1948 was an absolutely monumental year for much of the world. And it’s not hard to understand why. It was the year where the Jewish State of Israel came into existence. It was also a year where simmering tensions between the Soviet Union and its former allies, World War II, reached fever pitch, resulting into the Berlin Blockade, the city already carpet bombed completely in the dying days of the war.
Elsewhere, it would be a year that would mark the birth of one of Hollywood’s most widely-known faces in Samuel L. Jackson. And sadly in India, the iconic father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi breathed his last.
But to the cricket world, it was a year of landmark recovery. How so?
A year that the West Indies cricket would not come to forget. A year of new beginnings.
In 1948, the West Indies, then in the era of the three great Ws, returned to full-blown Test match Cricket, having lost out on nearly eight and a half years of playing that very game, which they decorated with magnificent talents and their talismanic feats.
Severely hampered by the Second World War and the ramifications, the West Indies were keen to strike big, having lost much of the contests they appeared in; 12 Test matches, prior to their return, to be precise.
And in a series that exemplified the dominance of the great cricketing nation, in a manner hitherto seen, Australia and England having made light work of the Caribbean talents in all the years up to this point, 1948, one man made himself count.
His name was Robert Christiani, a man who was expected to be a high-class, frequently-scoring, consistent-century making batsman, alas one whose promise and potential proved far bigger than his returns.
In a valiantly-fought Four-match series, which the West Indies won 2-0, having not lost a single contest with two drawn games, it took Robert Christiani- part-massive talent, pure heart-achingly good- just one inning to show what he was made off.
Facing a stern bowling attack powered by Jim Laker and Ken Cranston, then the English captain, Robert Christiani combined grace and power to club 99 runs on debut.
To this day, he happens to be among the only three batsmen to have made as many upon Test debut.
What was noteworthy wasn’t just that the bespectacled good-looker from Georgetown, Guyana came painstakingly close to striking a ton on debut, but the fact that in his very first attempt at the highest annals of cricket, he went one better than Joe Hardstaff, then regarded the most elegant batsman of the times.
However, Robert Christiani, famed for hitting it along the ground and for his penchant at playing the slog sweep-meets-pull whilst bending down in his knees, did hit a maiden hundred later that year, his 99 was enough to warrant attention from none other than Sir Everton Weekes, a distinguished bat considered a legend even by the great Brian Lara.
Everton Weekes regarded the young Christiani, then 28, as ‘a very unselfish, giving, team man.. a batsman full of talent!”
You know you can be good in the game when selectors notice you. But you know you are destined to go a long way when none other than Sir Weekes lauds your talent.
Though the trouble surrounding Robert Christiani, who was touted to be Guyana’s possible answer at Barbados’ dominance in the craft of batsmanship, was that he couldn’t convert starts into big scores.
Ever the best man at the wedding, though never the groom. Always a fast lap in a Grand Prix, never the Grand Prix win, if that conveys anything.
While his ability to read the line of the ball quickly and a technically correct method to play found appreciation, what didn’t, however, was that he could never convert his fluent 40s into a Test score.
Perhaps there’s little surprise why a batsman who scored 5,000 plus First-Class runs, averaging 40 (with 12 centuries) wasn’t considered a great, after all, managing to add no more centuries to his maiden century.
What many regard to this day, is his 107, an inning of high-class that came in conditions as alien to the ones in West Indies as is Sir Curtly Ambrose at hitting triple centuries.
The only occasion where Walcott, Weekes, and Christiani thudded hundreds, circa November 1948, the right-hander, who also kept in a single Test, helped the West Indies amass a towering 631.
Those who watched in astonishment were opponents no greater in stature and not afar form greatness- Tarapore, Amarnath, Mankad and Rangachari.
But inconsistencies with the bat and the failure to go big having shown much promise soon as he arrived in the sport cut short a journey that, at one point, seemed was destined to go a long way.
Perhaps, that is why even today, in an age favouring instant gratification and wham-bam cricket underlined by the number and distance of sixes hit, virtues like consistency find no foes or strange onlookers.
What was amazing about Robert Christiani were his drives and his sensational fielding being a close-in fielder. What wasn’t that he just couldn’t carry on, having found a place in a side where not just batting, but the bowling department was marked by exceptional talents- Prior Jones, Gerlad Gomez, and Jeffery Stollmeyer.
What’s rather fascinating is that all his brothers- Harry, Bertie and Cryil- the latter most remembered of the trio- also took to Cricket.
But for times to come, one of Georgetown’s finest exports to West Indies Test cricket would remain as a figure mired in the realm of the ‘what-might.’
How did a batsman who was never dismissed for a duck in his international career, not make it far enough?
What if, he’d have focused hard and stayed long enough on the crease, than a desperately short 22 Test-match stay?
Imagine all that the West Indian fan miss out on in the form of the hugely-talented cricketer not being at his cricketing best, one who later also proved his worth as a goalkeeper for British Guinea?