“You know what? Skinny lickle me, started to strut.
Ten years old, suddenly bold,
’Cos I resolved to live like my hero in the ring...
Be smart, never give an inch, no retreating
And I racked up, respect from teachers, rednecks
And creatures who attack in a pack like insects.
Never, seen the like, not before or since,
A young prince an I remain convinced of his invincibility,
Athletic agility, virility, still a free spirit.
Forever through eternity, stingin’ like a bee...
Mr Muhammad Ali.”
Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali watches the England vs West Indies Test from the Lord’s Cricket Ground balcony in 1966. England captain Colin Cowdrey is behind Ali while West Indies team manager Jeff Stollmeyer is to Ali’s right. Pic Courtesy: Brian Camacho’s personal collection
You may not want to miss these words in the song Muhammad Ali by Faithless at the end of the splendid documentary on West Indies cricket, Fire in Babylon.
Ali’s cricket connection is not deep, but to West Indians over the years, he has been an inspiration to some degree. Come to think of it, how can any dream of sporting invincibility in that part of the world be realised without the influence of near-unbeatable Ali?
Their most destructive Test batsman Viv Richards was a die-hard Joe Frazier fan (hero worship which got him the nickname Smokin’ Joe), but Richards still acknowledges that Ali was the greatest. He met him in Pakistan in the late 1980s.
If Richards found himself in front of the mirror practising those mighty, yet technically correct strokes in his heyday, it was because Ali did the same to enhance his boxing skills.
A decade before Richards acquired the nickname Smokin’ Joe, courtesy his teammates, for showing his admiration for the American boxer in those dressing room boxing debates, Ali visited the West Indies dressing room at Lord’s in 1966.
Little did those who figured in that England vs West Indies Test realise that the most famous visitor to their dressing room would be gone in the month of the exciting drawn game’s golden jubilee.
I made a few calls to the Caribbean to find out the story behind Ali’s visit and what transpired in that hallowed dressing room. Wes Hall, who is seen grinning away in a photograph that has Ali holding a bat, won’t talk about it. Two from that West Indies playing XI (Conrad Hunte and Joey Carew) are deceased and a few from that team are too unwell to remember anything. One fast bowler, a controversial one, does not talk to the media anymore.
Joseph ‘Reds’ Perreira, the most famous of West Indies commentators after the late Tony Cozier, remembered the 1966 Ali visit, but it was before his time as a touring journalist. However, Perreira, who was in London in 1963, recalled sitting next to a young man at Porchester, listening to The Dixieland Steel Band. That young man was Cassius Clay, in town to fight Henry Cooper for the first time. The boxer was enthralled by the steel band and spent over an hour gently talking to Perreira about the unique steel sound.
According to Perreira, Ali was a good listener, the same person who ridiculed Cooper before the fight with the words, “Henry Cooper will think he’s Gordon Cooper (American astronaut) when I put him in orbit. I’m going to hit that bum so fast and so regular, he’ll think he’s surrounded.”
By 1966, Clay had become Ali. According to Brian Camacho, an architect now based in Trinidad, the then West Indies team manager Jeff Stollmeyer was responsible for getting Ali to Lord’s. Stollmeyer, a close family friend of Camacho, was captain of the West Indies and went on to become the president of the Board. He learnt that Ali was keen to find out more about a coloured team playing in London and spend a day at Lord’s. “Uncle Jeff told me that he spent some time explaining the game of cricket to Ali. At times, the conversation with the great boxer got very humourous,” Camacho told me on Tuesday. Ali was in the United Kingdom to fight Cooper for the second time in three years. Press Association is the only agency which seems to have covered the Ali visit to the spiritual home of cricket, but Stollmeyer gifted a print, different to those put out by the agency, to Camacho. That image is before your eyes.
By all accounts, Ali watched the Test while England were batting.
Dr Rudi Webster, the sports psychologist who managed the West Indies team in the 1970s, reckoned Ali also came to watch Garfield Sobers play. We will probably hear more about it from Hall when he delivers his speech next month at a function to celebrate Sobers’ 80th birthday.
mid-day’s group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org