A report by Bharat Sundaresan for The Indian Express.
The most fearsome of Caribbean pacers disappeared into oblivion in the 1990s. Patrick Patterson is still around, though he does not quite remember the man he was, or his bowling spells which went down in history. But he is grateful for the dogged fan who travelled half-way around the world to his door — to hear his story.
This is not easy for me. Believe you me…believe you me…” Those are the words I hear before the door opens. After six years and three trips to the Caribbean, searching and scouring the entire Jamaican island for Patrick Patterson, the moment has finally arrived. I’m outside his residence and he’s just about to step out. But somehow, I’m not sure of what to expect.
For years now, I’ve only heard grave and dire speculations about Patterson’s present state — that he’s lost in the bush or is in an asylum; maybe, even roaming the streets as a destitute. Patterson has only added to the ambiguity. Earlier in the day, he had sounded rather cryptic over the phone. “I find moving around tough and I struggle with my daily functioning,” he had said. At some point, Patterson also mentioned not having his own shelter. And, as I stand near the gate of this rather spacious but slightly unkempt one-storey house, which I later realise has been home the former fastest-bowler-in-the-world-
turned-recluse for nearly 25 years, it’s difficult not to fear the worst.
Those fears are put to rest, though, as soon as I see him walk out. Patterson, 55, is tall as ever, but a lot frailer than before — almost gaunt. He walks out wearing a loose, long shirt, khaki shorts, a cap and a disarming smile. The eyes still have the twinkle of yesteryears and the middle tooth is still conspicuously absent.
He agrees to pose for a picture outside the house in Kingston that he’s confined himself to ever since he disappeared from the scene in the late 1990s. But he politely refuses to let you in. “I wish I can call you in, but I can’t. I simply can’t,” he says.
In a cab, en route to the waterfront bar close to the airport that he frequents, the 55-year-old tells you about the area we are in and how it went from being a once-posh locality to a lower middle-class suburb, before slowing regaining its social status. There’s barely a hint of what the world has been saying has happened to Patrick Patterson. If anything, I’m taken aback by how normal it all seems.
The next four hours are spent by the Marina, sipping beer — Patterson insists on having a milder, imported one — and sharing a massive snapper with some fried bammy. It is over these four hours, as we talk about everything from the heady heights of his cricketing career to the “dark days that were as dark as” as he calls them, that you realise why the Caribbean and the cricketing universe doesn’t quite know what really happened to Patterson. For, even he has been struggling to make sense of it.
As the evening progresses, I get a sense of why that might be the case. While Patterson is, at times, lucid, his mind seems to be in a state of flux, swinging between reality and imagination, between what happened and what he presumes had happened. One moment, Patterson says he doesn’t know women played cricket at the highest level, the next moment he asks why the Indian Prime Minister has visited Israel after so many years. He insists that he wants to take me on a drive to show me Kingston the next time we meet, but then he reveals that he has a car that hasn’t been used for 10 years and is rotting like everything else inside his home, including its sole occupant.
Last year, during a “legendary wicket-keepers dinner” organised by the Lord’s Taverners in London, Jeffrey Dujon made a revealing statement. Asked who among the plethora of outrageously quick bowlers that he kept wickets to was the fastest, his answer surprised everyone present. “Patrick Patterson was the quickest of the lot,” said Dujon, who had the unwelcome job of facing up to everyone from Andy Roberts and Michael Holding to Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose from behind the stumps. But Dujon, even if the most qualified, isn’t the only one to say so. Former English cricket captain Graham Gooch once spoke about the mortal fear and concern for one’s physical well-being while facing Patterson. There is no dearth of YouTube videos that testify to that fact, where batsman after batsman are seen having their stumps shattered or edging deliveries while clearly not looking keen to get their bodies in line with the ball. There’s one video in which South African batsman Andrew Hudson’s bat flies out of his hand after it’s struck by a seemingly harmless length delivery from Patterson. The ball is just too quick for both the batsman and his bat.
Many other such anecdotes have turned into fast-bowling folklore in the Caribbean. The day I finally meet Patterson, I hear about the one time when Jamaica and Barbados faced up to each other in the late 1980s in what was referred to as a mini-Test. The game is supposed to have been the cricketing version of a demolition derby, a face-off between the fastest bowlers in the Caribbean. Barbados had Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall. Jamaica had Michael Holding, Courtney Walsh and Patterson. The one memory that stands out for many who were at the Kensington Oval that day, is of a Patterson delivery that slammed into Gordon Greenidge’s chest. They recall a puff of the starch on Greenidge’s shirt flying up and the rare instance of the legendary opener being staggered by the blow. There’s a consensus that the country boy from Portland had won that test of pace single-handedly.
In Jamaica, locals recall Sabina Park turning into a cauldron every time their beloved “Rambo”, as they called him here, would come galloping down from the George Headley Stand. As part of that same lecture last year, Dujon talks about the one time an enraged Patterson walked up to the Australian dressing-room after being sledged while batting at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and pointed at some of their batsmen saying, “You, you, you, you. I’ll kill you all.” Needless to say, Patterson finished them off for 114 with a five-wicket haul.
Unfortunately, none of these incidents ring a bell for Patterson. He looks at you, nodding, like he’s hearing about his own feats for the first time. “I’m just so far from all of that, nothing around me to remind me really of the whole journey. It’s been like that for 20-odd years. I’ve just been at that address,” he says, almost apologetically. “I can remember the atmosphere at that match you talk about. It was electrifying. Like a Test atmosphere. But that’s all I remember. I hope you understand,” he repeats.
For India, he was the menace who arrived with the West Indies team in 1987. He blew them away in Delhi, his foot intimidatingly pointing at the batsman as he exploded into his delivery stride, ball after ball, as if to say, “you’re next”. Patterson nods and giggles when he hears about the fear that he had generated with his spells, like he is hearing about it for the first time. But then, out of nowhere, he tells you that his highest score in Test matches came at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium — 21 not out — during that tour. And, all of a sudden, it’s like someone has switched on the recall button in his mind.
He starts rattling off about the memorable time he had in India on and off the field. “I remember Arun Lal — I got him out. Kris Srikkanth, what a dangerous fellow he was! If you didn’t get him out early, he would punish you. He and David Boon bothered me the most as batsmen. And I also developed a great friendship with Azharuddin. What is he up to now? Coaching?” he asks. When informed about the turn of events in the former Indian captain’s life since the last time they met, Patterson shakes his head in disbelief.
I press him about his bowling action — his unique footwork, in particular — and he just laughs. “It was natural. But after a point, only the foot was going higher and higher. Everything in my life was going the other way,” he says.
I first started looking for Patterson in 2011 when India toured the Caribbean for 45 days. Jamaica was the third stop and hosted the final ODI and the first Test. That left me with 10 days to find him. But few believed that he was still in the country or that he was of a sane mind. It was like the West Indies had not just given up on, but forgotten, one of their superstars of yore. And, of course, there was no sign of him.
I returned to the Caribbean in 2013 for a tri-series, and, this time, I decided to expand my search beyond Kingston. Patterson grew up in the village of Hector’s River in the Portland region in central Jamaica. It takes three hours to get there if you take the ragged roads winding through the hills. The roads are lined with shacks where locals play dominoes. I would stop at each one of them, asking whether they had any information about Patrick Patterson. The answer was generally either a “no” or “oh, me thought him lose it”. It was almost at the 15th or 16th stop that I accidentally bumped into his cousin, who led me to his parents’ house. However, they, too, insisted not knowing exactly where he was or what he was up to.
Finding him had become such an obsession that it was the first thing I mentioned to my bed-and-breakfast owner, Courtney, a former US marine who gave up watching cricket after Garry Sobers retired. The name was unfamiliar to him, but he insisted that he was also in the business of “finding people”. I laughed it off. But, by the next afternoon, Courtney not only had a number but also an address for the man who the rest of the Caribbean insists had gone AWOL for good. It was serendipity.