George Challenor. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
George Challenor. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

George Challenor, born June 28, 1888, was one of the early stars of West Indian cricket who graced the sport on either side of World War I. In a First-Class career that spanned the quarter of a century, Challenor toured England with both Lebrun and Learie Constantine, reaching his peak on the 1923 tour. When West Indies played their first Test at Lord s in 1928, Challenor, by then almost 40, faced the first ball for them. Abhishek Mukherjee profiles the first West Indian to 5,000 First-Class runs and one of the biggest names in West Indian cricket from their pre-international cricket days.

August, 1906. Trent Bridge waited for the inevitable as Nottinghamshire piled up 296 and bowled out the West Indians for 149. The tourists seemed clueless against Thomas Wass and Albert Hallam, men who had been serving Notts since goodness-knows-when.

The hosts resumed Day Three on 65 for 3, and were bowled out for 180, John Gunn scoring a magnificent 112. Nobody gave the West Indians a chance against a total of 327.

But Oliver Layne thought otherwise. He knew he had to drop anchor and guide the teenager at the other end. They batted and batted, and by the time Gun broke through the pair had added 129, Layne having scored a mere 44.

The youngster was unperturbed. He continued to play his strokes, reaching out for those booming drives and rocking back for those ferocious cuts. He lost Lebrun Constantine at the other end, but brought up his hundred in less than two hours.

George Challenor was eventually bowled by Hallam for a 125-minute 108. There was a mini-collapse, but when they called stumps the tourists needed another 35 with 3 wickets in hand. The crowd witnessed a day of intense cricket, and cheered for the boy that had made their money worth.

After the tour, WG Grace would mark Challenor and captain Harold Austin as future stars. While Challenor would go from strength to strength as batsman, Austin would pursue a career in cricket administration. Between them, they would help shape West Indies cricket in the 1920s.

Though he was not tall, Challenor could hit the ball remarkably hard. Twenty-first century readers may find his looks (complete with a toothbrush moustache) comical, but behind the exterior lay a sense of stern calmness. He was muscular, aided with powerful shoulders that he used to full effect during his strokeplay, being somewhat preferential towards the leg-side.

Challenor s numbers, 5,822 runs at 38.55 with 15 hundreds from 95 matches, make excellent reading for the era. To put things into perspective, Victor Trumper averaged 44.57 and Clem Hill 43.57, and both of them had exposure to quality domestic cricket to hone their skills and prepare themselves before tours to England.

Note: Wilton St Hill, the man CLR James considered one of the greatest batsmen in the world (putting him at par with Don Bradman, Garry Sobers, Len Hutton, and others) and dedicated an entire chapter to in Beyond a Boundary, averaged a mere 28.15. His only tour of England fetched him 262 runs at 10.91. So much for historians being objective!

It must be remembered here that he played 62 of his 95 matches in England (this includes 1 in Scotland). He also bowled more than useful medium-pace, and his 54 wickets came at 24 apiece.

But Challenor s legacy lies elsewhere. When Wisden wrote his admirable batting did much toward raising cricket in West Indies to Test match standard, it was not an exaggeration.

The West Indians always had their bowlers. On the 1923 tour, for example, the pace of Learie Constantine, George Francis, and Joe Small, combined with the medium-fast duo of Snuffy Browne and George John and the left-arm spin of Victor Pascall, left the hosts with little doubt that the visitors could bowl.

Note: The six bowlers mentioned above were all black, as was norm in West Indian cricket of the era, as was all-rounder Joseph Holt (father of John). In contrast, the batsmen were white. In a way it was a throwback on the earlier Australian tours of England, where the sides (almost always) contained amateur batsmen and professional bowlers.

Unfortunately, the tour followed a pattern: while the bowlers kept bothering the opposition, their batsmen were hardly consistent barring that Barbadian: Challenor single-handedly prevented the batting from falling apart, match after match.

He transformed a near-dysfunctional batting unit into a challenging one. Michael Manley rightly described the tour as the first great turning point in the history of West Indies cricket in History of West Indies Cricket; it was Challenor who made that possible, before George Headley, and much before the Ws. There was a reason they called him The Father of West Indian Batting.

But more of that later.

Early days

Challenor was born in Waterloo, St Michael to an affluent merchant family ( he was born rich and batted like a millionaire, wrote Hilary Beckles). He was one of seven brothers.

His uncle George Whitehall, a fast bowler, played 3 matches in the 1860s, and once rattled Demerara (British Guiana) with 4 for 16. George s father GR Challenor played for Lodge Club, which, along with Garrison, produced the nucleus of the Barbados side, though he played anything that was given a First-Class status.

By the time George was six, his elder brother Edward (later Brigadier General Challenor) was already playing for Barbados against an English side led by Robert Slade Lucas of Middlesex.

Edwards moved to South Africa shortly afterwards, where he played for Western Province and Natal. He would later settle down in England, where he would play for Leicestershire. Two of his younger brothers, Vicary and Robert Laddie , would also play First-Class cricket, but they would all be surpassed by George in stature.

George Challenor played for Wanderers Club along with his brothers and Austin. For Wanderers he batted with a poise and charm hitherto seen in the West Indies and scored countless runs , as per Keith Sandiford.

There are stories of his placing coins on the stumps, challenging local bowlers to claim them if they could bowl him. When the amount was as high as $5, bowlers came from everywhere in the vicinity of the Wanderers ground (Beckles).

But then, Challenor could afford to do the same because of his financial and social status. As Beckles wrote, he, hailing from a rich white family, symbolised the power of the dominant cultural elite in Barbados.

An anecdote from the era (cited by multiple sources) will probably give a proper example of the social scenario of the era. Wanderers groundsman Fred Flannigan once saw a black fielder tying the shoelaces of our hero, who was batting. That s right, on your knees before thy God, George Challenor, blurted out Flannigan.

It is also to be noted that Flannigan was the self-proclaimed fan of Challenor and the Barbados cricket side. He became almost a mascot of the team when they travelled (think Sudhir Gautam), and was paid by Challenor to do the same.

England, 1906

But let us get back to Challenor. He was already a star in his teens, but he grew in stature once he went to later went to Dr Herbert Dalton s Harrison College, a school whose alumni boasted of Austin and Plum Warner (as well as his three elder brothers).

Note: In addition to Warner, Austin, and Challenor, Harrison would give the world several future international cricketers Clyde Walcott, Anthony Howard, Cammie Smith, Robin Bynoe, Adrian Griffith, and Ian Bradshaw.

Challenor broke through to the Harrison team when he was a mere 13. Harrison later went on to become an extremely strong team, featuring Challenor, William Hoad (brother of Teddy), Herbert Bailey, and Howell Barnes, all of whom played First-Class cricket.

He was still a student when he made his first tour of England. In the same season, Edward Challenor was signed up by Leicestershire.

Challenor started with WG Grace s XI, and failed in his first match on England. There was a thirty and a forty there, but nothing big.

He got his first fifty as late as in July, against MCC. The 80-minute 59 (with 8 boundaries) must have impressed big brother Edward, who, just like George, faced the first ball for his side. George scored 59 and 27, outdoing Edward (31 and 28).

The brothers met again when the tourists took on Leicestershire, George scoring 36 and 63, and Edward 8 in each innings. In all he scored 684 runs at 28.50, finishing next to only Lebrun Constantine s 776 at 29.84. His hundred at Trent Bridge was one of the five the tourists scored on that tour.

Challenor rises

Back home, Challenor continued plundering runs for Wanderers and Barbados. An incident from a match against British Guiana deserves a mention.

Challenor was ready by the time MCC toured the Caribbean in 1911. He was selected for a representative West Indies side to play the tourists. Opening batting with elder brother Robert, George scored top-scored with 75. Then he took 3 for 71, and added another 37 for good measure.

When MCC came back two years later he scored 118 and 109, took 5 wickets in each match, and Barbados won both matches by an innings. Then World War I broke out, robbing him of his late twenties and early thirties.

It did not seem to matter, for in his first match after The Great War, Challenor scored 104 and had match figures of 5 for 43 against Trinidad. He opened both batting and bowling for Barbados. His selection on the 1923 tour of England was a no-brainer.

1923: The golden tour

Few overseas cricketers have dominated a tour the way Challenor did in 1923. Challenor scored 1,556 runs on that tour at 51.86. To put things into perspective, Small (776 at 31.04), second on the list, scored less than half of Challenor, while nobody else managed to reach 600.

Between them, the West Indies batsmen scored 6,310 runs: this meant that Challenor scored a quarter of the entire aggregate. Barring Maurice Fernandes (523 at 34.86) and Small no one else averaged even 26. Of the 8 hundreds the tourists scored on the tour, Challenor alone had 6. Of his 8 fifties were 2 nineties and an 87.

He scored hundreds in consecutive innings (100* against Oxford, 101 against Essex) in June. Two months later he repeated that feat when he entered an amazing run of 111*, 155*, 66*, 5, 110, and 79; the first four innings gave him an unbeaten run of 337.

Not only was he the best batsman for the tourists, he was also among the best batsmen in the entire season. In fact, with a 200-run cut-off, only Patsy Hendren and Phil Mead averaged more than Challenor in the entire English season. Jack Hobbs or Herbert Sutcliffe got less.

George Challenor during his golden season, in 1923 @ Getty Images
George Challenor during his golden season, in 1923 @ Getty Images

Of the 20 First-Class matches the tourists played, they won 6 and lost 7. As was expected, Challenor contributed in every single victory.

Against Sussex he scored 87 in the first innings in a team score of 213. The magnitude of the innings can be judged by the fact that the tourists were bowled out for 75 in their second innings, and the hosts for 72.

Against Oxford he got a hundred as the West Indians chased 183 inside 43 overs. Against Essex he got another hundred.

The tourists also won their next two matches, against Durham and Northumberland. In the first match Challenor scored 47* (he carried his bat) and 53 out of team scores of 125 and 192. In the second he got 105 out of 286. Unfortunately, these matches were given Second-Class status.

Against Warwickshire he got 61. Against Surrey he carried his bat again, with 155 out of 305, adding 136 for the last wicket with Francis. Set to score 121, Challenor, with 66 not out, took them home in 27 overs.

The London Star wrote of him after the match: If there were any occasion at the moment to choose a cricket eleven representative of the world, there is no doubt that the claims of George Challenor, of the West Indies, would have to be very seriously considered. Certainly few finer batsmen have been seen this season, arid the Surrey team would be the first to testify both as to his aggressive and defensive powers.

He rounded things off with a neat 79 against Somerset, this playing a role in all 6 wins. In between, he did not forget his old mates Nottinghamshire. Carrying on from where he had left things 17 years back, he scored He scored 62 and 102*.

Note: Opening batting on this tour with Challenor was Percy Tarilton, whose 304 against Trinidad in 1920 was the first double-hundred (let alone triple-hundred) on Caribbean soil. Challenor and Tarilton were already a formidable opening pair for Barbados. Now they took things to the next level. Tarilton was there during the 10-wicket win against Surrey as well as in the fourth innings against Notts, when the tourists finished on 219 for no loss.

In England they expected such feats of Australians. Something of this order was unheard-of. He was not named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year, but MCC made him a member.

More cricket

There had been no double-hundred on Caribbean soil since Tarilton s magnum opus, and Challenor decided to do something about it. He scored 114 that winter against Trinidad, but that was not enough. The next winter he mauled the Jamaican attack with a career-best 237 not out as Barbados piled up 426 for 2.

MCC came again, and Challenor was ready with his customary hundred. In fact, in addition to his 124, he also had two fifties. He spent the summer in England, playing for MCC.

The following season he scored 220 against Trinidad. Tarilton might have had the triple-hundred, but Challenor went past him in double-hundreds.

Meanwhile, something bigger was happening behind the scenes.

The rise to Test cricket

A small group of wealthy individuals (Beckles) held a meeting at Bridgetown in 1926. The entire agenda is not known, but it is more or less accepted that West Indies Cricket Board of Control (WICBC) was formed as an outcome, with Austin as the first President.

On May 31, 1926 WICBC became an Affiliate Member of Imperial Cricket Council (ICC). The first meeting took place in 1927 with Challenor and Tarilton as Barbados representatives. The next year West Indies went on another full tour of England; this time there would be 3 Tests. Challenor, in his 40th year, was included.

Unfortunately, he was past his prime, and though his 1,074 were fourth on the list, they came at a mere 27.53. Worse, though he scored 8 fifties, he did not reach three figures on the tour (though there were 2 hundreds in Second-Class matches). His best innings came against Derbyshire, when he scored 75 out of 155 when nobody else reached 20.

He played all 3 Tests, which fetched him 101 runs at 16.83 including 2 ducks. Things did not start too poorly at Lord s. England scored 401, but Challenor (29) and Freddie Martin (46) got West Indies to an 86-run opening partnership. Unfortunately, they folded for 177 and 166.

At Old Trafford he scored 24, adding 48 with Clifford Roach (50). Just like at Lord s, West Indies collapsed twice, for 206 and 115. Just like at Lord s, England won by an innings. And just like at Lord s, Challenor scored a second-innings duck.

At The Oval Challenor scored a career-best of 46, adding 91 with Roach. West Indies scored 238, and though England got to 438, there was still chance of avoiding an innings defeat. An attack consisting of Harold Larwood, Maurice Tate, and Tich Freeman probably turned out to be too much, and they were bowled out for 129.

It was a surrender as abject as any, but there was one bright spot for Challenor despite that. The tourists had to chase 259 against Middlesex, and Challenor scored 33 at the top. His 32nd run took him to 5,000 First-Class runs, making him the first West Indian to do so. Unfortunately, the feat was overshadowed by a whirlwind 103 from Learie Constantine to round off a spectacular all-round performance (he had scored 86 in the first innings to go with 8 wickets in the match)

Legacy and Learie

Challenor s name seldom comes up when one discusses the greatest West Indian batsmen. It may have to do with the general lack of awareness of history of the sport in the islands before they attained Test status.

The other factor, somewhat counter-intuitively, was his privileged background. Challenor was the undisputed hero of the Caribbean till Learie Constantine usurped the title, and rightly so.

Challenor was white; he came from a privileged background; and he represented the British in the pre-Independence era. His technique, his approach to cricket was perhaps too British. The black population respected him in Barbados for his 1923 feats, but he was not one of them.

Of course, he was worshipped unequivocally in Barbados. Sandiford wrote: Even though he played for the most snobbish and elitist of clubs, he yet commanded the respect and admiration of all Barbadians. There was something universal and eternal in the excellence of the batsmanship … He was the people s hero, and all Barbadian batsmen, black as well as white, tried slavishly for many years to copy his style and method.

But then, all that was in the pre-Constantine era, though, to be fair, he never lost his loyal Barbadian fans. After all, not only did Challenor get runs, he also got them at a remarkable pace.

Constantine was different. The grandson of a slave, he found getting a white-collar job difficult in his native Trinidad. Had his [Constantine s] skin been white like George Challenor s, or even light, he would have been able to choose a life at home , wrote James, though the choice of Challenor as an example was probably uncalled for.

Electric on the field, very quick with the ball, a clean, powerful hitter when it came to batting, and armed with a perpetually broad smile on the field, Constantine represented the spirit of the Caribbean more than anyone else in the early days of West Indian cricket. He later rose in stature, taking up roles beyond the field, and joining Caribbean politics; he was later made a Baron.

In his magnum opus, Manley wrote that Challenor represented the English tradition flowing directly through the colonial system. He added that while Constantine was more about energy and instinct , Challenor s success lay on calculation and teaching .

Of the 1923 tour, Peter Mason wrote in Constantine s biography: Challenor was a star, but Constantine s exciting brand of cricket was also good for the box office, and although he scored only 425 runs and took a modest 37 wickets on the tour, he played no less a role in marketing the West Indies to the British public than Challenor.

Thus West Indian cricket was marketed, and as expected, Neville Cardus the man who went gaga over Frank Woolley’s flamboyance but almost refused to spend a word on the amazing consistency of Herbert Sutcliffe responded in typical fashion: Challenor was a great batsman, but he was not essentially West Indian in style or temperament before going eloquent on Constantine.

It is undeniable that both men were champions in their different ways, but there was no doubt regarding who the more popular cricketer was. They admired Challenor s batsmanship from a distance; they loved Constantine s cricket and they loved the man.

But the legacy of Challenor lived on, for despite the arrival of Headley, West Indies never had a world-class opener, let alone a pair, till Allan Rae and Jeff Stollmeyer came along; and Barbados would never have one till Conrad Hunte.

They did remember him back home, for as Sandiford wrote, the only true cricket champion produced by Barbados before World War II was George Challenor.

Even James had to agree that Challenor set a standard and pattern for West Indian batting from which at times it may have deviated, but which it never lost.

Later days

When MCC toured West Indies for the first Test series on West Indies soil, Challenor turned out for a solitary match, for Barbados. The hosts were reduced to 22 for 3 by Bill Voce, but Challenor, with 51, guided them to safety. He was not picked for the Tests, and decided to hang up his boots.

He was instrumental behind West Indies tour of Australia in 1930-31. When The Canberra Times profiled the team members, they mentioned Challenor as easily the best batsman West Indies has ever produced. One must remember that the comment came after Headley scored 703 runs from 4 Tests against England the year before.

Challenor later became a junior partner of his family firm. He passed away on July 30, 1947, a month after his 59th birthday, just before Rae and Stollmeyer would finally get together at the top.

In June 1988, George Challenor was honoured with a 45-cent stamp on the Barbados Buckle. Kensington Oval named a stand after him.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)