Word was Santa didn’t come to poor homes but in 1935 there was proof that he did, even though it was a bit late : on December 26th 1935 he brought a gift to the Kanhai home in the village of Port Mourant in British Guiana (now Guyana), a baby boy named Rohan Kanhai. Like every Guyanese boy (especially of Indian heritage) he crawled, learned to walk then began to play cricket ( not neccessarily in that order ).
By the time Rohan Kanhai made his Test debut for the West Indies in 1957 it had only been nine years since Gandhi led India to Independence and few knew of the existence of a small Indian population outside of India, in Guyana and Trinidad, and fewer cared.
Contrast that with today when from New York to London to Hong Kong and countless cities in between, people of Indian ethnicity play active and major roles at all professional levels, doctors, IT professionals,engineers etc. From finding water on the moon, to NASA, Silicon Valley or any American hospital, the breadth and accomplishments of India and the Indian diaspora around the world is huge and significant.
These days it's difficult to imagine what it was to be Rohan Kanhai, back when Guyana and the West Indies were segregated, not only by Black and White but also Indian. Kanhai strode onto the world stage and acted like he belonged, not with a personal arrogance but with the assertiveness of his batting. He played in a manner,and a time, and places, that heralded a New World Order.
Kanhai was a pioneer and a leader, his weapon was his bat which was like a flashing blade that he swung viciously through a nearly 360 degree arc. Of the thousands of batsmen the world over, it was only Kanhai who played the “falling hook”. The velocity of his swing lifted him off his feet and threw him on his back as he completed the shot ! The Lightsabers of the Star Wars Trilogy must have been inspired by Kanhai’s flashing blade ! This was not T20 or ODI where the ball is bowled in a predictable Strike Zone, served up for the batsman to attack and experiment on, this was Test cricket !
Starting as a wicketkeeper, Kanhai took 13 Tests to score his first Test century but then did so in India, 256 in the 3rd Test in Kolkata. Kanhai had returned in magnificent style to the land that his grandparents had left, to the very city they may have sailed from. His impact thereafter was meteoric, in Pakistan on the same Tour, in Australia in 1960-61, and JS Barker’s book “Summer Spectacular” rhapsodizes about Kanhai’s batting in England in 1963, particularly his 77 which won the Oval Test for the West Indies.
Literary giant CLR James also was amazed : “I take Kanhai as the high peak of West Indian cricketing development. …..He discovered, created a new dimension in batting …..Kanhai’s batting is a unique pointer of the West Indian quest for identity.
About a Kanhai innings CLR James wrote : “Kanhai had found his way into regions Bradman never knew. It was not only the technical skill and strategic generalship that made the innings the most noteworthy I have seen. There was more to it, to be seen as well as felt. Bradman was a ruthless executioner of bowlers. All through this demanding innings Kanhai grinned with a grin that could be seen a mile away.”
The great West Indies Allrounder Sir Learie Constantine said: “Some of his colleagues ..who have played with him for years have seen strokes that they have never seen before: from him or anybody else.”
Hopefully we grow beyond ethnic identity but there is no question that as kids our aspirations can be shaped by being able to identify with accomplished people who look like ourselves.Bruce Lee inspired millions of Chinese kids. For a boy of Indian ethnicity in the Caribbean Kanhai was the perfect action Hero. Not even Indian movie stars were as dynamic. Like Bruce Lee or Michael Jordan, Kanhai transcended race, and for example, Rohan has been one of the most popular names in Jamaica for boys since the 1960’s, and Australian cricketer Robert Holland named his son Rohan too.
Cricket writer Harsh Thakor once wrote “If Statistics was not the prime criteria and the chief criteria was the technical excellence, style or raw ability of a player then my vote for greatness after Bradman would go to Rohan Kanhai. Statistically Everton Weekes, Gary Sobers, Sunil Gavaskar, Vivian Richards, Sachin Tendulkar (Brian Lara) or Greg Chappell surpassed him. However for ability to dominate bowling combined with technical excellence and graceful strokeplay Kanhai defeated all of them”.
Ousman Ali said: “His dominance over pace and spin was phenomenal; he possessed the best defense among his contemporaries but was commensurately devastating with shots all around the wicket including his trade-mark and inimitable falling hook shot.”
In comparing players from different eras fans talk of the pressures of playing more cricket now, without acknowledging the benefits of playing more. They know little of the higher social pressures of playing against racism and low boxed-in expectations. Glimpses exist nowadays as when some called for the banishment of the West Indies from Test Cricket, or some anger at the BCCI’s dominance of the the game, or the fact that somehow, from 1982 to 1993 no one of Indian descent was selected for the West Indies team. Shiv Chanderpaul's exclusion from a West Indies team that continues to flounder also makes one wonder.
In Kanhai’s playing days there was no escape, it was everywhere in society. The West Indies Team of the 1960’s, especially under Sir Frank Worrell, actually played against the divisiveness of race and insularity, even within their home territories of the Caribbean.
Then there was the economic side, imagine the insecurity of playing cricket and not knowing how you’ll feed yourself, or your family. Kanhai pioneered a solution to that too by leading the way to playing professionally, and with great success in English County Cricket –many followed from all the cricket playing countries.
Comparisons also ignore the protective equipment that has now strongly tilted the game in the batsman’s favor – who has reason to fear a fast bowler, also hamstrung by limits on bouncers ? Rohan Kanhai’s protection was his cup. Today’s batsmen are armored whilst the bowlers have gained nothing in their quest to get batsmen out, any surprise at the glut of run scoring now ?
Ian McDonald, cricket writer and historian wrote: “If I had to choose , I would have chosen above them all Kanhai. This batsman has something of all the greatness and, in their total combination, I believe surpasses all the others”. (he named Bradman, Gary Sobers, George Headley, Brian Lara, Viv Richards, Steve Waugh, Sachin Tendulkar ).
Writers Michael Manley and Donna Symonds wrote in their “A History of West Indian Cricket”:: “No more technically correct batsman ever came out of the West Indies than Rohan Kanhai.”
They also said that as Captain “Kanhai is credited with restoring both discipline and morale to the side…and welding the team into an effective force under his leadership”
At age 37 Kanhai was appointed Captain of the West Indies for the home series against Australia in 1972-73, which WI lost. They had not won a Series since 1967. But he led the WI to victory in England the following summer, winning the three-Test series 2-0. and began the climb back to the top that was followed through by Clive Lloyd.
The next series against England was tied 1-1 and Kanhai retired, because he was not happy with his batting, and amidst the racial and political meddling in the West Indies Team of then Guyana Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. This was one example of the social turbulence that Kanhai played through. Many believed that the Guyanese President wanted the West Indies Captaincy taken from Kanhai because of race.
He and Gary Sobers, the two forever linked, scored their final Test centuries in the same match before retiring; then at 40 Kanhai came back magnanimously to play under Captain Clive Lloyd and together they won the first World Cup in 1975, with a magnificent partnership in the Final. In his autobiography “Supercat” Clive Lloyd said of that Finals; “It is difficult to imagine out-scoring Rohan. I mean he was always such a big figure in my life,Guyana and the West Indies. I remember him coming down the wicket, encouraging me by saying, ”Go on, stay there”.”
In tribute to Kanhai Bob Marley and and the great WI batsman Alvin Kallicharran named their sons Rohan. The unparalleled Sunil Gavaskar also named his son Rohan, and said of Kanhai, “To say that he is the greatest batsman I have ever seen so far is to put it mildly.”
2018 approaches as we celebrate Rohan Kanhai’s birthday ,and all over the world, in New York and it seems everywhere, people of Indian origin excel with an energy, confidence and dynamism, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and Google's Sundar Pichai and countless more. Yet in his heyday Kanhai strode virtually alone on the world stage, a cold uninviting place, with no role model to show the way.
More than being one of the World’s Greatest batsmen ever, Kanhai was a social phenomenon, and without ever appearing in a Bollywood Movie, the handsome Rohan Kanhai was the first Bollywood action hero. In 2017 Kanhai was inducted into the American College Cricket Hall of Fame, in the Legends category, & for the past 4 years the top College Player has been given the "Rohan Kanhai Award".