Cricket: In the name of the father

'I couldn't bring myself to want England to win. I come from the blue blood of West Indian cricket'; Andrew Longmore meets the middle man in the remarkable first family of cricket
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The Independent Online
EVERY conversation with Ron Headley is a charade, a riot of gesture, mime and accent. You can easily imagine him as a batsman, a nippy little left-hander, who announced himself to county cricket by whipping Alec Bedser, of all people, through the on side for successive fours. He imitates the stroke now, dressed in dapper suit and International Ambassadors XI tie, the narrow confines of the offices of Headley Diesel Surgery in Halesowen not allowing for the full flourish. Behind him a computer screen replays the message: "Jesus Christ is Lord" over and over. At the age of 57, Headley is many things - environmental crusader, businessman, committed Christian, philosopher, raconteur - but his first and foremost passion is for cricket. Only cricket sends his voice soaring into those spectacular upper octaves much parodied by Lenny Henry.

"You know, Dean is different," he says. "He can switch off from the game. You know who was like that? Sir Frank Worrell. He could do that. Dean never talks cricket with me. We always argue." He points to a three-quarters full bottle of milk. "See that. If I told Dean that was a pint of milk, he'd say, 'No, Dad, it's three quarters of a pint of milk.' Sons are like that. He tells me I only ever talk about two things: one is business, the other is cricket. I tell him 'that is me'."

Dean Headley has his father's mouth and eyes, but gets his height from his Scottish grandmother. This week he will become the third generation of Headley to play first-class cricket in Jamaica; next week, selectors willing, he will make his overseas Test debut in the presence of "umpteen" relatives and a statue of his grandfather George, whose name is still revered in Jamaica, where his claims to be the greatest batsman of them all have few detractors. Headley carried the West Indies batting for so long he was nicknamed "Atlas". Bob Marley has a statue in Kingston; so does George Headley.

Three generations of Test cricket is unique, but the sporting prowess does not stop with the pages of Wisden. Ron's brother Lindie sprinted against Bob Hayes in the 1964 Olympics; Sir Frank Worrell was a cousin ("though we always kept it quiet") and another cousin, Teddy Saunders, kept goal for Jamaica. "They were strapping lads on my mother's side." George was barely 5ft 7in and old photos reflect a quiet, serene man not given to great outbursts. His one comment on Viv Richards was that he did not value his wicket enough. Relating the story, Ron calms his face and drops his voice in imitation. Then he's off into another drama. Ron gets his flamboyance from his mother.

"In the West Indies we had a game 'bowl for your bat'. That's where we learned to bat and bowl. You weren't out until you were got out. When I first came to the school nets in Dudley, I refused to go because no one had got me out. I didn't understand the idea that my time was up. Value your wicket, you see." At the time, George had arrived to be the professional at Dudley and Ron was sent to the local school where he was the only black child. "They used to ruffle my hair, I hated that." It is as close as he will get to accusations of racism. The topic of prejudice simmers in his conversation, only emerging openly in defence of his father, who was passed over for the captaincy of the West Indies in 1939 in favour of Rolph Grant, the son of a wealthy Trinidadian family and an amateur, and was mostly ignored after the Second World War. When he was 22, Roncould have qualified to play for England, having arrived in the Midlands at the age of 11. "My father wanted me to play for England," he recalls. "Professional cricketers weren't treated very well by the West Indies Board in those days, remember." In fact, he was drafted in for two Tests on the 1973 tour, several years too late. Three years on, Dean was there at The Oval as well, being bounced up and down on Michael Holding's knee.

"People have said to me how difficult it must have been for me having my Dad's shadow over me. He positively discouraged me from playing the game, but there was no stopping me. I knew I would never be as good. Geniuses don't come along every generation, but I just wanted to try my hardest." In his quieter moments, he will tell you of his regret that for five years after his parents divorced he refused to talk to his father. You sense the tension even now, in the mottos he still follows - pounding the streets before dawn to honour his father's notion of "fit body, fit mind" - and the stories he still tells.

"Once he came back from a tour and said he had a present for me. He said it was a bat and it was in his room. Of course, I rushed into the room, didn't even turn on the lights, found the parcel and ripped it open. Staring at me from the box was a tiger's head. Frightened the life out of me. It was Dad's sense of humour. He wanted to test out my courage." Ron got his bat in the end. Another time, he was batting in the nets at Dudley with his grey school trousers on rather than his whites. His father ordered him out, so Ron took the bus back to his house, changed into his whites and arrived back in time to finish practice. "He was never my best buddy, but he was a great man and a great father," he says. "Sometimes I think Dean wants me to be more of a father to him, but I want him to be a buddy."

Ron will not be in Jamaica next week. He was offered a flight by a national newspaper, but a project to develop and market an anti-pollution exhaust emission system is reaching fruition after a long battle against the vested interests of the motor industry, so the radio will be on just as it was when Dean took his first Test wicket at Old Trafford as his father sped up the motorway to commiserate. "I had heard they were going to leave him out."

Even an ocean away, the sound of torn loyalties will split the air over Sabina Park. Headley keeps his most virulent attack for the West Indies Cricket Board and their refusal to give Clive Lloyd the power to clean up West Indian cricket. "What have they done? For 18 years we had something we excelled at and that meant so much to the black community. What's happening now really hurts." Nor is the irony lost on him that his son could deepen the wounds. "I couldn't bring myself to want England to win. I come from the blue blood of West Indian cricket. I think like a West Indian and I played cricket like a West Indian. There's a lot of the West Indian in Dean, you know, in the way he likes to attack and take wickets. I suspect the spirit of his grandfather will be there as mine will be too and all his relatives will be there too, rooting for the West Indies, but wanting Dean to do well. It will be a historic moment."

One other sentimental journey will be in Dean Headley's mind. His grandfather was buried in the sea where he used to swim, three miles from Paradise Street beach to Palisadoes and back, every morning. Ron recorded the exact longitude and latitude of the burial so that Dean could pay his own respects when the time came. And in New Zealand, the next generation awaits. Jacob Headley-Burgin, Ron's grandson, is two years old, bonny and as blond as Shane Warne.

Two pearls and Dean: International cricket's tale of three generations

GEORGE HEADLEY

Jamaica and West Indies. Born: 30 May 1909. Died: 30 November 1983. Test record: 22 matches, 2,190 runs, average 60.83, 10 centuries.

George Headley was the dominant batsman in an era of development in West Indian cricket. Such was his mastery, he was dubbed the Black Bradman. Though his style was more flamboyant, his defence, concentration and humility matched the Australian's. At the age of 18, he scored 71 and 211 in two matches for Jamaica against the Hon Lionel Tennyson's side and his 176 paved the way for West Indies' first victory over England two years later. Ever-present for 10 years before the Second World War, he became, in the first post-war Test, the first black player to lead the West Indies and, when recalled at the age of 44 for the First Test of the 1953-54 series in Kingston, the oldest West Indian Test cricketer.

RON HEADLEY

Jamaica, Worcestershire, Derbyshire and West Indies. Born: 29 June 1939. Test record: two matches, 62 runs, average 15.20.

A mere two Tests, as a replacement on the injury-hit 1973 tour, was not adequate reflection of the little left-hander's ability. In his prime, the West Indies had a wealth of batting and Ron Headley could not force his way in, despite scoring 32 first-class centuries and more than 21,000 runs in his first-class career, the majority for Worcestershire. As extrovert as his father was quiet, Ron was brought up from the age of 11 on the slower pitches in England, combining a front-foot style with a natural Caribbean flourish. He was a particularly adept one- day player and, like his father, had a shrewd cricket brain, which was underused by Worcestershire.

DEAN HEADLEY

Middlesex, Kent and England. Born: 27 January 1970. Test record: three matches, 16 wkts, average 27.75.

Dean Headley recalls meeting his grandfather at the age of 11 but only fully understood the significance of the moment when he made his debut for England at Old Trafford last summer, making the Headleys the first family to produce three successive generations of Test cricketers. Seven wickets in the match fully justified his selection and confirmed his ability to move the ball sharply off the seam at a lively pace. The ball with which he took five wickets on his county debut for Middlesex is one of the few cricketing mementoes in his father's house. Dean is more like his grand- father in temperament, and the Caribbean will provide a stern test of his control and stamina.

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