O’Neil Gordon Smith, Collie to those that knew and loved him, has been dead nearly 50 years yet you wouldn’t know it if you listened to Locksley Comrie talk about him. Comrie moved to one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Jamaica when he was six years old, though back then Trenchtown wasn’t the byword for gang violence that it has become today. He grew up idolising Collie, and like his hero, he was head boy at the school in Boys’ Town. In later years, he headed Jamaica’s football association, and was also president of his neighbourhood club, the same institution that once boasted of players like Collie and Sir Frank Worrell.
Comrie doesn’t go back to the area as much as he’d like these days. When he does, it’s often for the wrong reasons. “A lot of my old friends have been killed in the area,” he tells you. “Earlier today, I was watching a football game on TV, and you could see a helicopter circling overhead. There’s a fear of violence, and that violence is a fact of life in Trenchtown now. Growing up, it was never like that. Boys’ Town was one of the most successful institutions in the Caribbean, and dare I say it, the most unique in the world.”
Father Hugh Sherlock, who founded the club, died in 1998, and part of the neighbourhood’s soul went with him. For cricket aficionados, it’s enough to know that Boys’ Town was Worrell’s last club. After Collie’s tragic death in a car crash in England in 1959, Worrell, a Barbados native who had moved to Jamaica, came to Boys’ Town to play as a way of honouring the memory of his departed colleague. Boys’ Town won the Cup for the first time in 1960, and Comrie says with a grin: “It was also because we started getting a fair deal from the umpires.”
Comrie’s own cricket career ended when he went to England to study in the early 1960s, but he put off his departure by a year just so that he could play alongside Worrell. “You just played beyond yourself,” he tells you. “When he first promoted me from the senior side, I didn’t really want it because I would have been captain of the junior team. And in the first five games, I didn’t get to bat or bowl because we were so strong.
“The first time I batted was at No.10. Sir Frank gave me his bat and gloves. I felt such an energy then that I could have batted for 10 days. I made the second-highest score and we won the game. The next match we played, he gave me his pads. Whenever I’d look at the pavilion, he’d be watching. It gave you strength. He was the first to stand up and cheer if you played a good shot. You couldn’t get out. It was his last match before leaving for Australia, and he let me keep his bat.”
What was it like playing alongside someone who was so much more than just a cricketer? “I sometimes want to think it was a dream,” says Comrie, “to play with him, to sit beside him. He was a remarkable human being.”
As special as Worrell was, it’s Collie that has been the abiding obsession. “He was the living embodiment of Christ,” he tells you, though a Muslim himself. I look away embarrassed as I see the glint of a tear in his eye. “He was very humble, and yet attracted attention wherever he went. He reached out to people. Right from the time I first watched him, I used to keep a scrapbook. And each time Collie came back from tours, he’d bring me clippings.”
He shows me some, from a huge file that he has carried with him. Some of the clippings are yellow with age, and you’re half afraid to even touch them. Some of the articles deal with Trenchtown and its problems, but the rest are all about Collie and what West Indies cricket lost forever when a car driven by Sir Garfield Sobers crashed in Staffordshire in 1959.
It dismays Comrie that “Ninety per cent of Jamaicans no longer know about him”. “The road named after him, Collie Smith Drive, is known for its shooting and fighting and death. It leads straight to a cemetery. What happens on that road has no connection whatsoever to the man he was.”
The same Trenchtown that gave the world Collie Smith, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and many others is now a no-go zone. “Bob Marley wrote five songs about Trenchtown,” Comrie tells you with a smile. “He just put music to the way people talked there. When he sang:Then we would cook cornmeal porridge, Of which I’ll share with you; My feet is my only carriage, So I’ve got to push on through, he was talking about our lives.
“And there was Jimmy Tucker [the tenor]. Listening to him was like going to the Metropolitan opera. He was singing in languages he didn’t even know. Even now, when I listen to him, I can close my eyes and picture Trenchtown as it was 50 years ago.”
It was a different world then.
* This was originally written as part of a travel diary for Cricinfo.