In May 2019, just three months before his Test debut, Rahkeem Cornwall had piqued the interest of the San Francisco 49ers. A senior official at the NFL franchise had heard about the heavy-set 6’ 6” tall Antiguan from his manager Emma Everett. Ironically it was Cornwall’s “right size and build”, which many in the Caribbean believed would work against him playing cricket at the highest level, that attracted the 49ers even if he had little to no experience of playing American football. Everett was informed that the San Francisco outfit, runners-up at the 2020 Super Bowl, had signed up a 24-year-old greenhorn of a similar build to Cornwall that same season purely based on his physical presence.
The 49ers ultimately never got to meet the West Indian all-rounder or give him a trial. Cricket had intervened at the right time fortunately. Though if anything, it was more a case of Cornwall finally receiving his just reward. It was when his eye-catching talent with bat and ball eventually got recognised in the form of a Test cap. It was when his size and appearance were finally rendered to being purely incidental. And in his Tests to date, Cornwall has already shown that once he has a ball in his hands, it is difficult not to stay focused on his guile and skills as an off-spinner.
“It don’t really matter to me. I just put it behind me and go forward. At the end of the day, I still have to go out there and perform. I can’t be burdened down with what people say. If I don’t perform, I will still get bashed,” is how Cornwall dismissed the hype around him in a chat with Cricbuzz.
It’s not like Cornwall has ever been surprised about turning heads merely by his physical presence every time he’s stepped on to a cricket field anywhere. He’s also honest enough to admit that he expected that attention to “get bigger when he moved to a bigger stage” like it has since his Test debut against India in 2019. The Leeward Islands all-rounder is after all aware that the respect and admiration that comes his way back home in Liberta is a lot more “genuine”. But in a way it has prepared him to deal with being scrutinised by the world’s gaze.
“I always want to be a respectable person in the community. People look at me as a role model, so I just have to make sure I stay disciplined. I know how to deal with the attention because I’m used to it,” said Cornwall, who showed his promise with a 10-wicket match haul in his second Test against Afghanistan.
For those close to Cornwall, and the many among the 2500-odd in his Antigua hometown who look up to him, his physique is just a part of the package they all love and adore. For them, he’s just their Jimbo, the shy, humble, cricket-mad kid who grew up to be a potential star. Not to forget his sense of humour and the ability to produce a comeback line to any joke cracked at his expense.
His early days in cricket were shaped by his uncle, Wilden “Polo” Cornwall, who played as a batsman for the Leeward Islands for over a decade. And the former opener made sure that fitness was as important a part of his nephew’s training as were the necessary cricket skills. A young Jimbo Cornwall would accompany his uncle and the senior members of the town in the local leagues, where his initial focus was purely on batting.
“He always was there for me. I see them practise and I always had to throw extra balls at him. Now I get on to the field and the favour has returned back to me. He has to put in a lot of work with me, always coaching me and making sure I do the right things. He would come and take me running in the morning and we’d go to the beach and swim. He always pushed me to get out of my comfort zone to make sure I am always ready whenever the call would come,” he says.
Another important influence on his young life was another uncle and neighbour, Vaughn Walsh, a former fast bowler, who would always bring back t-shirts from England for Cornwall. He would also later play club cricket under Walsh, who he refers to as “a very knowledgeable cricketer who I learnt a lot under”.
Cornwall’s cricketing heroes were South Africans Allan Donald and Jacques Kallis. But growing up when he wasn’t out playing cricket, he was watching it on TV. It’s an obsession that hasn’t left him yet. He’s still known to park his car by the side of the road to spend some time watching a bunch of kids play a game of tape-ball cricket.
“Yeah I love cricket. I will watch any kind of cricket from under-15 to anything. I will at least watch them for 5-10 minutes and only then move on,” said Cornwall.
And when there’s no cricket on, he’s generally found by the water, indulging in his favourite pastime, fishing.
Another aspect of Cornwall’s personality that hasn’t changed much since his younger days, according to those around him, is the knack of coming up with one-liners that crack everyone up when you least expect it. No wonder he’s considered the best company to keep while waiting for a flight at an airport.
There’s a story about a safari trip in Sri Lanka that some members of the West Indies A team decided to go on during their tour there in 2016. After insisting on sitting on the passenger seat in front, Cornwall is said to have become rather harried with the pedal-happy driver’s insistence on driving on the wrong side of the road and at a fairly rapid speed.
“Is this man trying to kill us?” Cornwall’s believed to have said with a straight face and in such a matter-of-fact tone that it left the rest of the crew in splits. It was on that tour though where he announced himself as a future Test player, taking 23 wickets at 19.82.
Cornwall has always recognised the humble beginnings of his life and remains grounded even if money has started to come into his life. He takes it in his stride, along with the burgeoning fame. Supporting his parents and family along with giving back to the Liberta Sports Club remain his main priorities at the moment. It’s not always been an easy ride however but to his credit Cornwall has never shied away from any challenge that he’s been asked to overcome in order to prove his credentials. It included having to deal with being put in a strict diet by Cricket West Indies last year, which at one point led to a loss of 10 kg. Back home, Cornwall also started putting in a lot of gym time, where he gained a reputation for lifting some significant weights. But he dismisses claims from his clubmates that he could even challenge for an Olympic medal someday.
“I do that more for my strength and I’m not going to become a body builder. My strength work for my cricket. No Olympics for me,” he quipped.
Despite all the external focus surrounding his weight, Cornwall has never believed his size has had any impact on his cricket, his bowling in particular. Those really close to him will tell you though that Cornwall is sensitive about his weight. Ask him about it though, and he provides a rather prudent explanation on why he does need to keep an eye on it.
“I think once you stay fit, there is a longer life. You can stay healthy and pass away. It gives you a better chance to live longer and it’s something that I try and do a lot and make sure I maintain it.”
(Adapted from Cricbuzz)