“Honest’s day’s work for an honest dollar.” That’s how matter-of-factly Winston Benjamin describes his job. At his peak, the short and whippy Antiguan fast bowler with deceptive pace was considered the second coming of Malcolm Marshall. His career, though, never quite took off and he faded away after 21 Tests spread over 8 years. These days, the 52-year-old time leading up to international matches at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, fixing boundary boards and sight screens at a daily wage of $70.
He’s just about done with the last of the electronic boards, 200 in all which showcase the LED ads during the match, when you find him on Wednesday afternoon, two days out from the third ODI. It’s been a really hot day and Benjamin has been at it since 8 am under the unforgiving Antiguan sun. And it’s showing on him. He is in a sweat-drenched red Manchester United T-shirt. His gloves are grimy and there is a bloody cut on his right shin that he doesn’t pay much heed to. And he’s not done yet. He spends the next 15 minutes loading the rubber slabs that go on top of the boundary boards on to a hand-cart before wheeling it around the ground.
Nine or 10 of his colleagues follow him, putting the rubber slabs in place as Benjamin shouts out orders. It’s nearly 4 pm now and Benjamin’s almost done for the day when he’s informed by his supervisor that his name’s on the roster for the following day, but they’ve cut the workforce. Benjamin will have to make do with just 6-7 pairs of helping hands. And he smiles.
“There was a time a few years ago when I used to be in-charge of this. But now I work for someone. It doesn’t bother me. Guys here don’t care who I am. So I’m like ‘pay me for what I’m worth and I’m off’,” he tells The Indian Express.
Benjamin’s last international tour for the West Indies was to England in 1995 where he played a handful of ODIs. His Test career already seemed to have been cut short by then after he was left out following West Indies’ first series loss in 15 years to Australia — he now considers he was made a “scapegoat”. He was only 30 then. And he reveals that within a few months he was doing a daily-wage job at the Antigua Recreation Ground (ARG) fixing boundary boards, which weren’t electronic then and had to be mounted on wooden stands, for international matches. Often he would be doing so while the West Indies team, many of whom he had played most of his career with, would be in the midst of a practice session at the ground.
“Playing for West Indies never fazed me or changed who I was. Back then, the WICB would pay you 30 per cent of what you’d earned throughout as part of a provident fund when you retired. I only played a handful of Tests and there wasn’t a lot in the kitty. So I needed a job and a man got to do what a man got to do,” he says.
“And now I still have two kids who I need to put through university and every dollar counts,” he adds.
Benjamin is no stranger to hard work though. He was No.12 out of 14 siblings and insists that his upbringing wasn’t a “bed of roses”. He would milk cows at 3 AM before going to school and often do schoolwork for classmates to help supplement the family income. Though Benjamin was a football fanatic — once having to be red-carded during a game so that he could rush to the VC Bird airport and fly out to Australia for an international tour — his father who kept wickets in the local leagues wanted him to be batsman, even paying him 10 cents for every successful “back-drive”.
“I batted and kept wickets in school before being struck under the arm-pit in one game. Then in assembly, that injury was reported and everyone laughed at me. My combative nature didn’t let me take that lying down, and I said it’s time to doff the gloves and give it back. That’s how I became a fast bowler,” reveals Benjamin.
Fighting his corner
It was this “combative” nature that he thinks retrospectively harmed his career in terms of him being misunderstood and considered a trouble-maker. He recalls entering a West Indian dressing room steeped in hierarchy, where younger players had to wait their turn to find a spot, and an incident where he was falsely accused of a serious misdemeanour.
“And the senior cricketer who committed it was standing right there. I told him, ‘how can you let them crucify a young kid and you be ok with this?’ So I named him and that turned all the senior players against me,” says Benjamin.
“I learnt a lot from that incident and when Curtly Ambrose (an All Saints classmate) joined the ranks, I tried to mentor him and advise him as to what it was all about. And that you need to be careful,” he adds.
Benjamin was picked for the West Indies — a moment that his cricket-crazy father missed out on by just two months — as the fifth fast bowler behind Marshall, Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh. He climbed up a notch when Garner and Holding retired and Ambrose joined the fray. But as the likes of Patrick Patterson and Ian Bishop came in, fourth seamer was as far up the pecking order that Benjamin got. But while revealing a frosty relationship with compatriot Richie Richardson —who he played most of his cricket under— he also laments often being under-bowled and made to play a role that he hated, that of a support cast.
“I would play a Test match and bowl 7 overs or 2 overs in a Test innings. I played against Australia and got two wickets, (David) Boon and Mark Waugh in three overs and I was removed from the attack. I never got the new ball and that chance to really express myself. So it’s always the old ball. It’s always, come and break a partnership, and it hurts but that was my role and I learnt to deal with it,” he says.
Benjamin finished with 100 victims in 85 ODIs, but here too he reveals having been forever “under the gun”, being used as first-change bowler behind Ambrose and Marshall or at the death. He talks about there being no regrets but the bitterness is hard to miss in Benjamin’s tone when he indulges in a career recap.
“Most of my ODIs came in the subcontinent or in Trinidad and Guyana. Go to Jamaica with something in the wicket, I am on the bench. I took 12 wickets at 12 in 1988 in England and then they take me to Australia where I didn’t play a single Test. There were some highs though, like my tussle with Kapil Dev in my debut Test and saving West Indies from losing a series with a 40 against Pakistan in Barbados,” he says.
Though his career ended prematurely, Benjamin’s need for speed didn’t end with it. He had always been into horses, having owned a few mongrel ones as a youngster. And these days, he’s the proud owner of Fresh Milk, Antigua’s champion half-bred mare, and also owns three other racehorses— Sir Whiskey, Coffee and Pepper Step. And you can’t help but ask him about how someone whose part income comes from fixing boundary boards at North Sound can afford to own horses.
“Fresh Milk was born to this sick female horse that I adopted and treated myself using my local vet knowledge. And I train my horses myself, which is similar to training yourself, and own a barn at the race track. So it doesn’t need to be an expensive affair if you work with it smartly,” he says with a smile.
When he’s not at the paddock, Benjamin supplements his income by renting two houses that he owns on the island. And when he’s not training horses, he’s training young cricketers through summer camps at grassroot levels. Alzarri Joseph is one of his students and he’s recently taken his own son, who’s 16 and 6’5” already, under his wing. His other son, Rai Benjamin, who incidentally wanted to be a cricketer, is already making waves in track and field, having represented Antigua in the world youth championships, and is presently No.5 in the world in junior 400m hurdles.
But Benjamin will be back in North Sound whenever there’s an international match here next for another strenuous 8-hour shift under the hot sun.
“It’s different here. I remember sneaking out from the hotel in Calcutta during the Nehru Cup and going to a shoe store, and there being a commotion. Here, it’s like Winston Benjamin? Who’s he?” he says. Just then, Benjamin is approached by an Indian in-stadia rights supervisor, who’s just been told about the identity of one of his staff. He shows Benjamin a photo of his that’s been Googled on his phone and says, “Wow, this is really you. Are you for real?” Benjamin just laughs and says, “Honest day’s work for an honest dollar.”