Carl Hooper’s is a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about taking a little time off work. He wanted to take some time off for the birth of his first child, and before he knew it, they were saying he had retired. Soon enough, the world forgot he even existed.
“My son was premature and I had asked the West Indies board for some time off and at the time they probably didn’t want to give it. But I had to go back to Australia and be by my wife’s side, and what I initially thought would be a couple of months or a couple of games ended up being 18 months.
“I thought that I would have made some lifelong friendships with some players I shared the room with for months. But that’s not the case. I understood that during my retirement.
“My telephone wasn’t ringing. None of my team-mates calling up to say, ‘Carl, are you doing okay?’ The only person I heard from was Brian Lara, who was the captain at the time, and he was asking me when I was going to come back. But nobody else called.”
Hooper did eventually return to international cricket, as captain no less. In his final 22 Tests, between 2001 and 2002, he was one of West Indies’ Test batting mainstays, averaging 46, with four centuries, and this time he signed off on his terms, with Hooper junior watching.
“He grew up being in dressing rooms,” Hooper says of his son. “I can remember my last tour to India; my last tour. Harbhajan Singh, he loved [my son], because he was so little and he had these dreads and he was running up and down in dressing rooms. Harbhajan actually bought him a remote-controlled car because he fell in love with him.
“But he never took to [the game]. Now, even if there’s cricket on TV, he doesn’t watch it.”
If there’s even a smidge of disappointment at this turn of events, Hooper hides it well. “He’s going to go into medicine. He’s studying at the University of Adelaide. It would have been nice if he had played. But you can’t choose the direction he takes. Whatever he wants to do, I’d be behind him 100%. You’ve got to find something that you love doing, if you want to be good at it.”
Hooper – currently in India, working as a radio commentator – is one of only 66 men (out of a total of nearly 3000) to have played over 100 Tests. A right-hand batsman in the middle order, he could play jaw-dropping strokes, especially against spin. He made a century in his second Test, at Eden Gardens. He bested Wasim, Waqar and Imran when they reverse-swung the ball like crazy in Lahore. He ran down the track and lofted Shane Warne three seconds after he arrived at the crease in Bridgetown. When in form, it was like the man had cheat codes for batting.
“Cricket for me was just a lot of fun. Even when I was a youngster coming through, there were no aspirations of playing for the West Indies, Even when I was playing, I wasn’t thinking one day I’d like to play for West Indies. It just happened.”
But when he got there, Hooper thought he didn’t need to push anymore. “To me, Test cricket was a destination. You’ve got there. You’re playing for West Indies. But really and truly, the journey only began then. Because you’ve got to work even harder, because you’re pitting your skills against the best in the world. However hard you worked to get there, you’ve got to work twice as hard to stay there.
“I think I missed that trick. I practised much harder to get there, but once I got there, everything slacked off. I started paying less attention to my skill. When I was younger, I used to hit a lot of balls. I hit less when I got there. I used to wait until I’m under pressure, maybe had a bad series or didn’t score enough runs and there’s whispers in the air about being dropped, and then I’d get a score. It was always like that.”
Family and faith are a big part of Hooper’s life now. They got him through a rough time when he actually had the desire to keep playing for West Indies – he flew from Adelaide to Melbourne every week to play club cricket, so he was match-ready – but it wasn’t reciprocated.
“We’d lost to England in two days at Headingley. We came to Australia, lost terribly. So I knew that was my opportunity to get back. I returned home and played domestic cricket. I had a fantastic season. The best season. I had scored some 700 runs in six or seven games, got wickets, I felt really good.” [Hooper made 954 runs and took 25 wickets from nine games.]
The excitement from all those years ago was bubbling back up. But when Hooper got in touch with the establishment, they said they wanted to build a team for the future and weren’t interested in bringing back a 33-year-old.
“I can remember speaking at one time to the chairman of selectors, Michael Findlay, and he said, ‘Carl, we’re looking at younger players now and it’s highly unlikely that you would get back into the playing group.'”
Facing this uncertainty, Hooper needed a guide and he found one in his mother-in-law.
“What she did was reaffirm my faith, just in conversations. She said, if you want to play, prepare yourself for when you go and play, and God will lead the way. And that’s exactly what happened. Not only did he give me the chance to play, he made me captain. I was asking for five and he gave me ten.
“I played my best Test cricket after I went back. What you begin to understand is, your immediate family is so important because that’s all you’ve got. So when I went back out to play, inasmuch as it was for me and for West Indies, more importantly, it was for the people who supported me during a very trying time, which was my family.”
Hooper made only nine centuries in his first 80 Tests, but when he came back, he managed four in 11, including a career-best 233, against India at his home ground in Georgetown, Guyana. He had come a long way from the boy who would slip away – against the wishes of his mum and dad – to hit a few balls with his friends.
“I would think that most Indian parents would give their right arm for their son to play for India and be a Virat Kohli or a Virender Sehwag or a Prithvi Shaw or whoever. But it wasn’t like that in my case. My parents wanted me to go to university. So there was resistance, and as a result there’d be, like, a lot of whippings and stuff like that. Suppose there’s a chore that you need to do – clean the yard – and I didn’t do it because I was in the fields playing cricket, it would be a problem.
“Maybe the words of encouragement weren’t as forthcoming as they should have been from my parents. I’m the sort of fellow that loves to share success, and that’s why even after I came back out of retirement, I was sharing my success with my family, which I think was missing in my early years as a Test cricketer. This is not to do with whether I love them or not. It’s just that they were working in New York and I was out playing elsewhere, so we never had that kind of relationship.
“My father and mother have never said that they were proud of my achievements with cricket. Never. But that’s only because of the way my father’s life was. We have a better relationship today and it’s only because he’s opened up more. I’m sure he was proud back then too – he just didn’t communicate it. Now I reminisce and remember his actions and I’m sure that he was proud of me.”
All of that, in a way, has impacted Hooper’s relationship with his own son and daughter. His wanting to be present for them is why, since his actual retirement, he has barely been around the game.
“There was a time when I was just like one of the lads. You go up and down, today you’re in Delhi, tomorrow you’re in Australia, you know? But my family needed more stability than that. I thought it was really important for me to be at home, be the stabilising influence along with my wife. I’ll be there to take them home from school. I’ll be there to take my son to soccer. I’ll be there if they wanted to talk to me about anything. I just wanted to be there.”
Hooper has been in Adelaide for 21 years now, helping run a restaurant, at a time when players of his repute aren’t really lacking for options. Teams go around looking for coaches and mentors and consultants – Hooper has already worked with Guyana Amazon Warriors in the CPL – and broadcasters are always happy for new voices to help boost their viewership. He was practically run over by people seeking his opinion on the way West Indies crumbled to India in Rajkot. Will the family man be tempted out of retirement again? He sure had fun the last time it happened. (ESPNCricinfo)