Memories by the score — Lawrence Rowe

Sunday, November 18, 2018

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The year was 1974. I was pursuing a law degree at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus in Barbados. Cricket was in the air, the Englishmen were in town.

England had batted first and on the Thursday their first innings was coming to a close. And as luck would have it, we had no lectures that evening so my good friend and classmate, Robert “Bobby” Fray, decided to catch a bus to Bridgetown and go to the place Bajans like to refer to as “the Mecca of West Indian cricket”, Kensington Oval.

We sat in a stand beside the noisy schoolchildren section, which had just started to fill up. There was an air of expectation that afternoon as the last England wicket fell — a simple catch in the outfield taken by one of the greats, Garfield Sobers.

During the break between innings there was this thumping noise, which was traditional for the Kensington Oval every afternoon during a big game. The schoolchildren had just come in and they made their presence felt with this traditional beating of the wooden stands.

But on that afternoon the sound was not the accustomed stomping of feet on the wooden floor. It was accompanied by a chant, and as the players were getting ready to enter the arena it grew louder and louder.

When the West Indian pair of Roy Fredericks and Lawrence Rowe appeared out of the Pickwick Stand unto the field, we realised that the chant from the crowd was “Rowe, Rowe, Rowe”. There was not the slightest hint that there was any other player on the field and I personally was surprised, because Roy Fredericks was no slouch with the bat and had served the West Indies well.

My surprise was also based on the fact that Rowe did not exactly have a big reputation outside of Sabina Park. In fact, there were some less-friendly West Indians, especially the Trinidadians, who dared to suggest that he could not bat outside of Sabina Park.

To add to this, only a week before Rowe, batting for Jamaica against Barbados – on this very same ground – failed to spark, hooking at a ball early in his innings, straight down the throat of Peter Lashley. It was another failure outside of Sabina for the man affectionately known to his fans as “Yagga”.

But on this sunny Thursday afternoon at Kensington Oval, the air of expectancy was overwhelming. It was as if the gods had turned up and the crowd felt their presence. They knew something special was about to take place, hence, the chant for Rowe.

And they were right. That evening, in just under an hour's play, Rowe was still at the crease on 48 not out. He received one bouncer. This time it landed in the stands at square leg. He drove, cut and pulled in an awesome display of batting. His drives off the back foot were impeccable. The English skipper at one time set Geoff Boycott at third man and a first slip, and not once, but twice, Lawrence Rowe dissected them with late cuts that were simply as delicate as rose petals.

At the close of play that Thursday evening the crowd was abuzz. It was as if everyone present knew that a special innings was in the making and we had just witnessed an unforgettable beginning.

The next day would be a rest day and play would resume on Saturday morning. As much as expectancy was in the air, no one could have imagined what was in store come Saturday.

Early Saturday morning I went to play hockey with my two Jamaican friends Earl Hamilton (now an attorney) and Louis Spence, who was doing duties with Barclays Bank in Barbados and the members of the All Stars Hockey Club.

We decided that we would leave from hockey and head directly to Kensington Oval. Then we were hit with the news on radio – Kensington Oval was filled to capacity a whole hour before the scheduled start. They urged fans who were not yet inside to go home and watch the game live on television. We were not in the mood to be locked out of the Oval on this day. We decided to head on to the venue and try our luck.

When we arrived the crowd outside was as big as the one safely seated inside. As we walked the perimeter of the Oval, just behind the relatively new 3 W's stand, a lady who lived adjacent to the ground appeared with a ladder to give her husband access to the ground. In the area there just happened to be a gathering of Jamaicans from UWI assembled at that spot. As if a magic wand had been waved, by the time the ladder was removed from the wall, at least 15 males and females, mostly law students, had climbed over and gained access to the grounds.

There was nowhere else to sit but on the grass beyond the boundary, overlooked by the 3 W's stand.

Rowe and Fredericks were greeted with tumultuous applause. They continued where they left off on Thursday evening. Rowe was in his element – exquisite timing, including a forward defensive stroke which rushed past the bowler for four. When he was joined by Kallicharan, who is rarely overshadowed by anyone, the pair put on a massive partnership, with “Kalli” producing another ton. But Rowe was dominant and would not be restrained.

When he reached 100, the crowd spontaneously invaded the field to congratulate the Jamaican. He seemed a bit shaken by the experience but hearing the Jamaican accents around him must have comforted him a bit. It was probably the first and only time such a diverse-looking crowd had invaded a cricket pitch in the Caribbean. One fan, after witnessing a delicate “late cut” to the third man boundary got up and headed to the exit, stating in the strongest Bajan accent: “Man, I got to go out and pay again to enter after that shot, as that shot alone was worth more than what I spent to come in.”

Interestingly, when Rowe reached 200 it seemed a mere formality. One person stepped onto the field, the result of too much rum. By close of play on that memorable Saturday the 300 had not yet been reached, but was a foregone conclusion. Historians posited that Sobers set his record in Jamaica and it would be appropriate if Rowe broke the record in Barbados, the home of Gary Sobers.

But alas, it was not meant to be. A tired Rowe was to make his triple hundred but the record would elude him. The gem of an innings ended when he was at 302. But the Bajans, and the Caribbean people, had witnessed a work of art over a three-day period – some would say, never to be repeated. It was the three days when “Sir Lawrence Rowe of Jamaica” captured the hearts of West Indians and cricket lovers everywhere with an innings of the highest class. The game ended in a draw, but everyone who witnessed the 302 left Kensington Oval with fully satisfied appetites.

One colourful spectator smiled as he exited the Oval and said proudly, Sir Lawrence Rowe of Jamaica just conquered Kensington Oval, the home of Garfield Sobers, today.

Editor's note: Robbie Robinson is an attorney-at-law, public speaker, sports journalist, sports enthusiast and singer.

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