FIFTY-two years ago an unprecedented event occurred in the history of Guyanese cricket. Guyana’s star batsman and most highly acclaimed cricketer, Robert Julian Christiani, became the first Guyanese to score a century in a Test match. He achieved this distinction on November 12, 1948, at the age of 28, in his fifth Test appearance in his career and his first Test outside the Caribbean. He performed this feat in the 27th Test in which the West Indies were involved since they were granted Test status 20 years before in 1928.
Christiani, or R.J as he was fondly called by his many admirers, was an exciting bespectacled right-handed middle-order batsman. He possessed a wide range of attractive strokes, especially in front of the wicket. He was particularly quick-footed. It is doubtful whether any other batsman in the history of Guyanese cricket has advanced down the wicket as far and as often to slow bowling as Christiani did. Yet he was seldom dismissed stumped. He was also a brilliant fieldsman close to the wicket, a reserve wicket-keeper, and an occasional leg spin-googly bowler.
R.J., arguably the most outstanding member of a distinguished cricketing family, was born on July 19, 1920, and began his first-class career just before the Second World War as a wicket-keeper-batsman. His scores in his first three games – three not out and 14, 0 and 23 and one and 30 – were disappointing. Nevertheless, he impressed some observers with his talent and potential and only narrowly, missed selection at the young age of 18 in the West Indies team which toured England in 1939 under the captaincy of the Trinidadian, Rolph Grant.
It was during the War, which completely interrupted Test cricket and greatly disrupted regional competition, that Christiani really came to prominence in the occasional matches which were contested between British Guiana, Barbados and Trinidad. In his first such match against Trinidad at the Queen’s Park Oval in March 1944, Christiani scored his maiden first-class hundred (126 runs) and followed it up with a half-century (54 runs) in the second innings, out of modest team totals of 208 and 292 in a game which Trinidad won by 101 runs. Later in the year, he made his first such hundred at home, 128 runs at Bourda against Barbados, who nevertheless won the game by 72 runs.
He was even more successful with the bat inter-colonial matches immediately after the War. He scored 129 and 45 against Barbados at Bourda in September/October 1946, 10 and 133 and 31 and 89 in two games against Trinidad at the Queen’s Park Oval in March 1947, and 67 and 45 and 39 and 181, his highest score in first-class cricket, against Jamaica at Bourda in October 1947. Thus, he became the first West Indian to score at least one century against all he other principal regional teams.
These impressive performances enabled him to gain selection on the West Indian team against England in 1948 in the Caribbean, the region’s first Test series in nine years. He made his Test debut in the first match at Kensington Oval in Barbados along with several other players, including his compatriot, Berkeley Gaskin, and the Barbadians, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes. Christiani was dismissed leg before wicket in both innings, scoring a single in the first and 99 in the second. Understandably, he shed tears over the disappointment of just failing to achieve the much-coveted distinction of a first-appearance Test hundred – a feat performed later by three Guyanese, namely, Bruce Pairaudeau, Alvin Kallicharran and Leonard Baichan. However, he surpassed the highest Test score until then by a Guyanese – 80 by Francis DeCaires also against England on the same ground in 1930, 18 years before.
Christiani also made a delightful half-century (51 runs) in the third Test at home at the Bourda ground. In the series he had an aggregate of 176 runs in six innings, with an average of 29.16 runs an innings. He played in all four matches in the series and was the only Guyanese in the regional team for the final Test, a frequent experience in his career.
Later in the year Christiani proceeded to India as a member of the West Indies on a historic tour which witnessed the first encounter ever between the two sides. There were to other Guyanese in the touring party, namely, Clifford McWatt, a wicket-keeper-batsman, and John Trim, a fast bowler who, like Christiani, had made his Test debut earlier in the year against England.
It was in the high-scoring first Test at Delhi, where he scored 107 runs, that Christiani created history. Until then British Guiana was the only one of the four main Caribbean cricketing countries that had not yet produced a Test centurion. Of the 19 centuries scored by West Indian batsmen in Test cricket since 1928, 13 had been made by Jamaican (including 10 by George Headley), and three each by Barbadians and Trinidadians.
In the historic game at Delhi in November 1948 when Christiani removed this major blot from the Guyanese cricket record, the West Indies won the toss and elected to bat. The team, however, had a disastrous start, losing its first three wickets for only 27 runs – the openers Jeffrey Stollmeyer and Allan Rae being dismissed for 13 and 8 respectively and George Headley, the Number three batsman, for 2. It was rescued from this critical situation by a dominating fourth-wicket partnership of 267 runs by Clyde Walcott and the Trinidadian all-rounder, Gerry Gomez, who both made their maiden Test century, 152 and 101 respectively. The captain, John Goddard, batting at Number 6 above Weekes and Christiani, made 44.
The score was 403 for the loss of 6 wickets when Christiani, the only Guyanese in the team, came to the wicket just before lunch on the second day of the match to join Weekes who was then 62 not out. From the outset he batted with grate confidence. According to one reporter, “Christiani soon got off the mark with a splendid cover drive for four off Mankad… It was Christiani’s cover drives which featured the after-lunch cricket for his timing was superb. Christiani often jumped out to drive Mankad and one shot for four raised the 500 in 485 minutes.”
With the score at 521, Christiani lost the company of Weekes who was caught off Mankad, an orthodox slow left-arm bowler, for 128, after sharing a partnership of 118 runs with him for the seventh wicket. Shortly after the Jamaican, Francis Cameron, was dismissed for two. Christiani, however, proceeded to reach 50 in 104 minutes and 62 not out at the tea interval.
After tea, Christiani batted steadily, refusing to take risks and obviously determined to reach the coveted landmark of a Test century. Eventually, he succeeded when he crashed a short delivery from Mankad to the boundary for four in the last over of the day. His hundred, which contained nine fours, had taken three hours. He was involved in a second century partnership of 106 runs with the Barbadian, Denis Atkinson, for the ninth wicket.
Early on the following morning, Christiani was dismissed, caught off an outswinger from Rangachari, a right-arm medium-fast bowler, for 107. His entire innings lasted 197 minutes.
This proved to be the first and only century by Christiani in his career of 22 Tests. It was a rare occasion in West Indian cricket when a No. 8 batsman scored a century in a Test. It was also the first of only two occasions in the history of Caribbean Test cricket that four batsmen scored centuries in the same innings. This was repeated in 1983 against India at the Recreation Ground in Antigua where Gordon Greenidge (154), Desmond Haynes (136), Jeffrey Dujon (110) and Clive Lloyd (106) made centuries in a team total of 550 runs.
Christiani’s hundred at Delhi enabled the West Indies to amass a total of 631 runs which was then the highest score made by the regional team in a Test match. This total, achieved in only 655 minutes, surpassed the previous Caribbean record Test score of 535 for seven declared achieved against England at Sabina Park in Jamaica in 1935, 13 years before when George Headley made his career best Test score of 270 not out.
Christiani remained the sole Guyanese Test centurion for over four years, that is, until January 1953 when Bruce Pairaudeau scored 115 against India at Kensington Oval. Like Christiani’s hundred at Delhi, this was the only Test hundred which Pairaudeau made. Christiani, in fact, set a pattern of success by Guyanese batsmen against India. Most Guyanese who have scored Test hundreds made their first such century and in several cases (Christiani, Pairaudeau, Joe Solomon and Faoud Bacchus) their only Test century against India.
In short, Christiani’s maiden Test hundred and his other achievements in the 1948-49 tour of India are part of a substantial amount of evidence which demonstrates convincingly that Guyanese batsmen have enjoyed greater success against India than against any other country in Test cricket.