“WHERE does West Indies cricket go from ‘ere?” It was 1999, and West Indies had been annihilated by the Australian juggernaut for 51 in Port-of-Spain when Tony Cozier blurted those indelible words. The camera panned across the gloomy Queens Park Oval catching a number of mournful faces shedding tears, but Tony’s lugubrious tone encompassed their grief.
If anything, only he should have known the answer to it. At that point, Tony had chaperoned West Indies cricket through their unbelievable highs and equally unimaginable lows for four decades already. He had serenaded them and chided them suitably with the same passion. But never had he let go of them. With this lament though, it seemed like even Tony had given up. It was only natural then for the rest of the Caribbean, and the world, to follow suit. For, West Indies cricket and its followers had lived on hope for long through the hope in Tony’s silken voice. And now it seemed to have been extinguished.
Amazingly though, it was only a blip — at least as far as Tony was concerned. Despite having to be part of another disaster a year later — the horrific losses in England which he considered his lowest point as a West Indies follower — Tony Cozier continued to wage on for another decade-and-a-half as the voice of West Indies cricket before finally succumbing to his deteriorating health on Wednesday morning in his home country of Barbados. And even if he wasn’t part of the commentary box during the last two years of his life, Tony still remained very much the voice, despite his disappointment with the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) who he felt had unfairly silenced him.
It was over that famous comment that we bonded over for the first time during India’s tour to the Caribbean in 2011. The initial thing that came across from the interaction was the absolute lack of any air about him. He was Tony Cozier, but it was almost like he didn’t realize it. Rather than get irked by my constant pleas for him to repeat the line — and my shoddy mimicry — he instead joked about it saying,
“That wasn’t the only day they made me sound that heartbroken on air.” And that’s another thing you realized very early with him. He always liked a laugh, especially so at his own expense. Tony was 71 then and the effects of his cricketing wanderlust had begun to show on his body. He was frail, but full of life and loving it. When I met him two years later when India and Sri Lanka were involved in a tri-series with the hosts, he had grown weaker and was struggling to walk up and down the stairs, but his mind was as sharp as ever and his memory unflappable. He never missed a beat. He never forgot one either.
Most importantly, that voice was as clear and unflappable as ever.
There was an endearing quality to his voice. It wasn’t authoritative but you still listened to every word. Neither the tone nor the volume ever rose beyond a point, even if the action in the middle had taken an exciting turn. So smooth and suave was it that you could at times mistake him to be commentating from his comfy sea-facing residence in Barbados. But behind it lay hours of diligent gathering of information and facts that he was always armed with and also an unparalleled love for cricket.
For those in India, Tony’s was often the last voice we heard before nodding off when cricket was on in the West Indies. It made it feel like everything was right with the world, even if things were just going from bad to worse with West Indies cricket.
It’s astonishing then to fathom that commentary wasn’t his true calling till he was well into his media career. He begun his career wanting to write on cricket for newspapers — having started for the Daily News which was owned by his famous father Jimmy whose name adorns the press box at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown — and he remained loyal to that platform till the very end. Even in 2013 when he would struggle to walk, Tony would always make his way to the press-box in between every one of his commentary stints to spend time collecting data or just sharing his wit with the reporters there. Those who worked under him at the Nation rave about how both with his commentary as well as his writing, he swore by accuracy and clarity.
Hand-picked by Packer
He did play club cricket while growing up, even facing the great Wes Hall in his debut — or Day-Boo, as only he could pronounce it and make it sound cool — but not to any great extent. Instead he broke barriers and became the first really non-Test cricketer to make waves on TV commentary, even being hand-picked by Kerry Packer for World Series, where he shared the box with the likes of Richie Benaud and Tony Greig, and once even sang Blue Moon as the sun began to set. His greatest strength was staying relevant and adapting to different platforms and eras with consummate ease.
There were times when he did draw the ire of the West Indian crowds — famously once when the Trinis felt that he should join two others on death row for having written off their local hero Phil Simmons — but he always remained their darling. No wonder then that he felt betrayed towards the end when he felt that he was forcibly not allowed to commentate because of the anti-WICB sentiments in his writing.
We stayed in touched through emails till recently. He would often explain his situation with the board and anger was an obvious sentiment. But he would always end those emails with a pertinent observation about contemporary cricket — be it about an ongoing series or an issue. And of course a witty remark or two.
“They’ve got to reach a stage where the camel’s back has to be broken. They have been leaving so many straws on top of him, there will come a stage where the camel will say Oh God, no more, please, no more” is what he wrote after the West Indies team abandoned their tour of India in 2014. Or he once described his ill-fated IPL commentary stint in 2008 with these words, “And then they had the catches named after something that sounded like Kamran Akmal, who ironically couldn’t take a catch.”
But just how much cricket meant to him — and how much it will miss him — came through an incident once in 2013 when I went to his hotel room in Trinidad one evening for a scheduled interview. As I sat listening to him regale me with tales and anecdotes of yore, he suddenly asked for a time-out, requesting that we continue it the next morning. The Ashes were about to start in England, and he didn’t want anyone stopping him from missing even a single ball.