February 17, 2020
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Never There Genius

After 15 years in world cricket, his image, sadly, is one of a giant who never rose to his full Carribbean stature.

Never There Genius
Never There Genius
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As Carl Hooper (when 37 in his maiden match for the West Indies) played a casual shot and fell lbw to Kapil Dev in the December 1987 Bombay Test vs. India, Tony Cozier remarked, in an aside, that the man was ‘not there’ as he was anxiously awaiting news about his live-in girl-friend delivering their first baby. Hooper’s penchant for driving his admirers to distraction has remained the distinguishing trait of his cricket since. His aura abides as one of the most cultured stroke-players in the game, if delightfully vulnerable at all times. Carl Llewellyn Hooper is to the West Indies what V.V.S. Laxman is to India. Hooper’s signal failure has been to accord the genius inherent in him such recognition. In the style he brings to his batting and captaincy, Hooper is a lugubriously laidback reminder of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Mohammed Azharuddin.

For the latter two, cricket was always a game, never war. Hooper, likewise, is the quintessential amateur in an era of ruthless professionalism. Even today, Hooper looks a world-beater when the mood seizes him. Like most batsmen of his pedigree, Hooper here took a stuttering start. But, once obligingly missed by Deep Dasgupta behind before he had troubled Mohandas Menon (statistician), Hooper brought to his batting a willowy virtuosity that convinced viewers that class knows no age-bar (Carl turns 36 on December 15).

Yet, Jamaican Michael Holding had been insistent that he would do no commentary in any Test or odi in which Hooper again played for the West Indies—after Carl, as a creature of impulse, so controversially returned to the national Caribbean team as captain. That even Holding felt impelled to rediscover Hooper as a presence in the Windies team is a measure of how much this stylist could accomplish once he set his mind to the task. Yet, a Test career return of 5,662 runs from 170 innings in around 100 Tests at 36.53 is at best reflective of the Michelangelo pronouncement: "The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it."

Too often has Hooper settled for too little when having the bowlers eating out of his driving hand. In a team of power players, Hooper stands out for his wristy artistry. For all his seasoning, Hooper has this tendency, even today, to throw it all away just when looking cut out for command. The recent Mumbai Test tellingly summed up the batting persona of Hooper. He looked in stroke-laden control while reaching 23—only rashly to hook Zaheer down Bangar’s throat. Then, in the second stanza, Hooper had barely opened his ledger when he mindlessly hit a return catch to Harbhajan Singh. His batsmanship here was of a piece with his leadership—at no point in the Wankhede Stadium Test did the West Indies look to be a team driven by the urge to achieve.

A critical survey of Hooper’s 13 Test hundreds (up to the Mumbai Test) reveals that his runs have often come not only against odds but also against some of the finest bowling in the world. At his best, Hooper has looked troubled neither against genuine pace nor by quality spin. That Hooper’s one-day record is far more impressive than his Test scoresheet, represents the supreme irony in his career graph.... An odi aggregate of 5,551 runs from 195 innings (in 215 matches) at 35.81 (7 hundreds & 29 fifties) underscores the fact that Hooper performs with any degree of consistency only in the odis.

Certainly, 13 Test hundreds are too few for a performer of this fibre and calibre. That Hooper should have failed to convert as many as 27 Test 50s into more than 13 100s underlines the fact that he has this gift of being swiftly bored by anything he is doing. All eye, wrist and foot one moment, Hooper is, almost predictably, a soft target the next. In a team in which Brian Lara is always expected to overachieve, Hooper could be trusted to underachieve. This Hooper, late in 2002, remains as much of a cricketing conundrum as he was when he started out in December 1987.

The Windies skipper is much like David Gower in his outlook towards the game. The Reluctant Caribbean, he never looks really involved—either as performer or as captain. Yet Hooper’s stroke production, to this day, is of a dimension designed to render his batting a joy even to the opposition. Only, he lately has presented the aspect of an ageing man in a hurry. He now plays the ball in the air much more often than one would expect a batsman of his lineage to do. But his technique, inherently, is sound as ever. When Lara is not there, Hooper appears the only Caribbean capable of taking an attacking initiative against our spin. Hooper’s batting retains the infinite variety to destroy any attack.

Yet he falls just short of ranking alongside the Windies and Wisden greats. Somewhere something is missing. Is it lack of commitment? To be fair to Hooper, he leads the West Indies at a time when the team is largely trading on its reputation. Young men in the team are observed to make the same mistakes time and again. There seems to be no visible attempt by Hooper as skipper to correct them. His hands are too full, it could be argued, looking after his own batting—the years are now against his at once leading and performing. Yet Hooper’s niche in the West Indies team now is secure only if he leads from the front. Lara or no Lara, Hooper is expected to hone the talent in his care into a cohesive fighting unit. But the impress left by the Mumbai Test is that the West Indies, in the classic words of Erapalli Prasanna, are back to being "a team of tonkers".

Hooper is anything but a sledgehammer. His art lies in concealing art. Not even the omnipresence of Lara in the team detracts from Hooper’s distinct individuality as a batsman in the highest hierarchy. Yet, end-2002 sees the West Indies captain at the U-turn in his career. As skipper, he either pulls the erratic Windies out of its mood to self-destruct or goes the way of another Windies batting stalwart: Gordon Greenidge. That super opener, as one educated in Reading (UK), never did ‘belong’ to the Windies team in the vein Vivian Richards, with his accent on raw Black Power, did. Ray Illingworth almost persuaded the Britain-born Gordon to play for England. Similarly, does Hooper looks more English than the English in his genteel approach? After 15 years in world cricket, his image, sadly, is one of a giant who never rose to his full Carribbean stature.

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