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Tony Cozier: The consummate allrounder

Wisden India logo Wisden India 13-05-2016
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His father, a newspaper editor of some renown, gifted Tony Cozier his first Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack on his eighth birthday. That year, 1948, the Cricketers of the Year were Norman Yardley, the England captain, Jack Robertson, an 11-Test wonder, New Zealand’s Martin Donnelly and two South Africans – Alan Melville and Dudley Nourse. We can only speculate as to the impact that such an eclectic group had on a young mind. What we do know is that Cozier grew up to be one of cricket’s great internationalists. Passionate about cricket in Barbados and the other islands that comprise the entity we know of as West Indies, he cared deeply about the state of the game around the world.

There have been other great writers and commentators, but several of them didn’t see much outside of the narrow prism of the Ashes rivalry. Cozier’s body of work, especially on air, comprised far broader canvases and perspectives. By the time he was in his mid-30s, his was already the most considered word on cricket in the West Indies, and those that played it. But as you can gauge from the tributes from across the globe, there was far more to the man than the ‘voice of Caribbean cricket’.

The glory years that he reported on were also a period when players and fans alike became acutely aware of political and racial identities. It may have been slightly overplayed in Fire in Babylon, but many cricketers of that vintage speak of the influence of the Black Consciousness movement and individuals like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Bob Marley. Yet, through it all, no one thought of Cozier, a white man, as anything other than West Indian, one of them.

One of the reasons was his steadfast refusal to caricature players or reduce them to stereotypes. He got under the skin, with the intent being to humanise on-field heroes. “In fact, those meeting him for the first time find it difficult to reconcile the quiet mild-mannered individual they confront off the field with the fiercely competitive sportsman they see on it,” he wrote in his essay on Michael Holding, one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year in 1977. “His much-publicised display during the Sydney Test of the series against Australia when he wept publicly after having a caught behind dismissal refused by the umpire was indicative of his will to succeed, not of any weakness in character. His hostile bowling against India in the Kingston Test of that series when several batsmen were injured was influenced by the same spirit, not malicious intent.”

That empathy underpinned everything he wrote or said over five decades. Often, you would find wide-eyed wonder and acerbic comment in the same paragraph, as in a recent column after West Indies’ improbable triumph at the World Twenty20. “Watching the live TV coverage in disbelief from the comfort of my drawing room, I could hear the raucous cheers from all around,” he wrote. “It was just after 1pm. Elated friends who rarely dwell on West Indies cricket telephoned from the Coast beach bar, barely audible above the exultant din; they had to share their delight with someone. They didn’t break up until well after dark. The scene will have been repeated a thousand times over, from Montego Bay in the north to Georgetown on the South American mainland. Immediately, dignitaries were falling over themselves to hail the successes.”

By then, he was off the commentary roster on the islands, and had taken Dave Cameron, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) president, to court for daring to suggest that his eyesight wasn’t what it should be. It was a slight that hurt deeply. A couple of minutes of Cozier on air, or two paragraphs of him in print, usually contained more wisdom and insight than a succession of WICB administrators have managed in two decades.

He embraced change and cricket’s new realities, but there were lines he wasn’t comfortable crossing. That was beautifully illustrated in an interview with The Indian Express a couple of years ago. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he said of his experiences during the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL) season in 2008. “You had to say DLF Maximum and Shah Rukh Khan. He might be a big star in Bollywood. I couldn’t call his name right. And then they had the catches named after something that sounded like Kamran Akmal, who ironically couldn’t take a catch. Citi Moment of Success and Karbon Kamaal catch. Who pays the piper calls the tunes. Ravi Shastri would do the toss. And he’d go out there and scream, ‘Chennai, are you ready?’ and the crowd would go berserk. So next time I went and attempted the same routine, and there was no response from anywhere. That was it for me.”

Most of all though, Cozier was the consummate allrounder. Like Garfield Sobers, his fellow Bajan, who could do it all on the cricket field, Cozier excelled across mediums. He was no poet, but in print, he could get to the bones of a debate with surgical precision. With microphone in hand, he – like Richie Benaud, who took his place in the Elysian fields’ commentary box a year before him – provided perspective, placing players and performances in the context of what had gone before. Few wasted words, even fewer empty platitudes. It helped that he had, like Holding, who he mentored when he made the transition to media work, had the commentator’s greatest gift. The voice, one that listeners never tired of hearing.

In that 1977 Almanack, Cozier also wrote about one of the other Cricketers of the Year. “If he fails to make another run in Test cricket, [Vivian] Richards’ performances in 1976 will always be a source of conversation for the enthusiasts – and inspiration to young batsmen. Indications are, however, that Richards has only just started on what should be a prolific career.”

His own career lasted another four decades. By the end, he was as much a custodian of a cricketing culture we cannot afford to lose, as he was commentator. There will be no more words, but what a legacy he has left behind.

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