On Sunday, May 8, as usual, I got up at the crack of dawn to see what was going on in the world of cricket. And so, I went to the online cricket bible –– ESPNcricinfo. On down I scrolled to one of the game’s most fervent Sunday morning preachers –– Tony Cozier. I noticed that his sermon had not changed from that of the previous Sunday –– West Indies cricket needs Legend’s clout. I immediately figured that something was up. But little did I know that my friend was on his way down. And by Wednesday, he was gone.
Like most of us, I met Tony through radio, in 1965 when Australia toured the West Indies. Then again in 1966 when he covered the West Indies tour to England. England being 5 or 6 hours ahead, would find me up well before dawn, to follow proceedings. There was John Arlott –– the bassist, and among others, the mellifluous Tony Cozier. In those days, long before the advent of live television, one had to imagine. And with the sweet commentary, not much was left to the imagination.
Arlott of course, was Arlott rumbling languidly along; and before Cozier, Roy Lawrence too, was not tough on the ear. But it was Cozier whom I loved to hear –– silky smooth, knowledgeable, not over-talkative, West Indian, and in my head, black. And I was not the only one. Mike Atherton in paying tribute, and writing for the Times, says, “before I had met him, I thought he was black.”
It was after I attended my first Test match in 1962, the second of the two West Indies-India Tests at Sabina Park, that I began to swim around the bait. The 1963 West Indies tour to England brought me closer, and it was after first hearing Tony, that I was hooked. The star-studded West Indies teams in those days played a large part. But the mellifluousness of Cozier played a large part as well. A game so sweetly described, must be a sweet game to play, and to watch being played. Cricket was from then, a big part of my life. And Tony was a big part of my cricket.
It was seventeen years later in January 1982, during the Benson & Hedges World Series Cricket tournament in Australia, that I first met him face-to-face. And as always, a Jamaican had to ask a favour. “Please Mr Cozier, next you go on-air, let my wife back home in Jamaica know that I have arrived safely.” And of course, Cozier was as polite as he has always been to me. “Sorry, I can’t. They’ll fire me.” So off I was with him, to a not too smooth a start.
During that tour though, I had struck up an acquaintance with the West Indies captain Clive Lloyd, and in February 1986, had written Life After Lloyd, profiling Vivian Richards and his captaincy, for The Cricketer International magazine. With that being well-received, during the West Indies-England first Test at Sabina Park that very month, I built-up the courage to approach Mr Lloyd –– by then, manager of the West Indies team –– expressing an interest in doing more cricket-writing.
“Go to Cozier and tell him, I sent you,” I remember him saying. And just like that, the door was cracked open. But it took me a while to walk in, choosing instead to do another piece for The Cricketer International in January 1990, on the career of Michael Holding.
In the meantime, Tony and I exchanged pleasantries whenever our paths crossed. But it wasn’t until November 1993 after we again met in Toronto, Canada where the West Indies were playing an invitational match indoors at the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre), that I submitted to him my first piece, Blueprint For Profitability, that I began to do some work for him. That piece auguring that the West Indies Cricket Board should add more spunk to marketing its cricket, appeared in the October/December 1993 issue of his Red Stripe Caribbean Cricket Quarterly (RSCCQ). In thanking me, I remember him sending me a nice hand-written note, full of encouragement.
Therefore, of all the tributes now pouring in on Tony’s passing, the two with which I can most closely identify, are the ones by Vaneisa Baksh –– a freelance journalist based in Trinidad, and Firdose Moonda –– ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent. Both ladies speak to Tony’s encouragement during their days of trying to break into the cricket-writing business. I too, consider myself an outsider. And Tony had lots of time and encouragement for me.
In giving me a few breaks, what Cozier did, had a deeper and broader meaning to me, than just allowing me to dabble in cricket- writing. He gave me a voice. It is reality, and not perception, that even though being a Caribbean person through and through, if one doesn’t live in the Caribbean, then one supposedly should stay out of Caribbean affairs. One should be seen and not heard. With me, Tony smashed that vase. He was telling me that I had something to say, and that I too should be part of the dialogue, and that I too should be heard. That gave me a sense of belonging, and of place.
Deep down, I think Tony empathized with me, because, I mirrored in a sense, his own situation. There was West Indies cricket, whose identity, power and glory, were being paraded by mostly black men. It was never said, but I know he sensed it. Why shouldn’t it be a black man who is carrying the West Indies game to all the corners of the earth? In his commentary and writing, Tony had to answer that question every time he sat before a microphone or put pen to paper. He answered it with spot-on analysis, and spot-on critique. He refused to give his detractors any loopholes. In his mind, West Indies cricket belonged as much to him –– a white Bajan, as it did to the thousands of black Caribbean fans who flocked to Kennington Oval and to Kensington Oval. I saw his gaining acceptance, as a struggle similar to mine. And because he helped me to fight my battle, I considered him my friend.
Over the years therefore, Tony would publish several of my op-ed pieces. In addition, he would allow me to cover Test matches for his magazine(s), and also asked me to do cricket profiles for him. Regarding the coverage of Test matches, often I would sit near him, and watch him doing them himself, knowing fully well, that he was ready to go. Then at the conclusion of a Test match, I’d say, “Tony, please give me this one.” And without breaking his stride, he would say, “sure man.” And that was that.
The two I remember more than any, are West Indies v Australia, second Test at Sabina Park in March 1999, and England v West Indies fourth Test at Headingley in August 2000. In the former, Brian Lara made a fantastic double-hundred, which has since become folklore. It was an innings that even Lara himself rates as one of his best. And I would not have faulted Tony if he had chosen to do that Test match write-up himself. After all, the world was waiting to see what the doyen of West Indies cricket had to say, about Lara’s feat. “Ray, what an innings,” I remember him saying to me. “Go-ahead and e-mail me your write-up when you get back.” I was stunned. And so as he requested, I turned-in, Devastating Lara Turns The Tide, for the April/June 1999 issue of his RSCCQ.
Then at Headingley in August 2000 when the West Indies lost –– quite infamously –– that Test match in two days, he gave me that one too. We had sat side-by-side in the ‘fowl ruse’ of that ramshackle press box. He did his thing and I did mine. But as he had so often done, he gave me a voice, and accepted my Two-Day Shame, also for his cricket quarterly.
“Ray you’re amusing,” the note which accompanied his payment, in-part read. “Your take on things is different.”
But as much as I embraced those challenges, and believe me, they were, I always felt humbled when the great man would ask me to an op-ed piece for him, as he did in Sydney on December 3rd, 1996. The West Indies had just lost the second of their back-to-back Test matches, having just before, faltered in Brisbane. Cozier was livid. I knew so because when he was, he would always call me by my full name. And so, “Ray Ford”, he said sternly, but quietly, “write something for me on this foolishness you see going on out there”. And that was it. For that I gave him Costly, Critical Lapses for his June 1997 RSCCQ. By that time, I could take the liberty of joking with him. “It’s me who you want to get into trouble with the WICB, don’t?” I would ask suspiciously. That would always elicit a little chuckle from him. Similarly, when the West Indies descent began to pick-up speed, he entertained my In Need Of A Shake-Up for the September 2000 edition of the same quarterly.
But what brought me most gratification was when he would summon me, say in November, to write something for his souvenir brochure for a West Indies home-series to commence the following year. His e-mails would read something simple, like, “Ray, the Australians are coming next year. Do a little something for me.” The lead-time gave me all winter to craft pieces like Hints of a Revival –– the first article in his West Indies vs. Australia, Cable & Wireless 2003 Series. And when the Jamaican Chris Gayle was elevated to captain the West Indies, I was again humbled when Tony wrote me asking me to, as he put it, “introduce Chris Gayle to us”. To do so, in April 2008, I gave him Ask Them Who Makes Them Laugh for the Digicel tour brochure of which he was the editor.
But I was not the only one to whom Tony chose to give exposure. As I leaf through my old West Indies cricket magazines, he also gave space to aspiring Caribbean cricket writers – the likes of the aforementioned Vaneisa Baksh, Howard Campbell, Haydn Gill, HG Helps, Keith Holder, Imran Khan, Fazeer Mohammed, Phil Spooner, Ezra Stuart, Donna Symmonds, and Garth Wattley among others. But I hardly think that it mattered more to them, than it did to me –– a little no-name man living in the “Frozen North”. And for those opportunities, I will remain eternally grateful.
But it was when he was giving me a drive back from that same Test match in Headingley, to my hotel that he left me dumbfounded.
“Ray, you can write better than most of them,” he shot out-of-the-blue, looking-off in the distance, as if deep in thought. I did not know what to say, because, I hadn’t heard that before –– and coming from the great Tony Cozier at that. But I can bet that wannabe cricket-writers all over the world can tell a similar tale, because Tony encouraged anybody who dared to put pen to paper, to write. He welcomed all disciples keen to spread the gospel of cricket through the written-word. It was his passion.
That car-drive in Yorkshire reminds me also of Tony’s humour. “Where are you staying?” I remember him asking when he offered me the ride. And I told him Le Meridien Queen’s in downtown Leeds. “I know where that is,” he piped up, with the confidence of a New York cabbie. But round-and-round we drove, until Tony finally admitted, “rawtid Ray, wi laas.” To which I asked, “how come? Look how long you’ve been coming to these parts.” “Yes, but I don’t stay in these fancy-places like you,” he shot back. But that was Tony –– one who made even little-people feel comfortable around him. He had a thing too for pulling my chain. Knowing full-well my disdain for T20 cricket, at the end the England-West Indies Test in Trinidad in March 2009, with an air of mischief he asked, “Ray, you’re staying-on for the T20s, right?” To which I said, “Tony, as I’ve told you before, I’d rather be seen in a house of pleasure, than at a T20 match.” To that, he stopped his work and threw back his head in histrionic laughter. He just wanted to again hear my disgust. And he did.
But besides his kindness, Tony left me with a few legacies, the first being professional discipline. I don’t think Tony set-out to be as great as he turned-out to be. But he took his cricket journalism seriously, and, was quite disciplined about it. I have sat near and beside Tony for quite a few Test matches. And except to leave to do radio or television, I can’t remember seeing him leave his work-station, not even for a bathroom break.Then at the end of a day’s play, he would stay behind to get his daily reports in to whichever newspaper he happened to be writing for.
I remember once saying to him, “Boy Tony, you have convinced me that I could never be a cricket journalist, because, come six o’clock, I just want to get out of here and have a beer.” As usual, he chuckled. “Can’t do that yet Ray. Have to write my little story first.” And so, by watching him, he instilled in me, a good work ethic. Or at least, he tried to.
As I mentioned, Tony made people feel comfortable around him. And he would lock thing down whenever he was finished writing his ‘little stories’. At least when I happened to be around him, there was no talk of cricket, regardless of which world-beater came around him. He would always be shooting the breeze.
I particularly enjoyed attending one of his much-talked-about beach parties, which he usually throws at the end of a Test match in his native Barbados. As Mike Selvey writes, Cozier would give you his hand-drawn map. And even with it, his little beach hangout at Conset Bay near St Marks in the parish of St John, was not the easiest place to find. But back in June 2008 after the third West Indies-Australia Test, accepting TC’s invitation was well worth it, just to see him in seventh-heaven.
Last I saw him though, it was pretty sad. In June 2014, I attended the third and last West Indies-New Zealand Test match in Barbados. And it was Harold Eastmond a West Indies statistician, who on the last day on June 30th, alerted me. “Ray, your friend is here,” he shouted. By then, Tony was having some health issues, and he wasn’t looking his usual self. I was having lunch at the time and attempted to get up to greet him. “Ray, have your lunch man. We’ll talk when you’re finished.” Tony was not a man for much adulation.
The occasion was a sad one too, because, he was very disappointed at being sidelined from covering that series.
“Ray, this is the first time since I’ve known myself that I’m not covering a Test series at home. Can you imagine,” he asked, with the disheartened air of a broken man. He was really hurt, and he told me as much.
Tony deserved better. But I am heartened though that posthumously he’s getting the worldwide recognition and respect that he had earned. Knowing him though, I think he would be quite embarrassed by all the fuss we’re now making over his loss, because, Tony lived for others and not for himself. And to pull-stumps on the same day that Bob Marley left us some 35 years ago!
As a man who enjoyed his Caribbean music, I can hear him now, singing to his gracious wife Jillian, and to his beloved daughter Natalie, No, Woman No Cry.
Rest in peace my friend.
(Ray Ford, a Jamaican, who lives in the United States, is a freelance journalist and retired mechanical engineer. For over two decades, his articles appeared in the Caribbean Cricket Quarterly, The Cricketer International, The Jamaica Gleaner, Sky Writings, The Carib Cricket Circle and The Sagicor West Indies Cricket Quarterly).