By Roshan Thyagarajan
Roger Harper is not a name people associate with record runs scored or wickets taken. Some remember the 6’5’’ offspinner as one of the greatest West Indian spinners of all time; some even recollect the slingy, Pat Symcox-like action. A few remember him with a bat in hand. But what one doesn’t forget are his feats as a fielder.
At a time when fielding wasn’t taken as seriously as it is today, Harper was phenomenal. Ask him about it, though, and his response is a chuckle followed by an attempt to sand-bag an ability many from this era would have played up.
“No, I wouldn’t look at it that way,” Harper told Wisden India from Guyana when asked if he considered himself a pioneer. “There were people before me and I think at each stage you climb on the shoulders of people before you. I think somewhere along the line, you strive to raise the standard.
“You can make a contribution without lifting the bat or a ball. More emphasis is being given to fielding. Different methods of saving runs and also taking wickets. No longer can a player come into a team thinking, ‘I am an outstanding batsman, I don’t need to be bothered about fielding.’ That’s not acceptable. Nor can a fast bowler do that. Everyone has to be on the spot.”
For an understanding of just what he did – and did spectacularly – watch him run out Graham Gooch with feline-like reflexes at the MCC bicentenary Test in front of an astounded Lord’s crowd in 1987.
“I had played against Gooch a few times and I sort of knew what to expect from him,” remembered Harper. “Based on where I had bowled the delivery, I anticipated, I saw him come down the track and I sort of knew where he was going to hit it so I was a step ahead. I managed to get my hand on it and throw it back as quickly as I could.”
Then there was that blinder at third slip off Dean Jones’s edge, which Bill Lawry called “one of the greatest catches I have ever seen in a Test match”.
“That catch, because of the shot he played – he played it towards the leg side – I think I froze for a moment,” offered Harper. “I can remember thinking I heard an edge and then the next thing I knew I was going for it with my left hand. That was a real reflex catch. I can’t say that I thought the process through. That was more of a hand-eye co-ordination. I remember thinking, ‘He played it to the legside but I heard an edge,’ and then the next thing I know I am going to it with my left hand.”
The third: a lift-off that would have made a basketball enthusiast proud and the catch, at point, that left Allan Lamb wondering what bit of wizardy came up with something like that.
Harper didn’t have to explain the third. It was outright magical.
But 36 catches in 25 Tests and 55 from 105 One-Day Internationals don’t show just how good he was. It indicates that he was efficient, but numbers seldom paint a picture when it comes to fielding ability. Degree of difficulty, aesthetics, timing of the effort and the effort’s impact on the game have more of a say. In that aspect, Harper was right up there with the best.
“I wasn’t a great diver when the ball was along the ground,” said Harper. “For a catch, yeah, I’d dive left, right and centre. I just had the ability to anticipate. For a tall guy, I was quick off the mark. I was pretty flexible. All that and knowing what the bowler was doing and the batsman was doing and then anticipate based on the way the batsman positions himself.”
All this from a cricketer who was part of an era where a fielding drill meant simple, straightforward catching practice. There weren’t drills like the ones cricketers from the current generation go through, not even close. So, why was Harper this good?
“I always enjoyed fielding. Part of it was because I liked to be involved in the game. As a little boy, I followed my brother (Mark Harper) around, he was real cricket crazy. He played for Guyana, West Indies Youths as well and is a cricket coach also. And I used to follow him around and he and my cousin, they played a lot of cricket in the backyard and so on.
“They were a few years older than I was so obviously I didn’t spend much time batting or bowling with the bigger guys. In order to be involved I had to field and try and make it interesting. I often tried to put myself in places where the ball would come so I would be involved. That enjoyment for fielding, finding ways to make it interesting, finding ways to make it fun really meant that I was honing my skills without even realising it.”
But he did find the time and the space to work out his bowling. It earned him 567 first-class wickets from 200 games at an average of 25.97 and an economy of 2.33. So good were his credentials that West Indies, on their worldwide morale shattering run with four pacemen, included Harper in the side. His role was to give the big men some time off and restrict the batsmen from getting away in their absence. There have been times where he did more than play sidekick – take his first and only five-wicket haul for example – but inevitably he slipped right back into a role he knew best and West Indies wanted him to execute.
His was an economy of 2.14 – better than his pickings in first-class cricket; an average of 28.09 – better than those of Sonny Ramadhin (28.98), Lance Gibbs (29.09) and Alf Valentine (30.32); and 46 wickets from 25 Tests. He was just as big a threat in ODIs, picking up 100 wickets from 105 matches at an average of 34.31 and an economy of 3.97. In fact, he was the most economic bowler of the 1987 World Cup, conceding 206 runs from 60 overs. Those are numbers that would ensure a permanent spot in the side nowadays. Harper wasn’t as lucky.
“We can all go on thinking like that but honestly I am just thankful for the opportunities I have had. I am also very thankful for having played in that era where West Indies really dominated,” said Harper.
An international career that began with a Test match against India in Kolkata in 1983 culminated in an ODI at Port of Spain against Sri Lanka in 1996. He would return within the next few years, but this time as coach. He hoped to make changes and when that didn’t happen, he stepped down, only to be recalled in 2003. Once again, he attempted to dig West Indies cricket out of the trenches – but without luck. In 2006, he took over as Kenya coach; before long he was out of there too. Harper had had enough. He made his way back to Guyana and stayed out of the spotlight until the Caribbean Premier League came calling in 2013 and the Guyana Amazon Warriors looked to be coached by a hometown hero.
Since the inaugural season, Guyana have made it to the final on two occasions before losing once to Jamaica Tallawahs and then to Barbados Tridents. Last season they finished third. “Last year the team didn’t get to the final so the first objective this season is to get to the final. Then we’ll try and get over that hurdle and win the championship. We need to make sure we play smart cricket. That’s a long way off.
“This year the senior players will need to lead from the front. We expect the local and regional players to really make serious contributions. If the team is going to succeed you need serious contributions from both local and senior players.”
The Caribbean is in love with Twenty20 cricket, and Harper thought it was because it provided youngsters a chance to be seen on a global stage. “I think it provides a platform for local and regional talent to showcase their skills because it’s going out all over the world. That means that you have leagues all over the place and they have an opportunity to see what we have in the West Indies. The guys who perform outstandingly have the opportunity to be called up by leagues around the world. You get a lot of international cricketers coming in and rubbing shoulders with these young talents so you can only grow from there.
“There is still a question mark about the younger players getting a chance to break into the league, but that’s the challenge.”
The T20 league growth spurt has given plenty of cricketers from the Caribbean the chance to become household names around the world. With the experience of playing the shortest format across the globe, West Indies arrived in India for the World T20 2016 and returned home with their second trophy.
“There is no doubt that West Indies have a lot of talented players. We keep producing the talent. Us winning the World T20 was reflective of that. I think we won because a number of our senior players have tremendous experience in that form of the game,” said Harper.
“They are able to parade their skills in different leagues around the world. They have the experience and also know a lot of international cricketers in that format. The challenge now is to strike a balance between formats. Using that talent in other formats is something we have struggled with for quite a while.”
The inevitable question popped up: Would Harper have enjoyed playing T20 cricket? He brought out the longest chuckle for that one. “Interesting to think about it. It wasn’t there in my time but I think I would’ve enjoyed playing this format of the game.”
What about his colleagues?
“I have no doubt that Michael (Holding) would have been outstanding in this form of the game. I think Vivian Richards would have been his dominant self, no doubt about it. The bowlers we had would have been very threatening.”
Four dangerous pacemen, an enviable batting line-up and a spinner who could not only do some damage on the pitch but inside the circle too. Just imagine. That’s T20 heaven right there. (Reprinted from Wisden India)