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Remembering Alfie Roberts

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Alphonso Theodore (ALFIE) Roberts was born in St Vincent on September 18, 1937, attended the Kingstown Anglican School and then the St Vincent Grammar School. He represented his school with distinction at both soccer and cricket but it was the latter sport that brought him to prominence, as he became the first player from the smaller islands to gain selection on a West Indies test team.

Alfie completed his secondary school education at Queen’s Royal College in Trinidad from where as an 18 year old he was selected on the West Indies Cricket team to tour New Zealand in 1955/56. He played in one test match. Alfie effectively retired from cricket in 1961 and migrated to Canada the following year to pursue an academic career. He died on July 24, 1996 at the age of 58. These are the summarised facts on the life of Alphonso Theodore Roberts, but one has to lift the veil in order to discover something of his great cricketing talent, his struggles against the odds to fulfill his full potential, his intellect and his legacy.{{more}}

In 1953 at the tender age of 15, Alfie was selected to represent the island in the annual Cork tournament organized for the supremacy of cricket in the Windward Islands. This was under the captaincy of Frankie Thomas. By then word had spread across the island that St Vincent had unearthed a rare batting talent. Everton Weekes (now Sir Everton) was sent on a talent-scouting mission to the island and he held several coaching/observation sessions with the most talented players on the island. From those sessions held at the Grammar School playing field he was favourably impressed by several players but Alfie stood out.

After Alfie had successfully completed the Cambridge School Certificate examination which followed shortly thereafter, arrangements were made for him to attend Trinidad’s premier secondary school, Queen’s Royal College to pursue studies leading to the Cambridge Higher School Certificate. For the benefit of the younger readers, regular competitive cricket was only played among the larger Caribbean territories of Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, on the basis of which players were selected to represent the West Indies. Alfie therefore went to Trinidad not simply to complete his secondary education, but equally important to showcase his talent on a wider stage so that he could gain the attention of the West Indies Cricket selectors. But to do so he had to gain selection on the Trinidad and Tobago team. This quite naturally did not sit well with Trinidad-born players who were all vying for selection on their national team. Alfie did play for Trinidad and based on his performance and his natural talent, gained selection on the West Indies team to tour New Zealand in 1955/56. Life must have been quite uncomfortable for this very sensitive youngster.

Although he had the support of senior players and administrators like the former Trinidad and West Indies Captain Jeffrey Stollmeyer, one could only imagine his unease. It was therefore no surprise when he elected to return to St Vincent and between 1958 and 1962 when he migrated to Canada, played little competitive cricket. As Alfie left Trinidad Jeff Stollmeyer expressed the sentiment that it was a pity Trinidad had to lose such a great talent and yet so young.

In Canada Alfie pursued studies at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University where he found new strength and motivation in developing other innate talents. These pursuits have brought him much fulfillment and earned him such respect and admiration that he is now being regarded as one of the keenest thinkers to emerge from the Caribbean in the post World War II era. He was an authority on Black History, and that apart he was a political advisor and community worker who played a seminal role in the development of Montreal’s Black community.

This is all part of the Alfie Roberts legacy. Furthermore the Alfie Roberts Institute which bears his name was founded in Montreal Quebec Canada in 2001. It is a non-governmental organization which expands upon Alfie’s life work and is the home to a large collection of print and media material primarily concerning Africa, the Caribbean and their peoples. Throughout his life Alfie remained a patriot, committed to St Vincent and the Grenadines. Alfie’s thought process led him on the eve of the country’s independence in 1979 to submit a detailed policy statement to the government of St Vincent outlining why the Grenadines should be included as an integral part of the country’s name. The crux of the argument was that the Grenadines should not be seen as mere appendages of the island of St Vincent and the integrity of all the smaller islands should be respected. His submission was adopted by the government, hence the name St Vincent and the Grenadines.

But West Indian insularity which impacted so negatively on Alfie, and contributed to his being unable to realize his full potential as a cricketer is still with us today. Just two years ago during the 2004 TCL West Indies under 19 Cricket Tournament held in St Vincent and the Grenadines, the senior West Indies team was at the same time on tour of Sri Lanka. Chanderpaul was leading the team in the absence of several senior players owing to dispute between the WICB and the West Indies Players Association. Chanderpaul took ill during one of the matches and the captaincy was given to Sylvester Joseph of Antigua and the Leeward Islands an experienced campaigner on the regional cricket circuit. As the news of Joseph’s elevation to the captaincy spread through the region, a well known ex-West Indies cricketer from Trinidad and Tobago who was performing duties for the WICB during the tournament was heard expressing his disgust with the on-tour management for not passing the captaincy to Denesh Ramdin in the absence of Chanderpaul. Fortunately for Joseph, he took full advantage of the situation to display his leadership qualities and was highly commended for so doing.

One has got to live the experience to understand what it really means to be categorized as a small islander and while we have proudly demonstrated since the Alfie Roberts era that good cricketing talent can indeed come out of ‘Nazareth’ we continue to be confronted with insular prejudices as a rude reminder that the battle is not yet truly won.

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