Columnist Earl Best surveys the many tributes to dearly departed cricket icon Tony Cozier and seeks to make a river of the tributaries:
“Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”
(African proverb quoted by Chinua Achebe)
In a 21st Century colonised by the electronic media, it is easy to overestimate the value of a voice. But contrary to the impression easily conveyed in reading the slew of tributes published since his passing at the age of 75 on Wednesday, Winston Anthony Lloyd Cozier was much more than merely “a voice.”
Which is why it is no less easy to underestimate his real value to the West Indian cricketing community.
In a typical tribute on ESPNcricinfo entitled “A Bajan boy steeped in Caribbean flavours”, author Vaneisa Baksh makes the point that “Test cricket began for West Indies in 1928. For more than half its history, Tony Cozier was its voice.”
“(When Cozier) took the microphone,” she continues, “and the broadcast chair, he brought a West Indian voice to cricket…
“Until Tony Cozier, radio commentary was something that came from far away through voices like John Arlott, Johnny Moyes, EW Swanton and Rex Alston—fine voices, but distinctly foreign ones that could not tell us our stories, could not really show us where we fit into world cricket.”
But it is ESPNcricinfo’s editor-in-chief Sambit Bal who put it best. Cozier, he noted, was “one of the most credible voices in West Indies cricket” and “served as a broadcaster, writer and conscience-keeper for five decades.”
The ICC went a little further, describing his passing as: “A huge loss for the cricket community.”Not the West Indian cricket community, mind you, the cricket community. And let us not forget that Cozier was awarded life membership in the MCC for his services to the game.
For me, it is an indisputable fact that the writer who made the most important early contribution to West Indies cricket was Cyril Lionel Robert James, who departed this life in 1989 when Vivian Richards’ team was still at the very top of the cricket world.
But I feel pretty certain that were CLR James able to send us a piece from the other side today, even he would have conceded that the writer who made the single most important contribution to West Indies cricket was Tony Cozier.
It is arguably what former England captain Michael Vaughan is telling us about the role played by the now late doyen of West Indian writers.
“Forget all the great players,” he tweeted, when the news of Cozier’s passing reached him, “Tony Cozier was the reason I loved West Indian cricket.”
The captain of Craigengower Cricket Club (CCC) in Hong Kong, who was editing a brochure to tell the CCC story, seems to agree.
This is what he wrote: “Other than the normal ‘welcome messages’, I was looking for something distinctively Caribbean. A few legendary players came to my mind but I knew if I got Tony Cozier, I would get the whole region.”
Cozier was still a teenager when, in the late 1950s, CLR launched his campaign to install an Afro-West Indian at the helm of the region’s cricket team. Born in July 1940 to the owner of the Barbados Daily News, the Bajan teenager became interested in writing and in West Indies cricket early in his life, a copy of Wisden being the birthday gift he got from his father at the age of eight.
And although the young Cozier had already penned his first few tentative pieces, he had made no impression on James by the time of the Nation editor’s seminal conversation with former West Indies all-rounder Learie Constantine.
Ideally placed to observe at close quarters the performance of two West Indian teams—the first of which beat England at Lord’s in 1950 but the second of which was unable to replicate the feat in 1957—Constantine had shared with his fellow native Tunapunian a revolutionary insight.
What this raggle-taggle bunch of talented individuals representing the region needed to weld them into a world-beating unit, he opined, was “a black man to lead them.”
It was a crucially important insight. But hindsight being 20/20 vision, thanks to a third Tunupunian with a passion for cricket, we now know that it was an incomplete insight. And, in his putative tribute from beyond, James would probably have agreed with Lloyd Best that it was a tremendous boost to have “an Indian, a West Indian, to write about them.”
Which is where Cozier came in.
Let us not forget that history, as Achebe so elegantly reminds us, is written by the victors. And one can reasonably ask oneself whether, even with Frank Worrell having—thanks to James—replaced Franz Alexander, the move would have borne the same abundant fruit without Cozier.
Had his eyes not subsequently been there to witness first-hand the exploits of the Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards squads, would those two West Indian cricket teams have become the irresistible force which for two decades the world tried in vain to withstand?
“In the 70s and 80s when we did extremely well,” Lloyd’s tribute accurately points out, “he was the voice and was the eyes through which people saw our game. He was the voice they listened to, his was the pen which wrote of our exploits.”
Not unexpectedly, the WICB’s tribute was eminently forgettable. It does “salute him for his outstanding work” but makes no mention of the labour of love that was the West Indies Cricket Annual which Cozier produced between 1970 and 1991, the West Indian equivalent of Statsguru before the Internet made it redundant. Nor of the hugely important 1978 history book which is his magnum opus: The West Indies: 50 Years of Test Cricket.
And one senses a certain lack of conviction in the salute to a man who “gave a lifetime of dedicated service and will be remembered by all who came into contact with him”—a reluctance to shine too bright a light on a man whom the Board had never seen it fit to honour.
Can it be that Messrs Cameron and co were aware of how unhappy the man whose “life was dedicated to the game in the Caribbean” and who had watched 300-plus Test matches, had in recent times been with the West Indies’ decline?
ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent Firdose Moonda says Cozier wrote to her in the 2014/15 season when the WI toured South Africa: “I look forward to more of (your work) during the West Indies series. Let me rephrase that. I dread what depressing news you’ll bring during the West Indies series.”
Still, one can be forgiven for expecting from the home board something in the nature of Bal’s incontrovertible affirmation that Cozier “gave the game as much as he got from it” and “will be impossible to replace.”
Perhaps no such resounding, no-holds-barred declaration was forthcoming because Cozier was, according to Michael Holding, “not afraid to speak his mind” since he “spoke and wrote fearlessly” and “believed that he had to express his opinion.”
However, given his example, Cozier might be disappointed that many have refrained from bringing—like him—certain West Indian truths home.
Holding tells us, for instance, that once when Cozier called for Gordon Greenidge to be dropped because of a loss of form, he incurred the public wrath of his fellow Barbadians when the opener made a century in the next game.
But the fast bowler, who revealed that he has Cozier to thank for his entry into television commentary, neglected to mention an arguably more poignant example.
When the WI were preparing to tour Australia in 1991-92, Cozier had suggested that the 22-year-old Brian Lara should be left at home to hone his game.
Acknowledging his own debt to the departed, Lara—who went on to make 275 in the Sydney Test on that tour and become the toast of the cricketing world—makes no mention of it either.
He does reveal that, under the cosh in 1999, he “sought out the advice of Tony as I believed him to be the one person who had the first-hand experience to comment on where we were going wrong and what we could have done to arrest the painstaking slide.”
But he omits to mention that, in the period between 1991 and 1999, he never gave Mr Cozier so much as the time of day.
And Cozier also supported the Barbadian boycott of the 1992 one-off Test against South Africa over the completely justified omission of a fast bowler, Anderson Cummins, who hasn’t requested anonymity but has earned it anyway.
We can conclude, from what a former West Indies team manager tells us, that Cozier did not quite manage to strike everything off his bucket list. Shortly before his death, Rudi Webster says, Cozier told him that “before we both die, I hope we will see a resolution to the current mess in West Indies cricket.”
But the mess endures and he has now gone to meet Constantine and CLR and Lloyd Best; maybe the whole region will, in cricketing terms, be lost. But maybe not.
Paraphrasing Albert Camus, we can say that every century gets the scribe it deserves. Maybe in the 21st Century that is characterised by West Indian floundering and failure beyond and within the boundary, the likes of Vinode Mamchan are now considered sufficient to tell our story.
Maybe in the 21st Century that is characterised by the T20 rather than the five-day Test, our needs are more in sync with Mark Nicholas and Danny Morrison than Tony Cozier. Maybe.