He seemed indestructible once but now there’s a fragility about the West Indian whose 100mph pace and relentless swing propelled him into cricket’s pantheon more than half a century ago.
Sir Wes Hall relies on a stick – and friends – for the balance he always displayed when soaring into his delivery stride, the gold cross around his neck trailing out behind him as he went: a ‘ballet dancer’ as someone once called him.
Yet for just a moment in Tuesday’s late afternoon light, as he gazed across the pitch at Accrington Cricket Club, the 80-year-old’s human limitations seem to melt away.
He ducks under the perimeter rope and is off, hobbling out on his own to the square where, for three seasons in the early 1960s, he would run in with the wind at his back. (He arrived from the Highams End, named after a local cotton manufacturer. It accentuated his swing, he always felt).
Those who are here to chaperone Sir Wes see that he has gone and set off in panicked pursuit. Everyone fears a fall. But he is already halfway out to the middle, prodding the turf with his stick.
As they reach him, he asks: “Why you worryin’?” – wearing the big smile of a man who has found lost treasure: long-buried memories of a time and place which are suddenly flooding back.
Bringing him back here was an irresistible, if remote, notion when Sir Wes expressed such a wish in the recent BBC documentary Race and Pace, which told the extraordinary story of how West Indian Test players at the very top of the world game ended up in small former mill towns to play Lancashire League cricket.
Accrington’s population was only about 30,000 at the time: in modern football terms, this was akin to Cristiano Ronaldo pitching up at fifth-tier Fylde FC on the Lancashire coast
Sportsmail began making inquiries and discovered a collective enthusiasm exceeding all expectations, not least from Sir Wes in Bridgetown, Barbados. Just six weeks after our first calls, he was being driven down the bumpy old track this week and alighting in front of the whitewashed pavilion at a club where 2,000 people would gather to watch him in his pomp between 1960 and 1962.
Fully 9,000 supporters would flock to bigger Lancashire League grounds like Burnley, to watch the great West Indian stars, which is why the clubs established a tradition of employing them which extended for over 30 years.
Learie Constantine and Frank Worrell preceded Sir Wes. Charlie Griffith, Michael Holding and Vivian Richards followed him, with Rishton paying Holding £5,000 a summer and Richards double that sum. The financial scale of today’s elite sport means we will never again see the world’s best pitching up in a village like that.
It was a measure of how little the legendary West Indian players earned in 1960 that Sir Wes managed to negotiate Accrington up to £1,000 (£21,000 in today’s money) from the £500 that committee member Alan Doherty first offered him.
The player’s bargaining position was enhanced by the 46 wickets he took in eight Test matches on West Indies tour of India and Pakistan in 1958-59. He’d earn a £100 bonus at most for a summer’s Test achievements.
When he has finished out in the middle, chuckling at the soft turf which caused his right foot to ‘slip and slide over the crease’ and created no-ball trouble in the summer of 1960, some of his old teammates have arrived at the club. These proud and undemonstrative Lancastrian men formally extend a hand of welcome but he dispenses with all that. “Give us a hug man,” he tells Russ Cuddihy.
If ever an encounter demonstrated sport’s capacity to create bonds that cross cultures and oceans then it is this one. In these parts, they don’t even pronounce their legendary former professional’s name the way that West Indians do – sticking resolutely to their own Lancastrian vernacular, ‘Wess’, or ‘Wessley’.
Yet Sir Wes and 78-year-old Cuddihy, who was a print worker when not anchoring Accrington’s middle order, are immediately wreathed in conversation about the visitor’s liking for Vimto, the present fortunes of Accrington Stanley and, inevitably, the Lancashire League. “Come on you Reds,” Sir Wes unexpectedly says, summoning from the recesses of his mind the favoured chant of Stanley’s fans.
Their conversation is laced with sorrows, of course, as Sir Wes is acquainted with knowledge of which individuals have gone “to the great beyond” as he puts it. Eddie Robinson was an 18-year-old leg spinner who radiated energy and was good enough for county cricket, if not Tests, when Sir Wes first knew this place. “He’s dead? He’s gone?”
Lindon Dewhurst, son and namesake of the Accrington captain, is another. “The young left-hander?” asks Sir Wes, his grasp of old names extraordinary.
He takes all of this into a short, five-mile drive to Blackburn where he finds that the passage of recent years has been less than kind on his old opening bowling partner Jim Eland, a right-armer of unstinting accuracy now lost in the fog of the dementia which has left him terribly diminished.
Another Lancastrian handshake is offered. Another Barbadian response comes back. “Give us a hug man,” Sir Wes tells Eland, squeezing into a small sofa where his old friend sits, slightly slumped.
For the West Indian, it is a relief simply to be recognised by him. “I was worried that you wouldn’t know me but now I know that you do,” he tells him. “I went to the ground and saw my end and your end. It was pretty soggy out there.”
This isn’t an easy encounter for the visitor but Eland visibly brightens as his old team-mate reminds him of the understanding the two had, every Saturday back in the day. ‘
“I’d tell you – ‘Keep ’em quiet Jim,’” he says. “Be accurate. Don’t let any of those great pros take you apart. Just keep it on the spot because then they’ll have to push on against me.”
It’s 40 minutes before he takes his leave, informing his friend that he intends to be back here again next year. “Champion,” Eland says. “I’ll be here.”
Here, in microcosm, is how this individual bulldozed through the challenges and awkwardness attached to being a rare black face in a small, white Lancashire town 57 years ago. His like had rarely been seen here.
“I remember one of the committee resigned when we’d signed an Indian a few years before,” says Brian Rutter, another of Sir Wes’ old teammates and a batsman of the day.
The young Hall laughed off the stares because it was the only response he knew. “I was walking to the ground a few days after I’d arrived when I heard a boy shouting into a house: ‘Mum, mum, there’s a black man in the street,’” he recalls.
“It puzzled me, that. You see, we have a surname – Blackman – in Barbados. I told the boy: ‘I’m Wes Hall. I’m the new professional and if you’re lucky you can carry my bags.’ And he did.”
How they could have used a force of nature like this here in the early years of the current century, when the British National Party targeted local council seats and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair implored residents to ‘think carefully’ about the votes they would cast, in the pages of the local Burnley Express.
The 6ft 2in frame was unmistakable in 1960, as he walked from his digs to the ground, his kit in a carrier bag slung over his shoulder. His arrival had been delayed until then because he’d committed to a further year’s work as a telegrapher for Cable & Wireless in Bridgetown.
His sense of obligation stemmed from the company agreeing to keep paying him while he was away on tour, though only because he’d pestered them – reminding the firm that they’d featured him on the cover of their ‘Zodiac’ corporate magazine. “You had to drive every bargain,” grins Sir Wes.
He lodged with the Stark family, on the top floor of the care home they had on Worsley Street. “I called it ‘the penthouse’,” he says. “I’d be relaxing in the lounge and I’d be introduced to all-comers.”
Time has marched on at some of the places Sir Wes’ trip extends to. They include Lancashire County Cricket Club and Old Trafford, where he calls first and is settled into an executive box to survey the ground where he humbled England on the third morning of a 1963 Test Match, which West Indies won.
Warren Hegg, Paul Allott and Glen Chapple – Lancashire legends now mapping Lancashire’s course – all beat a path to see him.
He departs impassioned about the need for facilities like this at Bridgetown’s Kensington Oval because the 2007 World Cup didn’t create the legacy that it might. He has been both a political and religious minister since retiring from cricket and is still in a hurry for change.
But Accrington is where he wants to be. A clubhouse potato pie supper is being staged in his honour. At the hub of it is Sportsmail’s David Lloyd, now honorary patron but a 15-year-old on first XI debut when he found himself taking over from the West Indian at first change, away to Rishton in July 1962. Sir Wes had been lobbying for weeks for him to be accelerated through the ranks.
“He took me to my first Test Match, too,” Lloyd relates. “Trent Bridge. I’d never been to one. And when he came back from Australia [the following summer] he brought me a cricket bat – a ‘Norman O’Neill Crocket’. My first bat. That was him. He showed an interest in the club’s younger players. And when you played alongside him, he made you feel an important part of the team.”
There was quite clearly no quarter given. Other teams would re-arrange their annual holidays to avoid Sir Wes. There was no love lost for rivals’ West Indian professional players either, not least Roy Gilchrist, another West Indian paceman, whose penchant for warming up in a fancy red tracksuit at neighbouring Bacup was a red rag to a bull. No-one wanted to see batsman Conrad Hunte at Enfield, simply because he was so dangerous.
The Accrington team clearly saw their own pro as a protector as well as a friend. He’d occasionally head off by car to Manchester’s Moss Side of a Saturday night for West Indian food – rice, pork and peas – at a friend’s house. He was married in Liverpool, to Shurla, who he met in Bridgetown and who followed him to England as a student. But he’d never be away too long. He was embedded in the life of this town.
The only point of mild contention is whether this West Indian ever bowled short at amateurs.
“I was petrified – scared – of hitting amateurs,” he says after the supper. “There were no helmets, you must remember that.”
But there’s a dissenting voice in the room. It belongs to the diminutive Edward Slinger, an Enfield opener known as ‘The Judge’ by dint of his distinguished career in the law, who certainly felt some of those balls to be short. Sir Wes grins. “But you were 5ft 5!” he says. The room dissolves into laughter, before one of the spontaneous rounds of applause which punctuate the evening.
More than anything they are responding to this individual’s humility, kindness and self-effacement: qualities which are now hard to locate amid the self-importance, vanity and bombast of elite sport. Here is an individual who self-evidently considers himself no better than anyone. And one who wants to share his views on conduct in the arena, fiercely competitive though his cricket encounters always were.
“This business about sledging,” he says, in relation to the forthcoming Ashes series. “I tell you what – it depends how fast the bowler bowls. I’ve never been sledged by an Australian.”
The ensuing Q and A reveals that every detail of his three years here has been preserved in Accrington’s collective memory. How he temporarily lost his gold cross, one Saturday. (At Lowerhouse, on the fringes of Burnley, seven miles away, he is reminded.) “I still have it,” Sir Wes replies, reaching beneath his shirt. He can describe the individual who set off on to the square to look for it.
How the team would assemble at Broadway by the Odeon cinema, and take the double-decker Corporation bus to away games in neighbouring valleys – Bacup, Todmorden, Rawtenstall – which seemed like the other end of the world.
How Sir Wes took all 10 wickets on two occasions: at Bacup, all-out for 28 and at Burnley who mustered 57 after Sir Wes had scored 59 in his own team’s total of 117. (Wesley Winfield Hall was frequently at the top of the order.)
For his own part, Sir Wes discusses a vulnerability which was perhaps not always appreciated amid the laughs and camaraderie. It was at this club that he doubled his run-up, having concluded that bowling off about 18 yards never provided the rhythm which fast bowlers obsess about.
“As a fast bowler you’re afraid of failure,” he says. “But I found out in Accrington that failure is not one cataclysmic event. It’s a succession of small things that grow into something big if you don’t actually learn from them. It applies to life, too.”
The visit ends with mutual understanding enhanced and new connections made. Never before has the Accrington Cricket Club pavilion stood to applaud the Barbados High Commissioner to the UK, though the young incumbent of that position, Guy Hewitt, helped make the trip happen.
“Wes, thanks for caring. Thanks for coming back,” are Lloyd’s closing words and before the man in question has folded his frail limbs into the car which pulls away, he, too, has contributed to this life-affirming demonstration of what a power for good sport can be.
“I used to think I knew every blade of grass at Accrington and now I’ve found out that I did,” he says. “I just so loved that. The feeling that came back. Even though I can’t walk well now, I think in my spirit I could take off on my run-up and get a few wickets like I used to do. Thank you. I don’t think you could ever envisage what this has meant to me.”