide, and 14 and 2 in Sydney. One of the underlying signs of George's brilliance is the fact that was able to change his technique following these difficulties. George responded to the challenge of Grimmett by scoring 102 not out and 28 in Brisbane in the third test, as well as another century in Sydney. His average in the five tests was 37.33, totaling 336 runs in the series. Whilst this would appear on face value to be only a moderate return, it was a valuable learning experience and again underlined the fact he was the best batsman in the side.
The West Indies did not play another test series until they toured England in 1933. 'Mass George' as he become known to his fans, did still play first class games for Jamaica, and also had a second encounter in 1931/32 with a non-test England side led again by Lord Tennyson. This was even more profitable than his first experience with Tennyson's side, with George scoring a remarkable sequence of 344 not out, 155 not out, 140 and 84 in his four innings for 723 runs at the quite reasonable average of 361.50. Tennyson commented that he had never seen "such perfection of timing nor variety of shots". George managed to maintain his excellent form on the 1933 tour of England, without perhaps ever quite reaching those phenomenal heights. In the three test series, George scored 277 runs at an average of 55.40, with a highest score of 169 not out. On the tour, he scored 2320 first class runs, more than double the next best player. George's efforts were recognized by Wisden, being named one of their cricketers of the year.
The return tour of the West Indies by England in 1934/35 was another triumph for George. He scored 485 runs at an average of 97.00 with his highest test score of 270 not out coming in the fourth test at Kingston, Jamaica. Interestingly, his innings of 44 in the first test at Bridgestone, Barbados was considered to be one of his best ever, coming out of a team total of 102. The pitch was well below the desired standard, with English great Wally Hammond describing his own score of 43 as being the most difficult innings he ever played. George's input was vital throughout the four matches, and was central to the West Indies recording their first ever series win. Of the ten test centuries scored by the West Indies since George's debut, he had scored seven of them, and he personally accounted for one third of the total runs scored by the side over this period.
George was by now in his mid-twenties, however he was forced to wait another four years until the West Indies played further test matches. Currently, players could expect to play between twenty and thirty tests over a four year period, however George missed out on these most productive years of his career. He took up a series of very profitably contracts with sides in the English Lancashire Leagues, and continued for Jamaica. Sadly, his career was even further limited by the Second World War. The West Indies played the final series prior to the outbreak of the war in England in 1939. Despite the break of four years, George managed to maintain his place as the best batsman in the team. He scored 334 runs in the three tests at an average of 66.80. George scored twin centuries for the second time in his test career in the first test at Lords, with 106 and 107. He was the first person to ever accomplish this feat at the home of cricket. George's other three scores were 51 and 5 at Manchester, and 65 in his only innings in the third test at the Oval.
By the time hostilities ceased George was thirty nine years old, with his best batting years lost to a combination of lack of opportunity and the war. Frank Worrell is quite correctly seen as the first regular 'non-white' captain of the West Indies team, however it has often been overlooked that George was the first 'black'person to actually lead the side. This occurred in their first test match after the Second World War against England in 1948. George only played in this first test at Bridgetown, scoring 29 and 7 not out, with injury ruling him out from the remainder of the series. This injury resulted in him batting at the unfamiliar position of no. 11 in the second innings, the only time in his test career that he experienced this indignity. Unfortunately, this injury and his age meant that George never again had the chance to captain the test side.
George only played in two more test matches. One of these was against India in 1948, when he scored 2 in his only knock. His ongoing struggle with injury forced George to quit playing test cricket at this time, however he continued on in the West Indian domestic competition for Jamaica. There was a great deal of public support for his return to international game, and George was recalled at the age of forty five to play against England in 1954 at his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica. By this stage however, he was well past his prime and his scores of 16 and 1 underlined this. This was a sad finish to his career, and in hindsight, his playing was probably a mistake of judgement both by the selectors and George.
Celebrated West Indian author, C.L.R. James considered George to be the second greatest batsman of all time, only just behind Don Bradman. English scribe Neville Cardus went one step further, stating that he had good claims to be considered the best batsman on all wickets, an inference that Bradman was by far his inferior on poor or rain affected tracks. George's statistics would support these claims, with his test average still in the top five players of all time, his first class average of 69.86 is only behind Bradman and Vijay Merchant, whilst his record of a test century every four innings is second only to Bradman. George never had the support from his teammates that Bradman did, with players of the calibre of Ponsford, Woodfull, McCabe, Morris, Brown, Hassett and Harvey available to assist Bradman compile his scores. Australians, perhaps patronizingly, referred to George as the 'Black Bradman'. This was delightfully combated by the West Indians referring to Bradman as the 'White Headley'.
For many years, George provided financially for his family by playing cricket professionally in England, primarily in the Lancashire leagues. When the war broke out, George's cricketing contracts finished and he worked in a variety of jobs included a stint as an insurance salesman and with the Jamaican Department of Labour. He fathered eight children including Ron, who went on to play for Jamaica and two test matches for the West Indies. Interesting, Ron's son Dean also played test cricket, but for England following Ron's relocation to that country. George died on the 30th of November, 1983 at Meadowbridge in Kingston, Jamaica.
George played in 22 test matches, scoring a total of 2190 runs at an average of 60.83. He hit 10 centuries, with a highest score of 270 not out, and also took 14 catches.
First Class Games
In his 103 first class games, George scored 9921 runs at an average of 69.86, with 33 centuries and a highest score of 344 not out. He took 76 catches and also managed 51 wickets at an average of 36.11 with his occasional spin bowling.