Cricket’s debt to Hughes
The name Ronnie Hughes, who died last week aged 88, won’t be found on any first-class cricket scoreboard.
Yet, in his five years as cricket master in the 1950s, he had a profound effect on the game at Combermere School and, by extension, Barbados and the West Indies.
Combermere was already a school with a rich cricketing tradition, fostered by several of Hughes’ predecessors. Derek Sealy was the West Indies’ youngest Test player at 17 in 1930 while at Combermere; Mannie Martindale and Foffie Williams were others who moved into Barbados and West Indies teams on leaving Combemere.
Frank Worrell graduated from the school’s BCA Division 1 champion team of 1940-41 to become one of the legendary Three Ws and the first celebrated black West Indies captain.
Recognising the legacy, the headmaster from 1946 to 1961, Major Cecil Noott, a revered Welshman, gave Hughes, head of the history department, the additional charge of looking after cricket, at the same time employing the West Indies fast bowler Frank King as the school’s grounds curator who added substantially to the strength of the team.
Quickly, under Hughes’ devoted guidance, Combermere once more became the force it had been in its championship year. No club team, no matter how strong, could afford to underestimate its gifted, well-drilled unit.
Several talented players developed who would go on to represent major clubs, Barbados and in the case of Sir Wes Hall, Peter Lashley and Rawle Brancker, the West Indies. Others, notably the batting stylist Francis Scott, seemed certain to follow earlier Combermerians to the highest level before he emigrated to the United States.
Nor did such success come by simple coincidence. Hall (who kept wicket at Combermere before establishing himself as the “pace like fire” fast bowler he became on leaving school) describes Hughes as being “like a surrogate father to all of us”.
There was no football or hockey (another Combermere strong point) for Hughes’ cricketers. In the off-season, he would take them to his home in Pine Gardens, where he had laid a practice pitch on the lawn.
In present-day Barbados, there would be nothing too odd about that – except perhaps that a school teacher could actually be so committed to his mission. But that was a far different Barbados of the 1950s, and Hughes was white.
“Could you imagine a white man of the time, in a district like Pine Gardens, taking 13 black boys up to his lawn to play cricket all day?” Hall wondered.
Before leaving Combermere, Hughes also purchased seats in one of the makeshift stands at Kensington so his players could afford to watch major matches.
It is an example of what dedication can achieve. In cricket, Irwin Harris’ role in the development of Ellerslie School’s similar production line of Barbados and West Indies players (Carlisle Best, Ottis Gibson, Philo Wallace, Sherwin Campbell, Henderson Broomes, Wayne Blackman, Dave Marshall, Sulieman Benn and Kevin Stoute) a quarter-century back is a more recent example. So is Major Deighton Maynard’s on Combermere’s hockey.
Now, under Roddy Estwick, a professional coach, Combermere has regained its place as the most powerful cricket school in the land, once more producing players for Barbados and the West Indies.
Perhaps, at the end of his days, those who have come under Estwick’s wing will echo Hall’s sentiments on Hughes.
“We’ll never forget him,” he said. “He was a fantastic man.”