Beside a cluster of candy-coloured beach-huts along the two-mile promenade at Long Bay, Antigua, Kieron Pollard is reconstructing the six sixes he belted in an over of a T20 International against Sri Lanka at Antigua’s Coolidge Oval in March.
First six: “Just took a chance, didn’t hit it cleanly, but it flew really well.” Second six: “Straight into the slot, that’s my game.” Third six: “Outside the off-stump, over the eye-line. I back myself, every time out of 100 balls.” Fourth six: “Slog sweep, not my favourite shot, but middled it.” Fifth six: “Just pure power. No timing, no feet, no sort of anything. Just see ball and use my strength.” Sixth six: “Free swing, cannot be LBW (bowler is bowling around the stumps). So I swung, the ball was on the legside and the breeze helped it along.”
It’s not the strokes or the descriptions that bewitch David Furlonge, Pollard’s Trinidad and Tobago coach. But, “the look in his eyes.”
“You see that, you understand his desire, his drive, and everything you want to know about him,” Furlonge tells The Indian Express. It tells a story, as it did to Furlonge several years ago at the Queen’s Park Oval Cricket Club.
A skinny, taller-for-his-age teenager was standing at the doors of Trinidad’s most prestigious cricket club. Someone — a local scout or acquaintance, Furlonge scratches his memory — introduced him as a “talented boy from the suburb”. He asked his age. A stern voice replied: “14”. Furlonge told him: “Buddy, come back when you are 15.”
Back in the day, the club was not too much into junior cricket, and the ‘come back next year’ line was a euphemism for rejection. Many teenagers don’t often return — in the Caribbean, he says, “kids move on fast”— but Furlonge knew Pollard would come back next year. “That look in his eyes. The desire I saw, I knew he would come back.”
He did return, a week after turning 15. Taller and stronger, like the Caribbean tearaway archetype. The scout apprised: “He knocks over heads.” But at the nets, he first picked up the bat and not the ball. “Strong, powerful, good hand-eye coordination, needed a bit of polishing.” The coach asked him where he normally bats. He replied: “No 10”.
“At that moment I felt like ripping his schoolmaster apart,” recalls Furlonge.
That schoolmaster was Aslim Mandol, the agriculture teacher who doubled up as the cricket coach at Success Laventille Composite School. He had his own reasons though. “If the school had allocated more budget for buying cricket balls, we would have opened every single time with Kieron, because he was hitting every ball out into the swamp or bushes,” he says, chuckling. He has lost count of the number of glasses he had broken too. But in inter-school matches, he was pushed up the order unhesitatingly.
His early coaches could not be faulted for seeing a bowler in him — the Atlas-like shoulders, Hercules-like forearms and the Prometheus-like fire in his eyes were irresistibly fast-bowler-like. At his peak, with a short run-up, more of a stroll, Pollard hit late 130s kph. Perhaps a Trinidadian Sobers? Could legitimately claim the ‘T20 Sobers’ title though — 11,232 runs, 300 wickets, 313 catches. And six sixes in an over too.
Pollard drew masses to the stadium, even for age-group games. Crowds would swell to watch him — one day someone even brought a steel band. “They came in droves to watch him. He has hit some of the longest sixes I have ever seen,” says Furlonge. “It’s an instinct, second nature for him.”
Often, his mother Hazel would come to watch him. She almost always had one query for the coaches: “Is her son competent enough to have a future in the game?” She was raising Pollard and his two younger sisters all by herself and could not afford her son to linger too long before beginning to earn and support the family. “She was doubtful but at the same time, wanted her son to do what he really liked. So, she used to ask us whether her son was good enough. We used to tell her he was very, very good,” Furlonge says.
That fire in his eyes was his family, his vaulting ambition to succeed the desperation to put food on his family’s table. Before begrudging him as a T20 mercenary, before condescending him as the philistine freelancer, one needs to know who Pollard is and where he is from.
Tacarigua, some 20km from Port of Spain, was one of the most notorious suburbs in Trinidad at the stroke of the century. Drugs, ganja, gang flare-ups, and murders were common. Throw poverty into the mix, childhood was like walking through a carpet of coal.
It was difficult, Pollard told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2010: “It was pretty tough, it wasn’t ideal getting up and your mum say ‘We only have X amount of money’. It was pretty hard growing up, and we had a lot of sacrifices to make in order to play cricket because cricket is an expensive game, all the equipment and getting sponsors. It was a place where there are a lot of criminal activities, and stuff like that.”
Pollard had no cricket gear of his own — he had to use the common kits in the school. One day, his mother managed him a second-hand gear, which he thrillingly took to the school. But his natural ability was such that Mandol knew he would overcome all those struggles. “Even back then, he was very motivated, and we knew that he was not the kind to do drugs. Give him a bat or a ball, he would play cricket all day long,” he says.
The mother, though, was always anxious and wanted her son to do well in academics so that they would be redeemed from poverty. “It was the way back then. Study well, get a good job. A future in the sport is uncertain,” he says.
It was a difficult time for a cricketer in the Caribbean too. The slide of West Indies as a cricketing superpower was in full swing. Fighting teammates, Russian roulette in captaincy and administrative chaos and apathy had shaken its edifice.
The riches of T20 were distant too. All these could have shaped Pollard’s priorities and choices, most strongly his prioritising of club over country. He was not cricket’s first freelancer, but perhaps the youngest. He was barely 25, stepping into the peak of his career, whereas most freelancers then were over-the-hill veterans. The flashpoint came in 2010, when he refused the West Indies Cricket Board’s central contract so that he could play T20 cricket for Somerset.
The backlash was stinging. Michael Holding said: “Kieron Pollard, in my opinion, is not a cricketer.” Pollard was, in his own words, “made to feel worse than the rebel cricketers (who toured South Africa).”
Such condemnations were not to stall or stop him — he had been or is still on the payrolls of 18 franchises. He has been, like all of mankind, monetising a gift of his for a living. The gift of hitting sixes, the golden currency in T20 cricket. He has struck 758 sixes, behind only Chris Gayle (1,042), almost with the same frequency (once every 9.7 balls to Gayle’s 9.4 balls).
He once told Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde in the book Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution: “You would never understand the situation until you are in the situation.” Pollard was not a regular fixture in the West Indies team in any format, his future was uncertain in Caribbean cricket, T20 leagues were sprouting around the world, and beyond it, he had to sustain his family. After he was dropped from the West Indies team for the first time, no one bothered to call or console him.
“Yes, I wasn’t performing. But afterwards, nobody called or said anything. If I had given myself until 25 and not made it big, I would have gone back to school and become a law enforcer,” he had once said.
At that time, he was married and had become a father too. Responsibilities were swelling. “My mother is getting older, so I want to give her the best possible retirement life she could have. I have started my own family as well, so it’s a matter of me trying to work hard enough to provide for my family so that they won’t have to go through what I went through when I was growing up,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald.
It’s akin to a carnival whenever Pollard finds time to play for Trinidad. When he’s there, the entire team is star-struck. “He takes them to his room. They will be playing cards or video games. All fun, when he’s around. Everyone wants to be with him, just as he wants to be with them,” says Furlonge.
Though it began as a coach-ward bond, then morphed into a father-son relationship, Pollard and Furlonge are more like brothers now. “We go for drives, have chats, go for an occasional drink, celebrate anniversaries together. He is someone who values friendships and has friends everywhere.”
There are many who call him their best friend. Dwayne Bravo and him go a long way, the latter recommended him to Mumbai Indians, mentioned him in the ‘Champion’ song and calls him his son’s ‘father-in-law’. To the Pandya brothers, he is a brother in arms. To Nicholas Pooran, he is a father figure, who was beside his hospital bed when he suffered a life-threatening car crash. Since his reinstallation as West Indies captain, he has unwaveringly supported talented but under-firing young guns like Shimron Hetmyer and Pooran.
“It is an opportunity for us to be there for these youngsters (Pooran and Hetmyer) and give them a hug and protect them, then let them come out of it. As a team, we are willing to work with these youngsters because we know what they can do.”
At the Queen’s Park Club, youngsters wait for Pollard’s arrival. Charity games, fundraising games, donations for hurricane victims, Pollard is just an SMS away. “He will bring them kits, jerseys, and of course, a lot of love. To him, it is all a big family,” says Furlonge.
In that sense, Pollard is a contradiction — the cricketer who considers every team a family is also the most promiscuous one, having pulled over shirts of 18 different sides, from Bridgetown to Dhaka, Multan to St Lucia and Cape Town. He is not a freelancer as the cricket world had imagined — cold and callous, plastic and pretentious.
Maybe, he is more of a misunderstood cricketer. To understand his motivations, one needs to understand his situation, the upbringing and background. To appreciate his six-hitting prowess, though, all it takes is YouTube.