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Obituary: Conrad Hunte

ONLY A month after he had been a pall-bearer for his comrade-in- arms Malcolm Marshall in Barbados, the cricketer Conrad Hunte has died after suffering a heart attack. Marshall's death was an occasion of deep sadness for all West Indians but was not unexpected; the loss of Hunte, another outstanding player in an outstanding team, was a distinct shock.

He will be missed far beyond the cosy club of international cricket. He was a deeply committed Christian who believed he had a mission to work on behalf of the under- privileged and oppressed and many a young person in the Caribbean and South Africa will grieve at the news.

Hunte came from a family of nine, in the humblest surroundings in rural Barbados. Attending Alleyne Secondary School, he was clearly more the cricketer than the scholar. He first attracted attention when, at 19, he scored 137 when opening the innings for the Barbados League against the Barbados Association.

He loved to play his shots, a dangerous fault in an opener and although he was soon playing for the island, at a time when Barbados could pick up a Test batsman on any street corner, he found higher progress difficult. He made an international name in England, where he became a highly popular and successful professional with Enfield in the Lancashire League.

Like many of his predecessors experiencing English conditions, he had to tighten his defence to succeed and the improvement in technique was recognised back home. He would have toured England with West Indies in 1957 had not a telegram gone astray, so it was not until January 1958, in Bridgetown, that he made his Test debut, at 25, against Pakistan. His partner that day was Rohan Kanhai, the first of 13 who would open with him as West Indies sought to establish a regular partnership.

Not that they were short of batting: the order that day read Gary Sobers, Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Collie Smith and Denis Atkinson. Hunte scored 142 in a total of 579-9 declared and a career was launched, spectacularly, for he went on to complete that series with an aggregate of 622 and an average of 77. Hunte went on to play in 44 Tests, scoring 3,245 runs, including eight centuries, at an average of 45.

He was a brilliant player off his legs, flicking and gliding away almost any ball that was a fraction wide. He was a fine hooker and had a well- timed off-drive, could bowl medium pace cutters and was an excellent fielder anywhere, especially in close catching positions.

He had hoped to succeed Frank Worrell as West Indies captain in 1963 and was disappointed when the Board chose the more famous and charismatic Sobers; ironically it was Hunte, in that same debut series, with a career best 260, who had occupied the other end when Sobers broke the individual Test record by scoring 365 not out in Kingston, Jamaica.

In 1963 he toured England to record an aggregate of 471, heading the averages with a figure of 58.87. In his entire first-class career he hit three double centuries, the highest being 263 for Barbados against Jamaica in 1961-62. In his 17 years as a first-class cricketer he scored 8,916 at an average of 43.92, a shade below what is the usually accepted average for anyone claiming to be a great batsman, 45.

It was entirely in character that Hunte should later apologise to Sobers and give his captain his full support for the rest of his career. In Australia, in the winter of 1960-61, he had been introduced to Moral Rearmament and devoted the rest of his life to coaching and religious work. A year ago he was knighted by the Barbados government, and only recently had been elected President of the Barbados Cricket Board. Hunte's wife Pat was American-born and was a former television presenter in Atlanta where he served as the Barbados consul- general for a spell in the 1980s. In 1997 Hunte was awarded Barbados's highest honour, the Order of St Andrew.

Much of Conrad Hunte's commitment in later years went into coaching in South Africa, where he spent seven years working mostly in the townships. He never allowed his natural sympathy for young black cricketers to influence his appreciation of the practical realities, saying: "The United Cricket Board faces two tensions, the first being the high expectation of the population who want more black players in the national team. The other problem is that although the development programme has been going on for 15 years, it takes at least three generations to produce superstars. We have to have black players at the top level but they have to be qualified to be there."

It was Hunte the coach who suggested that Brian Lara's loss of form before and during the last West Indies tour of South Africa might have been due to a decline in his eyesight: "I don't think he is seeing the ball as early as he did."

With Hunte's death following so soon after Malcolm Marshall's, sceptics will assume that the Lord's XI was short of a consistent opening bat and a brilliant opening bowler. As Peter Short, chairman of the West Indies Board during much of Hunte's career, put it: "Many people talk about Christianity. Conrad Hunte lives it."

Derek Hodgson

Conrad Cleophas Hunte, cricketer and missionary: born St Andrew's, Barbados 9 May 1932; married (three daughters); died Sydney, Australia 3 December 1999.