CRICKET – Tribute to the ‘Atlas’ of the Windwards
R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
February 3, 2023

CRICKET – Tribute to the ‘Atlas’ of the Windwards

Tributes continue to be expressed for the outstanding contribution of Dominican, Windwards and Combined Islands batting star, Irvine Shillingford who died last week at the age of 78.

The expressions of grief and admiration are most well-deserved because he was a veritable titan of cricket in the Windward Islands, and for a long time the virtual “Atlas” on which the Windwards batting rested.

After showing his mettle as a schoolboy star, the young Shillingford entered regional cricket when the West Indies middle order sported giants like Sobers, Nurse, Kanhai, Butcher and Joe Solomon, and even when they began to bow out there was the new, “champion” generation of Lloyd, Richards, Rowe and Kallicharran.

Yet he proved that he could more than hold his own in such exalted company. Indeed, besides the quality of his batting on which those of his contemporaries still alive are better placed to comment than I am, Irvine Shillingford will best be remembered as another outstanding symbol of a plague which affected West Indies cricket for a long time.

From its inception in the colonial era, West Indies cricket was affected by racial, class and social discrimination. The scions of the planter class ruled the roost, both in terms of administration and on the field.

Deserved or not, it took all of 34 years before a black man, Frank Worrell, could be appointed as captain, the claims of our greatest batsman, George Headley, being overlooked. Worrell demonstrated what we had been missing by proving to be the watershed in West Indies cricket, leading us to the top of the international ranking.

That discrimination went another step down the ladder where the islands of the Windwards and Leewards were concerned. Up until today, when the exploits of Caribbean cricketers in English county cricket are mentioned, much is made of such early pioneers as the white Barbadian, Roy Marshall. While not denying his contribution, it is only in passing that it is remembered that the first Caribbean cricketer to play professional county cricket was Charles Ollivierre of St. Vincent and the Grenadines who toured England with the West Indies team in 1900 and so impressed that he got a professional contract with Derbyshire, going on to be one of that county’s early stars.

Over the years, the treatment of cricketers from the “Islands” as “poor relations” of West Indies cricket continued. The outstanding Vincentian batsmen, Ian Neverson and Alfie Roberts, even had to migrate to Trinidad and play cricket there in order to command regional attention.

Alfie went on to become the first from the islands to gain Test selection for the West Indies at a time when our middle order featured the legendary “3 Ws”- Weekes, Worrell and Walcott.

Yet after touring New Zealand with the West Indies and playing his solitary Test, he was left out of the squad to England in 1957. He was not alone, for the outstanding Dominican wicketkeeper, Reid, and the great Vincentian fast bowler Frank Mason suffered the same fate. Alfie Roberts eventually migrated to Canada in frustration where he made his name as a brilliant academic, Pan Africanist and advocate of independence for Caribbean nations.

It was against that background that Irvine Shillingford had to fight his way. Granted that in his twenties, it was difficult to find a place in the Sobers-led line-up, but when he was finally selected, against a strong Pakistani attack in 1977, he made a century in one of the three Tests for which he was picked. Yet when the Test stars opted for Packer cricket, he got only one more nod, before being discarded.

Our own Winston Davis would know the feeling, a world record holder in one-day cricket consistently kept on the sidelines.

Yes, that was our legacy. Shillingford himself was chosen as one of the “Five Cricketers of the Year” in Tony Cozier’s 1976 West Indies Cricket Annual. Let me conclude this sordid tale of discrimination against the likes of Shillingford, Mason and company by quoting one of the finest cricket analysts and writers from the Caribbean, the late Antiguan, Tim Hector, in Cozier’s 1977 edition: “The Leeward and Windward Islands were often considered obscure cricketing entities, relegated to the cellar and deemed incapable of really producing anyone of Test match calibre…

“When in 1956, the young Vincentian Roberts, broke into the West Indies team… A high hurdle had been scaled. At about the same time, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier in the mile. To us in these tiny islands, the Alfie Roberts breakthrough in cricket ranked with Bannister’s in athletics…”

Such were the mountains that Shillingford had to climb. To his credit, he did us all proud.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.