The road of shattered dreams

The generation that mourned O'Neil Gordon Smith, Collie to those that knew and loved him, is nearly gone now, but he remains the ultimate example of cricketing promise cruelly cut short.

Updated: June 21, 2012 18:27 IST
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Bangalore: The generation that mourned O'Neil Gordon Smith, Collie to those that knew and loved him, is nearly gone now, but he remains the ultimate example of cricketing promise cruelly cut short. When Sir Garfield Sobers says that his good friend might have been a better allrounder than him, you listen. Smith's numbers may have been modest, but so much has been written about the brilliance of his debut century against Australia and the two that he made in England in 1957.

I never watched Tom Maynard play. When I first read of the unfortunate circumstances in which he lost his life, my mind went back to Jamaica and a hotel coffee shop. A large man sitting in a chair too small for him, blinking back tears while clutching yellowed newspaper clippings about someone who had been dead nearly 50 years.

Road accidents have spawned several of the game's most intriguing what-might-have-been stories. A couple of years after Smith's death in Staffordshire, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi lost an eye while heading back from dinner with a friend in Brighton. It didn't stop him becoming India's youngest Test captain and the one who helped change a losing culture, but a batting average of 34 in an era when 45 made you special is enough to make you wonder just how exceptional he might have been.

Later that decade, Colin Milburn lost his left eye in an accident. In his last Test innings for England, he made 139 at the National Stadium in Karachi. In A Great Fat Man, an essay that's compulsory reading for anyone that loves the game, Matthew Engel wrote: "Colin Milburn might not have been the greatest cricketer of his generation, but he was, beyond question, the cricketer we could least afford to lose. And we lost him."

Closer to home, it's now more than 20 years since Dhruv Pandove, the youngest to score 1000 runs in the Ranji Trophy, lost his life at Ambala. Many that played with and against him insist that he was good enough to be part of India's golden generation. We'll never know.

Before Maynard, Surrey mourned Ben Hollioake. It's 15 years now since he made that cavalier 48-ball 63 on debut at Lord's. He's been gone more than a decade, and but for his kit being stolen a few months ago, a new generation of fans wouldn't even have been aware of his existence.

Manjural Islam Rana, who made his Test debut at 19 for Bangladesh, died on the road the day before his former teammates took on India in a World Cup match half a world away in Trinidad. It seemed almost ordained that they would win, those young men wiping away tears and performing as they had never done in honour of a fallen comrade.

I watched Runako Morton bat, both during his tortuous 31-ball duck at the Kinrara Oval and also a month later at the Champions Trophy, when he batted with discipline and flair to see off a mighty Australian side. By the time his car crashed into a pole on his way home a few months ago, Morton had long since ceased to be a contender for the maroon cap. But after years of being dogged by controversy, he finally appeared to have got his life on track.

The man with the yellowed clippings of Smith's exploits was Locksley Comrie, a former president of the Jamaican Football Federation who played club cricket alongside Sir Frank Worrell for Boys' Town. Comrie had rubbed shoulders with the likes of Michael Manley and been influenced by the work of Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon and Bob Marley. But it was Smith that he referred to as 'the embodiment of Christ'.

He couldn't talk about Smith without his voice breaking, and there were times when you could see traces of the teenager that he would have been when the bad news filtered through from England. More than 50,000 turned up to pay their respects, and Comrie was there as Smith was laid to rest. Nearly half a century on, he still hadn't really been able to let go of the coffin.

Smith's epitaph says: Keen cricketer. Unselfish friend. Worthy hero. Loyal disciple. Happy warrior. Many that knew and watched Maynard will echo those sentiments this week and in the years ahead.

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