Our Readers' Opinions
May 24, 2016
Play on, Tony Cozier, play on

by Dr Garrey Michael Dennie

Tony Cozier has lived a life worth living. He lived cricket, West Indian cricket. And millions of us lived that life with him; millions of us lived that life through him. For almost 50 years, his voice was the single greatest siren of West Indies cricket and without it we would have heard the game – but we would not have heard it in the same way.{{more}}

The great English poet John Keats once wrote, “heard music is sweet; those unheard sweeter still.” For John Keats believed that our capacity to imagine art more wondrous than we behold would forever impel us to create new paeans to the human imagination in a never-ending search for perfection. Perfection, however, was always just out of reach.

Tony Cozier’s cricket commentary defied that. For those of us privileged to listen to Tony Cozier, we had found perfection. For in a voice that crackled with power and passion, and in a language that coded the game in the sharpest of colours, Cozier’s oratory transported millions of Caribbean people from everywhere – from their rum shops, their fields, their beaches, their streets, their offices, their living rooms, their bedrooms, even their classrooms – onto the burning heat of the Australian cricket grounds, the cold summers of the English cricket fields, the dead wickets of India’s cricket cities, and the tempest of a Pakistani tour. And names such as Lords and Lahore, Perth and Adelaide, Calcutta and Waca, Bombay and so many other cricket capitals travelled across the cables under the world’s oceans, or the radio waves of celestial satellites and buried themselves into our psyches. And as he regaled us with a vocabulary that linked geographies, histories, and the glories of the greatest West Indian players, he allowed us to dream of the possibilities of Caribbean dominance in a global sport.

That dominance would come and Tony Cozier would be there to describe this for us. For, if in the 1950’s and 60’s the legendary Headley and the incomparable Garry Sobers signaled to the world that we were now home to some of the world’s greatest players, in the 1970’s, the West Indies cricket team stormed the castles of cricket’s custodians and battered the old guards from Australia and the Queen’s England into submission to establish 20 years of West Indian cricket supremacy.

It was an age of legends. Led by King Richards, ‘master blaster,’ and simply the most destructive batsman in the history of the game, and backed by the First Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Roberts, Holding, Garner, and Croft, until then the most frightening array of fast bowlers ever assembled, and with Malcolm Marshall, Curtley Ambrose, and Courtney Walsh serving to renew and re-establish the incontestable ferocity of West Indian speed, all cricketing nations trembled and fell before the might of West Indies cricket. And no one painted that picture for us better than Tony Cozier.

In 1978, in Bridgetown, Barbados, he was witness to the colossal clash between the West Indies and Australia. I can hear him now, as he spells out the terrifying task confronting the West Indian batmen, as the most feared Australian fast bowlers of all time – Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee – produced frightening speeds that flattened the West Indian opening batsman Gordon Greenidge, floored his partner Desmond Haynes, and destroyed the middle order batsman Richard Austen.

And for those of us listening on our radios, Tony Cozier tells us that Viv Richards and Roy Fredericks meet in the middle of the wicket. Their conversation is short – midwicket conversations always are. But this one is special. For as Tony Cozier describes the rain of fire that Thomson and Lillee hurled at the West Indian batsmen, every West Indian cricket fan understood that, notwithstanding the tremendous West Indian victories against India, England, and Pakistan between 1976 and 1978, it was Australia, and Thomson and Lillee in particular, who offered the sternest test of West Indian mettle. I was afraid; and so were millions of West Indies fans.

Tony Cozier understood that fear. Years later he would tell me that Jeff Thomson was the most terrifying fast bowler he had ever seen, because he had the capacity to produce balls that climbed steeply towards a batsman’s face, travelling at 100 miles an hour. In a time when helmets were not part of a batsman’s equipment, in less than half of a second, Jeff Thomson had the capacity to break a batsman’s jaw. And he took special delight in injuring batsmen. Tony Cozier knew that too.

And so in a voice taut with tension and restrained excitement, Tony Cozier begins to describe Thomson’s run up to bowl at Viv Richards. And in a moment that is etched indelibly in my mind and which I would remember to the end of my days, Cozier describes the counter assault that Viv Richards and Roy Fredericks would launch against Thomson and Lillee. In a maelstrom of hooks, pulls, cuts, and drives, Viv Richards took Thomson apart. Balls thundered off the bat and flashed across the boundary line.

And then it was Fredericks’ turn to deal with Lillee. And he treated Lillee with the same ferocity that Viv Richards treated Thomson. Shot after shot flew off the bat and into the boundary, as Richards and Fredericks refused to run singles. And Tony Cozier spelt out the geometry and psychology of what had become the defining struggle between the greatest West Indian players of speed and the greatest Australian practitioners of terror. For it had become more than a test of skill. It had become a test of courage. Who will be the first to blink? As our batsmen held the Barbadian crowd enthralled by their utter fearlessness, Tony Cozier held his audience captive to the drama unfolding at Kensington.

The Australian captain blinked. In a double change he removed Thomson for a spin bowler, whom Richards promptly struck for two massive sixes and he replaced Dennis Lillee with another fast bowler. By then, of course, there was pandemonium in the grounds. And Roy Fredericks increased the pandemonium by greeting Lillee’s replacement with four consecutive boundaries. With the fifth delivery, Fredericks swung, missed, the ball stuck his leg and the umpire gave him out, ‘leg before wicket.’ The Barbadian crowd refused to accept the decision, invaded the field, and ended the day’s play.

The riot, as it would be called, is the least remembered of that day’s play. Rather, it is the voice of Tony Cozier, incandescent with joy, describing one of the greatest feats of batting exploits the game has ever seen; that is what I remember. Tony Cozier was a genius – a man who echoed and magnified the experiential rhythms of West Indies cricket. And he did this decade after decade. We may never see his like again, because the age of radio is gone. But the voice of Tony Cozier remains alive in the imaginations of those who heard him. Perhaps John Keats was right after all. “Heard music is sweet; those unheard sweeter still.” Play on Tony Cozier, play on.