With cricket finally back – and the West Indies playing England in the first Test of the summer in Southampton – it seems a good time to remember Ammanford’s Caribbean king, Linton Lewis. Owen Morgan tells the tale of one of Welsh cricket’s most remarkable success stories.
The names trip easily off the tongue. They are pronounced as if spoken by someone born and bred in the area.
Myddynfych . . . Pantyffynnon . . . Tirydail. They are place names that would not come naturally to anyone unfamiliar with the Carmarthenshire town of Ammanford.
But they are delivered perfectly in a broad Caribbean accent by a man who was born and raised 4,000 miles away on the idyllic islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Linton Lewis first set foot in the small mining community in Wales in the early 1980s as an inexperienced, 21-year-old cricketer.
During the seven years he was in Ammanford, it is said Lewis not only “changed the face of cricket” in the town, but across Wales.
Now, aged 60, he has just answered my telephone call – taken without any warning – to ask about his phenomenally successful time as Ammanford Cricket Club’s professional.
Speaking from the office of his law firm in St Vincent’s capital Kingstown, Dr Lewis – as he is now – is instantly transported back to the place he calls his “home from home”.
The names of the Ammanford committeemen instrumental in bringing him to Wales, their families, even the streets where they lived, are instantly recalled, along with his first impressions as he arrived on a tiny train platform on the town’s outskirts.
“When I first arrived in Ammanford it was at Pantyffynon train station and it was a shock to me because it seemed a bit rural at the time. Very pleasant, but rural,” says Lewis.
“But what was more important to me than anything else were the people, the way I interacted and got along with the people of Ammanford, and that was fantastic.
“It is not an easy thing to leave home, travel 4,000 miles and go into an area where there are no black people, people you had never met before in your life, and to be able to live in such peace, happiness and tranquillity.
“The people were extremely friendly. It is one thing to be friendly, it is another to be concerned and they were both friendly and concerned.
“And I think that not only accounted for the joys I experienced but the manner in which I performed as a cricketer.
“I still say, that no matter what, it was – and still is – the best period of my entire life.”
Quite a statement for a man who enjoyed a win over England, scored a half-century against the Australians and went on to become a hugely successful politician, barrister and academic in a career which has taken him around the globe.
Ammanford, then languishing in the third division of the South Wales Cricket Association, took the brave decision to employ the unknown young cricketer.
The deal was brokered by committee members Don Phillips, Lyndon George and Clive Rowlands through Swansea-based sports shop owner Bill Edwards, who had strong contacts within West Indian cricket where he supplied kit.
No-one could have guessed how successful Lewis would be.
“He changed the face of cricket in South Wales back in the early 80s” says current SWCA chairman Neil Hobbs, a committee member at the club during Lewis’ pomp.
“And Ammanford, of course, benefited. They have done ever since because the facilities they built and the young players who came through because of him. They are sustaining the club to this day.”
Within three years of Lewis’ arrival, the club were Division One Champions and had won the Welsh Cup twice.
In 1986, they achieved the double of becoming Division One Champions and Welsh Cup Winners.
Ammanford were an excellent all-round side made up largely of quality local players, but Lewis provided the stardust which made them a phenomenal one.
His individual statistics are remarkable.
Before his arrival, no player had broken the 1,000 barrier in the SWCA, despite it being peppered with first class cricketers.
In 1982, Lewis smashed 989 runs. But the young opening batsman was just getting his eye in.
The following campaign, he amassed a staggering 1,543 runs in just 16 limited over innings.
1984 saw the sublime stroke player plunder 1,316, and in 1986 he chipped in with another 1,145 as Ammanford climbed to the top of the South Wales leagues.
The following season saw something of a run-drought for Lewis as he made do with a relatively meagre 929, but he was back over the thousand mark in 1989 when he helped himself to 1,107 runs.
The 1,543 total in 1983 has never been surpassed, despite his arrival sparking a number of first class imports including the likes of fellow West Indian Richie Richardson, who played for Swansea at the height of his 86-match Test career.
But the bare statistics don’t even begin to tell the story of the cricket fairytale which will forever unite a market town in Carmarthenshire with the Caribbean.
In the early 1980s, record unemployment and the effects of the Miners’ Strike were biting deep into towns like Ammanford and its surrounding communities.
Swapping the white sands of St Vincent and the Grenadines for the black coal tips of the Amman Valley, Lewis brought some much needed Caribbean sunshine not only to cricket fans, but the wider community.
Lewis was adored in Ammanford, and the feeling was mutual.
“My interaction with the people of Ammanford was the main reason I performed in the way that I did,” says Lewis.
“Had I been sad, had I been unhappy, had I been frustrated and depressed, I don’t think that I would have performed in the way that I did.”
And perform he certainly did. Fans would flock from all over South Wales and beyond, to watch Ammanford play at the town’s picturesque park.
“There would be a thousand people in The Park on a Saturday watching Ammanford,” recalls Hobbs.
“People would phone the club and say ‘who’s batting first?’ You’d tell them ‘Neath are in first’ and they’d say, ‘right, we’ll be down after tea’. Some people just came to see him bat. He was fantastic for the club.”
Lewis’ style of play and friendly personality attracted all ages.
“A number of the old folk came out religiously every Saturday to watch cricket at The Park,” recalls Lewis.
“Most of them sat at the bandstand end and they were a sight to behold. They were very motivational in that they always had a good word to say to motivate me.
“I remember one of them saying to me, ‘you must not be so impetuous. Take your time and you will do extremely well’. And I got that.
“It was a home away from home. I may have accomplished a hell of a lot since I left there, but I think that I would have been satisfied had I remained there.
“Was I motivated by them? Yes. Was I always given a word of comfort? Yes. Was I given love and affection and support? Yes.
“All those things were done in the interest of trying to make me happy. You could actually see the effort that was made to make me feel comfortable, to make me feel welcome and make me feel wanted.
“And you must not discount the fact that, at that time, I was there for seven years before an Indian doctor moved into Ammanford.
“I was the only black person in that area for seven years. And those are the best years of my life. I say that unreservedly.”
However, there was one section of the community who weren’t quite as enamoured by Lewis’ big-hitting exploits.
The cricketers shared The Park with the town’s two bowling clubs, whose green just happened to be on the flight-path for one of the West Indian’s favourite shots and would be regularly peppered with sixes.
“They weren’t very happy with that,” recalls Hobbs. “In fact, if I remember correctly there was a photo in the (South Wales) Guardian where one guy had a tin helmet from the war and he was wearing that to play bowls in case he got hit on the head!”
Even in those days, Lewis was showing the kind of diplomatic powers which would be useful during his days as a senator and chairman of St Vincent’s New Democratic Party. He also used the situation to improve his game.
“I found that very funny,” he recalls. “But what it did for me was it made me a much better cricketer. I was able to still score runs, to still hit sixes and avoid hitting the bowling green.
“Rather than hitting the ball over mid-on and into the bowling green, I was able to hit it straighter towards the tennis courts and avoid the bowlers. It made me a much more structured and constructive batsman.
“I understood that the people playing bowls were not all young people. For the ball to be going in there very often, when they were supposed to be enjoying their game, was not a very nice thing.
“But we had to co-exist in The Park and I took the decision that I was going to try and make a difference to give them the opportunity to enjoy their bowling and at the same time it gave me the opportunity to become a technically better, batsman.”
Chris Skudder, who went on to travel the world reporting and presenting for Sky Sports, was making his way in the media at Ammanford’s weekly newspaper, the South Wales Guardian, in the summer of 1986.
With no major rugby, football or cricket teams in the paper’s circulation area, Lewis was a godsend for a young man making his name in the world of sports journalism.
Despite having subsequently reported at numerous FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games around the world, Skudder remembers Lewis well.
“I only did that one summer while Linton was there, but I remember he was a very destructive batsman,” says the freelance sports broadcaster.
“It was great for me because it was a good story and there was always a good picture to go with it. I was just lucky enough to be covering a team like that. They were the back page lead every week over the summer months.
“Every time I came in on a Monday it would be ‘how many runs did he score this weekend’?
“Peter Evans, who was a really good photographer for us, would always have these great photos of him in full flow. He was astonishing, he would be getting hundreds most weeks, or close to it, it seemed.
— AmmanfordCC (@AmmanfordCC) May 30, 2020
“I remember him playing a game that summer for Glamorgan Seconds and he made over 200 not out at St Helens, and I was thinking ‘why is he not playing for the firsts’?
“Apparently, one of the reasons was that he hit the ball in the air too much. He was too risky, he just went in and tried to hit the cover off the ball every time. He didn’t really do forward defensives.
“If he was playing now, he would be a sensation with the T20 stuff where you can adapt and just play all these fantastic shots.
“Back then in the 80s, it was frowned upon because they expected you to play lovely cover drives, never hit the ball in the air and all that stuff. He was just a natural, Caribbean swashbuckling batsmen.”
So just how good was Lewis?
Well, good enough to play representative cricket for the Windward Islands, the Combined Windward and Leeward Islands, and West Indies Young Cricketers.
In 1984, he played for the Windwards against a touring Australia XI which included Kim Hughes, Dean Jones, David Hookes, Alan Border and Terry Alderman.
Lewis scored 61 in the first innings and 12 not out in the second as the home team held the touring side to a draw.
Two summers later, he was selected to play for the Windwards against an England XI featuring the likes of Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting, Allan Lamb and Glamorgan’s own ‘Trebanos Terror’ Greg Thomas.
— AmmanfordCC (@AmmanfordCC) April 30, 2020
In the second innings, Lewis top scored with 30 before being caught by Lamb off Phil Edmonds as the Windwards celebrated a seven wicket victory.
So why didn’t he make more of an impact in first class cricket?
The man himself says: “When I played for Glamorgan in the second team, I excelled. In one week I think I scored two or three centuries. I scored 211 against Somerset. I did very well, playing for the seconds.”
However, during his time in Wales, Glamorgan had top class overseas players such as Pakistan captain Javed Miandad, his international team mate Younis Ahmed and West Indies test fast bowler Winston Davies, which limited Lewis’ chances due to restrictions on foreign players.
Lewis adds: “I didn’t think that Glamorgan made an effort to try and get me to represent them at a senior level. They could have done so by requesting that I seek home qualification.
“Glamorgan, at the time, may have thought that I would have got into the West Indies team, so no effort was made to try and ensure that I was given home qualification so that I would not be seen as an overseas player.”
However, there were far more strings to Lewis’ bow than playing cricket. During his time in the UK, he was also studying hard.
A recipient of a Chevening Scholarship, which allows outstanding emerging leaders from around the world to pursue one-year master’s degrees in the UK, he gained a Masters in legal studies from the University of Bristol and a PhD in Law from Durham University. He also qualified as an accountant at Gwent College.
As you’d expect from a doctor of philosophy, Lewis doesn’t look back with regret at the fact that he didn’t make a bigger name for himself in first class cricket.
“When I look back at those things, I tend to think my Christian faith and my principles tell me my life was designed that even though I was good enough to play, God directed me to take my life into a different path.
“Had I gone on to play for the West Indies senior team, had I gone on to play for Glamorgan and perhaps gone on to play for England, I would not have been what I am today.
“I don’t want to be fatalistic, but sometimes I tend to believe, when I can’t get answers that are justifiable, that my life was designed the way it is.”
An accomplished musician, even that part of Lewis’ life is heavily influenced by his time in Wales.
In 2015, the man whose composition once reached the World Song Festival quarter finals in London, released a CD entitled Peace and Daffodils.
The first song on the album is entitled Daffodils. “It’s inspired mainly through my own training in international law and the trials and tribulations throughout the world with terrorism and the need for love and peace.
“When I think about those things, I think about the time that I spent in Ammanford . . . the peace and the tranquillity, the love and affection.
“It is not that I don’t get that here in St Vincent, but I expect to get it in St Vincent because this is where I was born.
“I didn’t expect to get it 4,000 miles away, but I got it – as much and even more – than I do here. That means a lot to me, Peace and Daffodils was inspired by my experience in Ammanford.”
Having spent his life travelling around the globe since he was 15-years-old as a cricketer, politician and academic – most recently a visiting scholar at the National Taiwan University – Lewis is back practising law in his native St Vincent.
It is almost 40 years since he arrived on the tiny platform at Pantyffynnon Station and had to depend on the hospitality of local families to put him up.
But the current chairman of the Caribbean Court of Justice says: “If you were to see the way I exist in St Vincent as opposed to how I existed in Ammanford, you would wonder why I still think of Ammanford in the way that I do.
“I went there when I was very young, I was 20, 21-years-old when I arrived. It was a responsibility that was overwhelming and largely burdensome because everyone was looking to me at all times to perform in order for the club to do well.
“But when you think about those persons who took the chance of bringing me to Ammanford as a professional – their own responsibility in the decision that they made. Some people criticised them and some were filled with trepidation and apprehension as to whether it would be successful.
“As a young person, I was very aware of the efforts and gamble that was taken. So I decided I was going to make it rewarding and fruitful for the club.”
Lewis certainly did that, according to Hobbs. “It was the making of Ammanford, because to this day they are one of the top Premier League sides in Wales.
“They won the Welsh Cup two years ago and they won the Premier League 20 over competition, so they have maintained the production line of youngsters who’ve come through since the early 80s.
“If you get a top professional in a club they will pass on their experience to the younger players. The younger players learn a lot. And they did learn a lot from Linton. He was a character.
“The club took a gamble and it paid off. Quite a few overseas players came over, but Linton was the most successful by a mile and he was a nice guy, too.
“He came back about 18 months ago, for the funeral of Jean George, who was the wife of the chairman at that time. He used to call her ‘Aunty Jean’.
“Fair play, he was a bearer at the funeral. He dropped everything in St Vincent and flew over. You wouldn’t get many players doing that.
“Now he’s a successful multi-millionaire in St Vincent. But he always says that coming over to Ammanford was the making of him.”
Lewis agrees: “Material accomplishments are one thing, but the satisfaction of yourself, where you are, your companions and your relationships, they are far more important.
“The material accomplishments came here in St Vincent, but the foundation came from Ammanford. I think the emotional satisfaction and also the quality of my life, from an emotional perspective, I had that in Ammanford.
“The relationships that I made there were very meaningful and very deep and very genuine,” he says.
“It makes me feel that there is somewhere, some place in my life, where I can still think about with joy, satisfaction and a lot of pleasure.”
The people of Ammanford, who remember those sunshine days at The Park, would doubtless agree.