“Samuels is tied up with some pretty shady people back in the West Indies, he’s a guy you don’t muck around with on or off the field. He’s tied up with the gangs there and it goes well beyond cricket”
— Geoff Lawson
Former Australian player, on morning after the T20 final
Marlon Samuels is walking in the hotel foyer in Kolkata. It’s the morning after the night of his life. He is sporting a chiselled body, tattooed arms, and the big smile of victory. It’s a few hours after Lawson’s incredible character assassination of the man on a breakfast show in Australia.
There seems to be two prevalent views floating about Samuels. His harshest critics say he acted like a lout, giving the lip to Ben Stokes, taking a shot at Shane Warne, stripping his shirt, and taking pot-shots at his naysayers with his feet up on the table at the post-final media interaction. A few, like Lawson, have gone beyond the pale. Some others have succumbed to classifying him under the stereotyped Caribbean swagger, calling him a ‘badass’, which is intended as a sort of compliment.
There is also a third view out there, from the people who know him well. That Marlon Samuels is a moody, emotional boy-man, living his life through the debris of slights, hurts, backbiting, and finding solace in himself, cocooned in his small trust circle, and spending most of his time with his kids, and his dogs.
The most famous Jamaican cricketer of them all Michael Holding is fuming. “How can people talk about him like this? What do they know of Samuels? Have they been involved with any street gangs? Do they even know that world to smear-campaign like this? It’s absolute rubbish. People want to bring him down because of their jealousy or some other petty feeling. This is exactly kind of cheap talk that Marlon been raging against, and what’s made him the man he has become.
Holding and Samuels go back a long way. Holding’s mother taught a young Samuels at school and both learnt their cricket at the famous Melbourne Cricket Club in Jamaica. Samuels was a quiet reserved boy at school with a sunny smile whose teachers thought he focussed more on cricket than academics. Established in 1892, MCC started as a club for men of “modest means”, and has produced nearly 45 Jamaican cricketers, and 14 for the West Indies, including legends like Holding and Courtney Walsh. In 1964, it moved from Elletson road to be based at the old Chinese Athletic club. Samuels was one of the boys who trickled in, along with his brother Robert who also played for the West Indies, from across the southern side, from Nicosia. In the club parlance, they are the boys from ‘across the fence’. Walsh was one of them.
It’s here the he ran into Donald McNaughton, a passionate and proud member of MCC from 1971 and who later managed island cricket teams. He is a friend of Samuels’ parents and remembers driving down the road to see the new-born baby. In the years to come, it would be McNaughton, 65 years now, who would form a close bond with Samuels and mentor him through several mini-crises in life.
It was a sensational start to a career. A 19-year-old called up without much first-class experience conjured up special knocks in Australia. A maiden hundred followed against India but the lights went out soon. First it was an injury to the knee, then a blow to his form, and the first few years saw him in and out of the team. Then, suddenly, a bigger crisis hit him. Samuels was banned for two years for allegedly passing on information to an alleged bookie Mukesh Kochhar.
The two had first met in 2002 in Sharjah when Samuels, then 19, was facing the prospect of having surgery to his knee and was sitting in the players and VIP Stand. Kocchar, a man in his sixties, had a VIP box there and struck a conversation with Samuels. The relationship started with Samuels grumbling about the hotel food and Kochhar arranged for some to be delivered to his room. In 2007, during an ODI game at Nagpur, a call arrived from Kochhar to the Pride Hotel. Kochhar recalled that conversation in detail to Alan Peacock, a senior investigator with the ICC Anti-corruption unit then. “During our conversation we talked about the fact that the ball moves around in the morning and slows down in the afternoon. I asked him who the opening bowlers would be and he told me Taylor and Bradshaw. We discussed that Marlon would be third bowler and Chris Gayle would be fourth or fifth bowler. He told me there would be new faces in the team, making a debut. I gave him words of encouragement and told him to consolidate his play.”
As it turned out, the information about the new-ball bowlers, and him bowling first-change, turned out to be correct, though no debutants played in that game.
Until the end, Kochhar denied he was a bookie, and just admitted to Peacock that he used to bet. “I have never actually discussed my cricket betting with Marlon, he has never asked me to put a bet on for him, but maybe he knows I bet because of Sharjah.” No further evidence was presented that Samuels was ever aware of Kochhar’s betting activities.
When the tour ended, Samuels stayed behind with Chris Gayle for a few days for a promotional shoot but the deal fell through, and Samuels, who had gone shopping, found his credit card was declined when he tried to pay the hotel bill at Hyatt Regency hotel. It’s then he called Kochhar, who sent an aide Yogesh Arora, who settled the bill amount of 50,486. 70 rupees, or US$ 1238. That was the only money transaction that was found between the two.
Both Holding and McNaughton are positively sure that Samuels wasn’t involved in any wrongdoing. “I have spent hours and hours on this, talking to people involved, and I can say that the case wouldn’t have passed in a proper court. He is innocent,” Holding says.
The two-year ban was nearly the beginning of the end. McNaughton recalls the “depressing” days, how Samuels wouldn’t come out of the house, how he thought about quitting the game. McNaughton would drive every day to Samuels’s house for long chats, trying to coax him to get out. More betrayal awaited Samuels. Someone he trusted with his house keys stole money. The people he thought as friends began to bad-mouth behind his back. It shocked him, and he started to drift further away.
It’s in this context now that one recalls what he told couple of us in 2011. “Once you have life, you have difficulties.” That’s a stunning statement in itself about his outlook of life, in hindsight. Back then, its import didn’t hit. “I love to have lots of trees around. There is something about them — not just the breeze that comes through it. My dog is always under my seat. The spirit of a dog brings out a different feeling in human beings. I reflect on my day and what happened.”
Back in 2007, there were plenty of bad days. “Sometimes, you are just living carefree. It takes something to happen to you to realise how precious life is. Anything happened to Marlon Samuels; He wanted it to happen to me.”
It’s now clear that he was regurgitating what McNaughton told him. One day, McNaughton remembers telling Samuels, “As long as you believe in God, then believe He is guiding you. You have to understand what is happening now is because God is trying to give you guidance in life. You have to go through this because He wants you to go through this.”
Samuels didn’t even pick up his bat for one-and-half years, and Holding recalls an encounter with Samuels around this time. “He wanted to quit. I told him, ‘that’s rubbish Marlon. You haven’t done anything wrong, why are you running away from the only thing you love?’ Donald spent a lot of time with him, engaging him with life around him, taking him out, and constantly mentoring him.”
Holding offers more insight into the character of Samuels. “When you feel people you know have let you down, you can get that way. He was made scapegoat then. He was always more of an introvert, but those times, and incidents with his friends, all that made him wrapped in himself. That’s how some people react. That’s his nature, it might not be the right thing to do, but when life hits you hard, you cope the way you can.”
Eventually, Samuels saw reason, and started coming out. It helped that he had the chance to listen to what Jamaican people thought of him. Initially there was a lot of carping, and pree-ing (Jamaican slang for people who watch all your steps closely), but it slowly gave way to support, and even love. There is a popular sports radio programme in the local Klass FM radio station, hosted by Orville Higgins. McNaughton made Samuels listen to a few shows where listeners supported him. “That also played its part in the change. He had thought the whole world was against him, but realised that there were enough people who cared for him, and wanted him to play cricket again.”
Samuels pounded his body hard at the gym, sculpting it and ensuring he would never again fall prey to any injuries. Only when just four months remained for his ban to end did he pick up the bat again.
He returned to the West Indies team, had another stumble in late 2014, with an editorial in Jamaica Gleaner screaming, “Have we seen the last of Mr Marlon Samuels?” It speculated about some troubles with couple of Jamaican teammates. And soon there were murmurs of him even developing differences with his old friend Chris Gayle and the likes of Dwayne Bravo.
Some of the reasons will remain private, but McNaughton opens up about an instance or two. “He is a conscientious person. Therefore I don’t have any hesitation calling him a good person. A person who lives above board. He is not afraid how to tell people how he feels about any situation. Honest, frank, he is not going go around the corner and talk.”
In October 2014, the West Indies players pulled out midway during an India tour, a move Samuels didn’t agree with. McNaughton recalls speaking to him on the phone: “‘What is this I hear? You guys pulling out?’ ‘No Donald, I am not. I don’t want to.’ Bravo and him fell over that thing. With Chris, I don’t want to elaborate. Chris was his best friend and after their thing, Samuels kind of withdrew further and just became a one-man band. Now, thankfully, the relationship with players is back on track – he would not let down his guard, but it’s a lot better than how it was,” McNaughton says.
So with relationships patched up, Samuels arrived for World T20 in India and came up with great knock under pressure in the final, but his reputation has taken a beating with the Aussies. One thing is clear to McNaughton and Holding — that a lot of people are just wrongly interpreting Samuels’s body language. “They read into his body language, and read wrong things,” says McNaughton. “If he doesn’t know you, he won’t be chatting with you. He has been hurt in the past, and he has decided the way forward is to keep his own counsel. He doesn’t want to find himself in situations like he did in the past. And people must understand that about him.”
Holding frames it in a similar way: “Look he is not Chris Gayle. If he goes out, he won’t rush into have chats with people he doesn’t know. Perhaps, as he gets older, he will realise that he will need more people who care about him around him. And he can let go of any anger from the past, but remember he is still young in life. I am not going into details but there was a player I played with for years. He lied about me once, and I haven’t spoken to him since 2000. So I understand where Samuels is coming from. He is understandably wary at this stage.
“Anywhere you go, if people hear and read bad things about you, they are going to watch you closely. It’s just not Jamaica. Once you have been hurt, it lasts a long time and hurts your outlook of life. It’s hurt him a great deal and influenced his character. He has anger built inside. And he will hit out. Like he did with Warne. That’s normal. It takes great character not to hit back. He is not Mandela. I won’t say what he did was right but I can understand where it came from. Look at how they building up their case against him- street gangs? That’s absolute rubbish. He is just an emotional boy, trying to play cricket, and be with his family.”
Some time ago, Samuels designed his own house on a hill with stunning views overlooking the city. His girlfriend lives nearby, and his three-floored house is his sanctuary where he lives with his parents. “No, his parents live with him,” says McNaughton. “When you have your parents living with you, you are not up to anything untoward or ignoble. He constantly keeps giving back to the community, helps street kids, and has a foundation for the blind. He is a quiet unassuming person who spends most of his time with his kids. He is very close to them, takes them to school, picks them back, and takes them to the pool. He takes his mother and sister to the beach and eat fish. He is just a normal kid, really. And of course, he loves his dogs. Cos, he feels they don’t betray him.”
Back in 2013, Samuels tweeted in nostalgia. “Good ole days. Life was easier when making decisions was solved by a mood ring, doing rock, paper, scissors, or shaking an 8 ball.” He followed it with another tweet that perhaps best fits his outlook. “Before you judge me, make sure you are perfect.”