Remembering ‘Syly’ Clarke

by Jon Hotten

Steve Waugh could feel the will of his Somerset team-mates “disintegrating” a full week before it happened. By the time the players were getting changed for the game, “half of them were out already”. When Waugh himself went to the crease he faced “the most awkward and nastiest spell” of his career.

He described the experience as “something you can’t prepare for. It’s an assault both physically and mentally and the moment you weaken and think about what might happen, you’re either out or injured.”

Waugh was hardly alone. Viv Richards said that Sylvester Clarke was the only bowler that he ever felt “uncomfortable” facing. Graham Gooch had his helmet split down the middle. Zaheer Abbass was struck so hard that his lid had an indentation as deep as half of the ball. David Gower had the padding and thumb guard ripped from his hand, along with most of his thumbnail –– they ended up “near third slip”. Simon Hughes, hit on the head by the third ball he ever faced from Clarke, wrote from the blessed safety of retirement that he had been left “two millimetres of man-made fibre from death”.

Late Barbados and West Indies fast bowler Sylvester Clarke.
Late Barbados and West Indies fast bowler Sylvester Clarke.

Clarke’s name is receding now, but during the first half of the 1980s in his years at Surrey it hung over county cricket in the same way that Sonny Liston’s had hung over boxing: star-crossed, whispered, feared. His first class figures –– 942 wickets at 19.52 –– suggest an outstanding talent; his 11 Tests –– 42 wickets at 27.85 –– hint at a man born out of time. Yet the numbers are like the list of Liston’s knock-outs: a simple frame on which to drape the myth.

Whether he was the quickest of his time is a moot point. Geoffrey Boycott, who faced them all, thought that Jeff Thomson and Michael Holding at their peak were the fastest. What set Clarke apart were two things. The first was his attitude at the crease. He was in a way unknowable; wordless, dead-eyed. All that was clear of his personality was the way he bowled –– with bad intentions. Once, challenged by an umpire for repeatedly pitching short, he turned around and said: “It ain’t no ladies game, man.” The second was that his pace was accompanied by steepling bounce, and worse than that, an action that made it unpredictable.

From a short, slowish run his natural line was towards the batsman. Dennis Amiss, who made a double hundred against Holding and Andy Roberts at the Oval in 1976, called it “the trapdoor ball”, because it was hard to pick up and then it just kept zoning inwards at the throat. Any batsman will tell you that the worst kind of bouncer is the one that follows you. Sylvester’s could be like a heat-seeking missile.

Superficially it seems as though he might have been a legend (or at least a different kind of legend) had he not been born at a time of astonishing abundance in West Indies fast bowling, but that was not his fate. Like Liston, he appears to have been an outsider. On a rare tour with West Indies, he was pelted with fruit and rubbish by the crowd in Multan. He threw a brick boundary marker back at them and seriously injured a spectator.

A couple of years later, in 1983, he went on the benighted rebel tour of South Africa. The list of players that accompanied him includes Richard “Danny Germs” Austin, the “right-handed Sobers” who died recently after a life of homelessness, begging and drug addiction; Lawrence Rowe, who moved to Florida to escape the stigma of the fallout; Franklyn Stephenson “the greatest all-rounder never to pay for West Indies”; and David Murray, son of Everton Weekes. Many of the 18 that went never recovered from the life ban handed down to them after the tour.

Then there was the rum. There is a famous story that Clarke was discussing his life with a journalist in Barbados, where he had returned after his retirement. Pushed on whether his career had been affected by Clive Lloyd’s selection policies or the rebel tour, he looked at the bottle on the table and said: “That ruined my career.”

His Wisden Almanack obituary retells the tale of his day as a net bowler when England toured West Indies in 1993, long after he had packed up professionally. He arrived at the Bridgetown nets wearing plimsolls and no socks, evidently “well fortified” on the demon rum and bowled a spell to Graham Thorpe off a short run that was as quick as anything England faced on the tour.

He collapsed and died on 4 December 1999 at his home, aged just 45, the day after Conrad Hunte and three weeks after Malcolm Marshall. I have thought about him during this World Cup, where pace – this time from left arm bowlers that can bring the ball into the batsmen at 90mph –– is the coming trend. No one brought the ball in at a batsman like Clarke.

Liston once said: “Some day they’re gonna write a blues for fighters. It’ll just be for slow guitar, trumpet and a bell.” Maybe they should write one for Clarke, too.

Source: (Adapted from the Guardian)

22 Responses to Remembering ‘Syly’ Clarke

  1. Craig March 29, 2015 at 10:16 am

    Fabulous and well written.

  2. Rawle Maycock
    Rawle Maycock March 29, 2015 at 11:16 am

    May he rest in peace amen.

  3. Annie Smith
    Annie Smith March 29, 2015 at 11:20 am

    My uncle gone but always in my heart …. No man will ever r can ever fill his space tearssssssssss.

  4. Annie Smith
    Annie Smith March 29, 2015 at 11:20 am

    My uncle gone but always in my heart …. No man will ever r can ever fill his space tearssssssssss.

  5. Diana Callender
    Diana Callender March 29, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Good man amen

  6. Michellien King
    Michellien King March 29, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    I would never forget him that’s for sure

  7. Trevor Walrond March 29, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    This was of the nicest guys you could meet off a cricket field but once you cross the boundary rope he was a different person until when the game was over.

  8. Thomas Katt
    Thomas Katt March 29, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    Saw him bowl against Guyana at Kensington. Had all them running. Hit Roger Harper’s brother, Mark, on his helmet and flew all the way to the boundary for 4 leg byes. Lol. The most dangerous fast bowler I ever saw.

  9. Steve Babb
    Steve Babb March 29, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    RIP Clarkey, gone but not forgotten.

  10. Merchant Clarke
    Merchant Clarke March 29, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    RIP Pacer

  11. Michael Walcott
    Michael Walcott March 29, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    Most dangerous fast bowler in my books!

  12. Lauriston Applewhaitelauriston
    Lauriston Applewhaitelauriston March 29, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    Alway’s be remembered .

  13. Rickie Brown
    Rickie Brown March 29, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    RIP never to be forgotten, you left your Legacy!

  14. Desiree Best March 29, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    THANK YOU for acknowleging our DAD, Sylvester Clarke, Best fast bowler there was and ever will be in our eyes, nice to know he is not forgotten, and is appreciated for his skill, special thanks from your children
    Desiree, Dawn, Shelly, Damien, Ishmael,Selicia, Mario, we love and miss you ‘pacer’

  15. Robert Evelyn
    Robert Evelyn March 30, 2015 at 2:29 am

    I remember him as bein very humble an laid back…his successes didnt change him 1 bit..

  16. John Challis March 30, 2015 at 7:58 am

    I recall a cup final at Lords Surrey v Somerset Clarke bowled as fast as I have ever seen. Viv Richards came in at 3 and was winging to both umpires that it was too dark to see? Clarke had the great man hopping all over the place. Then they went off for bad light and the rest as they say is history!

  17. Michael Burke March 30, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    A beautifully written piece on a great fast bowler. I remember a Yorkshire v Surrey match in the early 1980s.Boycott hit the first ball of the innings off Robin Jackman a beautiful cover drive for four. Then next over came Sylvester Clarke he bowled one of the fastest deliveries I have ever seen striking Boycott full on the body with a fast inswinging bouncer. Boycott was then caught on the crease to an incredibly quick Yorker plumb LBW. Boycott scored centuries for fun in county cricket but not in that game. Sylvester Clarke was awesome and it was a pity we didn’t see more of him on the world stage. We still have great cricketing memories though of his brilliance and he goes down in history as a truly great fast bowler.

  18. Tony Waterman March 30, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    @All !!! accordind to you all, Sylvester Clarke seemed to have been a Great Individual Person and also one of the Greatest Cricketers (Bowler) the West Indies have seen, so !!! Why is it that a person like me (No Spring Chicken) Has never heard of him, and where in Barbados is there somewhere/Anywhere that one can go to See Photos of him, and to peruse his Biography???

    • Dougal Bascombe March 30, 2015 at 3:30 pm

      @TW – I can’t imagine how u never hrd of Syl Clarke. He was a demon at club level until he got selected in to the WI. Then he had the stone throwing incident which was big news in the cricket world. His trip with the Rebels was another time he made headlines.
      On the county scene he was a name to be feared and he was in the news on numerous occasions for his wicket-taking ability.
      Maybe at his club or in the Advocate or Nation archives you will find some photos. Also the Library has the newspapers from that time that you may research.
      Man you missed a good thing!!

  19. Harry Turnover March 31, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    Marshall,Daniel,Garner,Clarke. Clarke used to open the bowling from the northern end off a run as long as Collis Kings’ .

    In a match against Jamaica one year,he nearly decapitated I think it was Everton Mattis ,and shattered his stumps the next ball,and the crowd went wild.One of the newspapers actually had a picture of the flying stumps

    That 4 prong pace attack was so feared that fright caused Mark Harper to approach the wicket forgetting he only had one pad on in a match against Guyana one year.

    That same match,I saw the Guyanese fast bowler Sydney Jackman actually backing away from Malcom Marshall from the southern end

  20. Kevin Skjoldhammer March 2, 2016 at 7:03 am

    Hi my name is Kevin Skjoldhammer .I played club cricket in Joburg South Africa with Clarky ans was Avery good friend of his.

    I have a few press releases and his old passport which I would like Peggy to have but untill now do not have her contact details.

    I have a friend coming to Barbados and would like him to bring the envelop over and hand it to Peggy.

    Pleas could you try to get her email address for me so I could contact her.

    Thankd and kind regards,

    Kevin Skjoldhammer

    Hawkeye Safaris

    Johannesburg South Africa.

  21. Howard Wilkins April 1, 2017 at 2:37 am

    I met Clarky in Johannesburg when he visited with the Rebel Tour. What a nice man he was – had to remember / forget his birthday celebrations one year!


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