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A Cricketer for the Oppressed

Sir Conrad Hunte, the West Indian international cricketer, given a state funeral.

Conrad had a smile and a laugh that could lift the spirits of the gloomiest roomful of people. The smile was set in a face as rugged as the North Coast of Barbados where he was brought up. It was a face that had confronted the fastest bowlers in the world when he opened the innings for the West Indies cricket team with conspicuous success.

As far as I know, Conrad was the first cricketer to be given a state funeral. The cathedral was packed with a congregation headed by the Governor General and the Prime Minister of Barbados. The service was televised across the Caribbean.

Why was Conrad so honoured? Of course he was well known as a cricketer. But in the West Indies great cricketers seem to grow on trees. The Guardian, London -- one of many papers to publish an obituary -- wrote, '[Hunte] could well have been a figure of significance had he never picked up a cricket bat.' The London Independent wrote, 'He was a deeply committed Christian who believed he had a mission to work on behalf of the underprivileged and oppressed, and many a young person in the Caribbean and South Africa will grieve at the news [of his death].'

To begin to understand him, you have to go back to his beginnings. Born in poverty in Shorey's Village, he walked barefoot three miles to school. Like many Barbadians his passion for cricket began early with bats fashioned from palm fronds and balls of cork bound with tape and string. Their pitches were on paths or any flattish piece of ground or beach.

Sundays were special and the young Conrad was taken to church with several others by his grandmother. She would make them sit in front of her. You could not twitch. You could not look round. The regime was strict and regular.

Conrad's cricket flourished and in 1960-61 he was part of the West Indies team touring Australia. He was a man of religious conviction, yet, as he candidly admits in his book 'Playing to Win', this did not stop him 'exploiting women for my pleasure' and using cricket 'for fame and fortune'. A turning point came after he gave a radio talk in Adelaide. He concluded, 'I hope to contribute much to the world effort of sowing love where there is hatred, reaping peace where there is war and spreading light where there is darkness.'

He received many appreciative letters but they 'did not please me.... They spotlighted for me what a hypocrite I really was.' He found himself praying, 'I have made a mess of my life so far. If you will give me another chance, show me what to do and give me the strength to do it, I'll do it.'

Shortly after this an Australian, Jim Coulter, invited him to see a film which had a profound effect on him (see box). The following Good Friday Hunte committed his life to God.

Conrad's new life led him to temper his natural stroke-making flair in the interests of his side. For instance in the Test against England at the Oval in 1963 the West Indies needed 253 runs to win. As he silently listened for God's direction early on that last morning, his thought was to be 'careful and vigilant all day'. After the fall of the first wicket the brilliant Rohan Kanhai came in and began hitting the ball all round the ground to the increasing cheers of the crowd. When he passed Conrad's score Conrad grew jealous and thought, 'You can score as fast as Kanhai. Show him.' Then, remembering his earlier thought, he pushed the temptation aside. Kanhai was out next ball. The West Indies went on to win the match with Hunte 108 not out.

As the years passed, he became increasingly aware of the race issue. In 'Playing to Win' he wrote: 'As I looked at the world scene and saw the gathering storm clouds of race hatred, I saw the need to try and bring an answer... But I did not want to get involved. I faced two hurdles. First, one of self-interest. It would cost me my career.... Second, the dilemma of pride. If I tried to do something I feared I would be misunderstood by the black people who would accuse me of being an "Uncle Tom".'

The first hurdle fell when a knee injury forced Conrad out of the game for at least six months. He described how the second, more difficult, hurdle fell: 'I was walking up a London street called Down Street. On my right was a public house which sold a brand of beer called Courage. On my left was a church. As I wrestled inside with the need to decide what to do... I heard what I believe was the voice of God saying "Look up". I looked up and saw the sign on the pub "Take Courage". I went into the church on my left and on my knees accepted the commission to fight with others to forestall racial violence in Britain.'

In 'Playing to Win' Conrad Hunte set out his approach: 'I had come to the conclusion that the advocates of Black Power were right in much of their diagnosis of the injustice and inhumanity in today's society, but their cure was inadequate.... They were seeking to cure what was a deep human and spiritual need with materialistic methods. They reckoned without the fact of human nature. Human selfishness is cruel, whatever the colour of the cloak it wears. Change is necessary. But to be permanent and realistic it needs to be a revolutionary change in human nature, drastically and on a world scale beginning with one's own.'

An indication of how far Conrad succeeded in his endeavours may be gleaned from the fact that a riot which the police had been expecting in Notting Hill, London, never took place. Local authorities attributed this in large measure to encounters of Black Power members with Conrad and his MRA colleagues during the previous months.

After a campaign which took him to 33 British cities, Conrad was invited to the US to help with the racial situation there. Whilst working in Atlanta, Georgia, he met and married Patricia, an anchorwoman for a TV news channel. Patricia continued her high profile job while Conrad was 'house father' to their three daughters, Roberta, Grace and Veronica, pursuing outside MRA work when he could.

When apartheid ended in South Africa, Conrad suggested to his friend Dr Ali Bacher, Managing Director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, that he might have a part in the reconciliation process and that he could help inspire and motivate youngsters in the townships about true cricket. The Cricket Board invited him. He consulted his family. With great courage they decided to make the move, and spent the next seven years in South Africa. He saw it as a chance to help the dispossessed and disadvantaged to find what he had found. Bacher said at his funeral: 'He preached reconciliation. Today thousands and thousands of young South Africans are better because of his influence.... We regard him as one of our greatest adopted sons.'

For whatever reasons, strains were placed on Conrad and Patricia's marriage during this time. Finally, in 1999, Conrad felt that the time had come to return to Barbados. Patricia, on the other hand, wanted to return to Atlanta where she felt that their two younger children would get a better education. So there was a parting of the ways.

Back in Barbados, the government offered him a job with the youth of the island and awarded him a knighthood. West Indies and Barbadian cricket had fallen far from the heights of the Hunte-Sobers-Hall era, and he felt that he might have a part in reversing the decline. He won a hotly contested election for the Presidency of the Barbados Cricket Association, and brought a new team onto the board. He immediately had an impact with his flair for unselfish teamwork.

A few weeks later he flew to make the keynote speech at an MRA conference in Sydney, Australia. The day after he arrived, whilst playing tennis with his friend Coulter, Conrad died from a heart attack.

We are left with the question, why a state funeral? Perhaps the secret lies in the tributes paid by Conrad's three daughters at that service, encapsulated by Veronica who said: 'My father lived his life filled with love and compassion and faith and joy. I ask you all to put aside your differences and your pain and your hurt and remember that my father loved you all with everything inside of him.'

I shall remember Conrad as the man who epitomized the Bible verse: 'If I have the faith to move mountains but have not love I am nothing.'

By TC 'Dickie' Dodds, a former professional cricketer

by Jim Coulter

I met Conrad Hunte because of a shared talent for sport. His talent showed in superb play, while mine took the form of devoted watching and constant day-dreaming about it. Finally I became embarrassed about my obsession, and had a quiet word with the Almighty. I apologized for having put sport ahead of spiritual and other more worthy aspirations. He seemed to say: 'Thanks, but why don't you invite the West Indies cricket team to see 'The Crowning Experience'.' This film, produced by MRA, was about the African American educator, Mary McLeod Bethune. Born of slave parents, she had founded a university and become an advisor to the White House.

It was 1961 and the West Indies team had just arrived in Melbourne fresh from the first tied Test (international) match in the history of cricket. They had brought life back to the game and it was front page news.

When the film finished Conrad immediately said, 'I have felt we [Barbados] may get our independence but whoever can harness the bitterness left from slavery will finish up in charge of my country.' This film was the first thing he had seen that could deal with that bitterness. He decided to try Bethune's approach, as portrayed in the film, of listening in quiet for God's direction. The results were immediately apparent. Wes Hall, the fearsome fast bowler, later told me, 'That Conrad, he's gone too far. He returned money to the Cricket Board because he had bought his cricket gear at wholesale rates and yet claimed retail rates. Now they are thinking we all have done it!'

My last conversation with Conrad, an hour before he died, was about how he longed to get a winning spirit back into the West Indies cricket side.

At the time of our first meeting I was struck by Conrad's transparent honesty. He told me that he felt God had given him the thought: 'thou practisest not what thou preachest', in relation to the temptations of life on the road. Nor can I get out of my mind the prayer he prayed: 'Please, God, make me one man, not two.' Surely it is a prayer for our time.

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