Some of those who pride themselves on knowledge of cricket and cricketers probably know less about George Headley than they should.
From early in his career, Headley was known in his homeland of Jamaica as the Black Bradman. Born on 30 May 1909, he played for Jamaica at the age of 18 and in his second match, a game against Tennyson’s English touring team, he scored 211. Immediately, Lord Tennyson compared him to the incomparable Victor Trumper and to the ‘governor-general’, Charles Macartney.
From the age of five, I have believed Don Bradman to be the greatest batsman who ever lived. Statistically, there is no argument. A test average of 99.94 leads the second man, Graeme Pollock by almost forty runs and George Headley is third. There is far more to it than that, as Bradman was, for the most part, completely dominant at the crease, scoring quickly, seemingly without effort. However, for those, like the West Indian cricket writer CLR James, who might like to make a case for George Headley, there is one other matter to be considered. Was Bradman the greatest of players in all conditions?
An examination of performances on difficult, wet wickets would suggest that there were others, in particular, Headley and Jack Hobbs, both undeniably great players, who were definitely better players than Bradman on bad wickets.
In the years before the war, in fifteen innings played on wet wickets, Bradman passed fifty once and averaged 17. Headley’s average for that period on wet wickets is 40. In Bradman’s favour, of course, is that he knew that through his career he would not have to bat often on bad wickets. It is probably true that had he altered a style that was perfect for the wickets on which he played most of his cricket, he could have learned to cope with bad wickets but such was his phenomenal success generally, he probably decided not to tamper with something that was working so well. Bradman certainly did not like wet wickets but interestingly, Headley actually enjoyed playing on them, because they were so very difficult. He relished the challenge and the necessity to watch every ball intently and play it as late as possible, something he did so naturally, that on occasions bowlers would appeal for lbw as he played the ball off his stumps at the very last instant.
What Headley does share with Bradman is that neither of them ever failed in a test series, something that is true only of perhaps Graeme Pollock and Herbert Sutcliffe. Another quality he shares with Bradman, to a far greater extent than any batsman in history is the ability to turn fifty into a hundred. In his test career he made ten centuries and five fifties, while Bradman made twenty-nine centuries and thirteen fifties. Bradman scored a test century on every third visit to the crease, Headley on every fourth visit. Nobody else comes anywhere near those figures.
Like most of the great players, Headley was a master on the back foot, which also allowed him to play the ball late. He batted aggressively but never rashly and was particularly wary of what he called ‘bad’ balls, when one could lose concentration and play a silly shot. His concentration and focus were exceptional and he never threw his wicket away. A quiet, modest man, he nevertheless was fully aware of his own ability. One day, watching with CLR James as the Australians did battle with England, Bill ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly, considered by Bradman to be the greatest of all bowlers, bowled a particularly impressive over in which he took two or three wickets. James asked Headley whether he would be in difficulties facing such bowling.
Headley replied, “When I am going in to bat, I am never in difficulties. I can get out for nought but I am never in difficulties.”
This was not a lack of modesty. Headley was simply speaking the truth.