“THOSE LITTLE PALS OF MINE“

Garry Steckles goes back to the birth of calypso cricket and explains why Lord Beginner’s Victory Test Match means so much to him — and thousands of other West Indies cricket fans

Alf Valentine and Sonny Ramadhin outside Ramadhin’s pub during their 1990 reunion. Photograph courtesy Garry StecklesLord Beginner. Photograph by Garry StecklesLord Kitchener. Photograph courtesy Garry Steckles

Cricket, lovely cricket

At Lord’s where I saw it,
Yardley tried his best,
Goddard won the Test,
They gave the crowd plenty fun,
The second Test and West Indies won,
With those little pals of mine,
Ramadhin and Valentine.

These were the words that virtually gave birth to calypso cricket, and
helped launch one of the greatest dynasties in the history of international
sport — the West Indies team that dominated the game throughout most of the
second half of the 20th century.

I heard them in their entirety for the first time a few months ago, and
I was instantly transported almost 15 years back in time, to an evening
in a remote country pub in a tiny village in Lancashire, England. It was
the occasion, rather than the location, that made the evening such a memorable
one: the reunion of two of the enduring legends of cricket, Sonny Ramadhin
and Alf Valentine. I was fortunate enough to be there. In fact, I’d set the
whole thing up.

Before going any further, a bit of deep background for the benefit of
(a) those of you who don’t know a thing about the mysteries of cricket,
and (b) those cricket fans, especially in the West Indies, who aren’t familiar
with the story of Ram and Val and their hallowed place in our sporting history.

It all began in the summer of 1950, when an unheralded West Indies team
crossed the Atlantic by boat to play mighty England. On that boat were two
completely unknown young spin bowlers, the diminutive Trinidadian Sonny
Ramadhin and the lanky, bespectacled Jamaican Alf Valentine. When the boat
left for England, each had played only two first-glass games, and their
selection for the tour had taken West Indies cricket fans completely by surprise.

What followed was the stuff of sporting legend. The West Indies totally
outplayed England, winning the four-Test series by three games to one. It
was the West Indies’ first Test series victory in England, and Ram and Val
took a staggering 59 wickets between them — 33 for Valentine, 26 for Ramadhin.
After a spectacular victory in the second Test at Lord’s, the hallowed home
of cricket, the great Trinidadian calypsonians Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner
led triumphant West Indies supporters in a joyful, dancing parade around
the ground, and Beginner composed the first of what would be a barrage of
calypsos over the decades celebrating the achievements of Caribbean cricketers.
Its most famous lines immortalised the achievements of “those little pals
of mine.”

Fast forward to early 1990. I was editor in chief of a publication in
Barbados, Caribbean Week, when it dawned on me we were approaching
a landmark in West Indies cricket history — the 40th anniversary of that
epic series. And I started wondering about the spin twins, Sonny Ramadhin
and Alf Valentine. Were they still alive? If so, did they ever see each
other? Did they even want to see each other?

Dozens of phone calls later, I’d tracked them both down. Ramadhin
had a pub in Lancashire. Valentine was a counselor at a camp for troubled
teenagers in Florida. To my delight, I discovered they hadn’t seen each other
in more than a quarter of a century, and that they’d love nothing more than
to have Caribbean Week bring about a reunion. Which is how I found
myself a couple of months later walking through the doors of Ramadhin’s pub,
accompanying Alf Valentine and his wife Jackie. They were greeted — rocked
back on their heels would be a better way of describing it — by a roar of
applause. Word of the reunion had spread. Ramadhin was a hugely popular
figure in his community, and while everyone knew all about the legend of
Ram and Val, not one of them had ever seen Alf Valentine in person.

It was an emotional evening, and a fascinating one for a lifelong cricket
fan, as I sat with two of the game’s legends and listened to them talk about
their on-field rivalries and off-field friendships with many of the cricketers
I’d idolised as a youngster. Names like Frank Worrell, Keith Miller, Garry
Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Len Hutton, Ray Lindwall, Cyril Washbrook, Denis Compton,
Alec Bedser, Everton Weekes, and Clyde Walcott dotted the conversation. I’ll
never forget Val’s summary of that golden era: “I played with and against
some great gentlemen. They make a lot more money these days, but I wouldn’t
change a thing.”

We all drank too much, and later, in the kitchen at the back of the pub,
we enjoyed a wonderful Trinidad-style curry, during which Sonny Ramadhin
found an old cricket ball and the two greats showed me the grips they’d used
in the days when they were baffling the best batsmen in the world. For a few
hours, I was a wide-eyed, hero-worshipping kid again.

After a few days in Lancashire, Val and his wife joined me for a visit
to my home town, Whitley Bay, in the remote and rugged north-east of England,
where Val’s enduring reputation again made him a centre of attention. During
the course of this trip, I must have heard dozens of people, on being introduced
to Alf Valentine, unhesitatingly respond with “those little pals of mine.”

I had also discovered, to my considerable disappointment, that
neither Valentine nor Ramadhin had a copy of the Beginner tune, and that
they weren’t even sure if there were any of the original 45 rpm records still
in existence (this, remember, was in the days before downloading made the
tracking-down of music a simple and soulless task). The Valentines and myself
tried, unsuccessfully, to find a copy in England, and had reluctantly thrown
in the towel by the time we were heading back to Florida and Barbados respectively.

I was saddened last May when I read of the death of Alf Valentine, who
passed away in Florida at the age of 74. And when I came across an intriguing
looking CD titled London Is the Place For Me in a CD megastore in
Chicago last year, I had no idea that I’d completed the search we’d jointly
embarked on in England all those years ago.

I bought the CD largely because it promised to yield a hard-to-find treasure
chest of one of calypso’s most fascinating eras, the early 1950s. This was
when many of the music’s leading exponents — including Kitch, Beginner, Young
Tiger, Invader, Terror, and the Roaring Lion — decided to try their luck
in England. They plied their trade with considerable success, and many of
the recordings they made were hits not only in England’s growing West Indian
community, but also back home in Trinidad, where they were eagerly awaited.

When I first played the CD, I realised that one of the Lord Beginner tracks,
titled Victory Test Match, was in fact the number I’d always known
only as “those little pals of mine.” And that I finally had in my possession
not only a genuine piece of Caribbean sporting and music history but also
a song that had become very special to me before I’d even heard it.

I only wish I could share it with my pal Alf Valentine.