Wednesday, April 11, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Gideon Haigh on R.L. Hunte

RL Hunte had it all. He appeared in two Test match scorecards; his records appeared in Wisden for eighteen years; he had a contemporary corporeal counterpart. But when he vanished hugger-mugger, it was as though he'd never been there. And, in fact, he hadn't. This is the story of a cricketer who did extremely well considering that he didn't exist.

Errol Ashton Clairmonte Hunte was born in Port-of-Spain on 3 October 1905 and grew into a nimble keeper and a batsman good enough to open for Trinidad, although when chosen to represent West Indies against the MCC team led by Hon F. S. G. Calthorpe in January 1930 he was for some reason consigned to number 11, making 10 not out and 1.

Yet, that that was not the only confusing aspect of Hunte's Test baptism. Though Wisden 1931 recognised him in his debut appearance as "E Hunte", when he appeared in the Second Test in his hometown, scoring 58 and 30 at first-wicket down, it was as "RL Hunte". This suggests a simple mishearing of Errol as "RL", although there was also a real RL Hunte around at the time, 46-year-old Ronald Lionel, who opened the bowling for British Guiana when MCC played them at their next port of call, Georgetown.

In Georgetown himself, Errol Hunte, now back to being "E", made his greatest Test contribution, helping Clifford Roach add 144 for the first wicket. At one stage, after the first of twin hundreds from George Headley, West Indies were one for 340, and beat a useful touring XI including Patsy Hendren, Bob Wyatt, Wilf Rhodes and Andy Sandham by 289 runs.

Of Hunte's 53, Wisden reported that he was `missed four times', MCC's fielding being "badly at fault". But Wisden was not best-positioned to be commenting on the errors of others. For, by the average tabulations on page 689, Hunte's split personality had been further divided. "E Hunte" had been stripped of one of his Test caps, being left with only his debut match; "RL Hunte" had been awarded two Tests, his average for 155 runs having been plumped to 38.75. The real RL Hunte, meanwhile, had played his last game for Trinidad, but his subtle gravitational pull would exert an influence on cricket's records for almost forty years.

Errol Hunte's cricket was to be laden with disappointment. He went to Australia with Jackie Grant's team of 1930-31, but lost his role as first-choice keeper to Ivan Barrow, and lingered in first-class cricket only three more years. Perhaps he was not a Wisden reader. Almanacks probably didn't have a wide circulation in Trinidad; even CLR James, who as a "British intellectual long before ten" was devouring Review of Reviews, Tit-Bits and Comic Cuts among other journals, doesn't mention Wisden coming into his purview. But if Hunte opened Wisden 1948 to consult its inaugural compilation of Test cricketers, what disappointment awaited him: "RL Hunte" still had one of his Tests, and would keep it almost the rest of his life.

Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus, of course. And just as it's sometimes said that it's harder to get out of the Australian team than get into it, books of record can be the same: so intent on assimilating the present that, as Omar Khayyam warned, piety, wit and tears are no remedy - especially in an era when news travelled so slowly and in such confined circulations. In fact, while "E Hunte" lived his diminished life, "RL Hunte" went from strength to strength, with each year's repetition embedding himself more deeply in cricket's past. You can hear the Charters and Caldicott conversations, can't you? "Y'know, Charters, I can't fathom why they picked that E Hunte for those two Tests, can you?" "No, Caldicott, but they got it right when they picked that RL Hunte: he was up the mark, eh?" "My word, yes. Look, he not only kept wickets but opened the bowling for Guiana too!" "Wonder why he never played again. Inter-island jealousies, no doubt." "Ah yes - the ooooooold inter-island jealousies: the curse of Caribbean cricket!"

An immaterial alter ego, of course, is not without its uses. "Another rum and coke, please, Harry. And put it on RL's slate." Yet, the torment of losing the credit for such a large part of one's career! Imagine, if you will, an encounter between Hunte and the anti-Hunte.

"So, we meet at last. I believe you have something of mine: a Tests cap."

"Hey, I didn't take it, pal. I was going along, minding my own business; next thing I know, I'm a Test player. I figure, hey, just go with it. And lemme tell you, the babes love it. They're always asking me to tell them about my half-centuries, being dropped four times, facing Rhodes, joking with Patsy Hendren, what Learie Constantine's really like. Did I tell I'm releasing my own tour diary?"

"You fiend! That should be my tour diary!"

"Tell someone who cares, buster. I'm in Wisden, and I ain't budgin'."

It was almost too late before anything was done. To coincide with the arrival of Garry Sobers' team of 1966, Wisden assembled a sizeable supplement of West Indian records; one imagines it was then that editor Norman Preston realised he had a rogue cricketer on his hands, for in the 1967 edition the almanack restored to Hunte his lost cap, and "RL Hunte" dematerialised with a last spectral chuckle.

All the same, the correction went unacknowledged in the errata, reserved instead for such instances of slightly preening pedantry as: "Page 820. Add 100 for Australians: S. Trimble 164* v Barbados Colts at Bridgetown (not first-class)". And it is unlikely Hunte derived much satisfaction from his rehabilitation, for he died on 26 June of that year.

Of course, it's always possible the book, being published as usual in April, was sped to his bedside as belated corroboration of that third Test; one can imagine his wife reading it aloud, eyes a-gleaming. "Errol, look! `Hunte, E. 3: v E 1929 (3)'. There it is, Errol...Errol. Errol! Oh God..." "He's gone, Mrs Hunte. I'm sorry." Even then, however, the almanack didn't cover itself in glory. In Births and Deaths of Cricketers in Wisden 1968, his entry was curtly amended to `d 1967', and the obituarist guessed he was `62': in fact, he was 61 and 266 days.

Those were the days, of course, when Wisden was a corner store compared to the hypermarket of today. It was a manual, labour-intensive business, dependent on the diligence of contributors, and the squinting eyes of a single hard-pressed proof-reader from Sporting Handbooks. Such inexactitude is nowadays almost inconceivable, with statistics updated by the second, and so many cricket-loving souls poring over them daily with access to email and chat: Wisden today discretely honours Hunte with his full name, and correct birth and date dates.

Mind you, check out the player page for EAC Hunte on Cricinfo, if you will. We have, at last, corrected Hunte's mortal span at the top. But, because the obituary has been lifted direct from the Almanack, down below he is still 62. Seventy-seven years after not playing a Test, "RL Hunte" is still plaguing hapless Errol.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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