Rahkeem Cornwall: The Big Easy
In quaint Liberta, one of the first emancipated slave villages on the island, a parish with a population of 3,000 and span of 15 square kilometres, they call Rahkeem Cornwall Jimbo . Neither affectionately nor mockingly (it s not an inflected-version of jumbo, referring to his six-foot-six, 140 kg frame) but just a name that stuck when he was young, and one that would cling on forever. In this neck of the woods, it s an identity.
His neighbour and distant maternal uncle Vaughn Walsh s, once a fearsome, fast bowler who famously bounced out Graham Gooch s touring side in 1994, used to bring T-shirts for Jimbo whenever he came back from England, where he had made his home. But they always turned out to be a size or two too small, which surprised Walsh, who remembered how the kid looked when he was younger.
He must have been around three or four, but he was so tiny that he looked two.
But the growing stature of Rahkeem, set to make his Test debut as an off-spinning all-rounder against India on Thursday, didn t alarm him or anyone else in his early days, because it s normal in Antigua. Fat people here aren t body-shamed. We don t make fun of anyone s size. His father too was a heavy-set man and we had several obese-looking boys in the neighbourhood. It was normal, and it was not out of inactivity, Walsh says.
Even when someone is called a big man it doesn t correspond to his size, but rather a show of respect.
Interestingly, he remembers a neighbourhood race during a carnival where Jimbo beat all the leaner runners. Beneath the girth was raw, explosive speed. He began as a medium pacer and could bowl really fast for his age, from a short run-up. I used to give some advice and make him watch a lot of fast bowling. Those were the last days of Ambrose and Walsh. But the boy got hooked to Donald and Kallis, he says. The South African all-rounder eventually became his idol.
But it was his paternal uncle Wilden Polo Cornwall s batting that sparked his imagination. A hard-hitting batsman and occasional medium pacer, who played 50 games for the Leeward Islands, he used to take him around for cricket games, all and sundry, from first-class to Liberta league games. There was that natural ability, whether it was bowling or batting. Great hand-eye coordination. I realised serious potential in him and started teaching him the technique and all that stuff, he says.
He did make him run several miles a day too. There was a pack of kids and I used to make them jog five-six kilometres. He had no problems, never gave up, completed the laps. He wasn t the quickest, but I don t remember him buckling down, he says.
There, however, were times when he was concerned about his expanding waistline, from a sporting point of view. He called up his father Esterfield, who works as a supervisor in a wood mill, and queried about the diet. Slightly puzzled, he replied, Normal food, like all of us. In Antigua, though, normal food means a junk-heavy diet of pies, fried chicken wings, snappers, salt fish, fries and chips. His parents hardly found anything unusual. He hung up the phone with his father telling him: We can t make him starve, can we? If one day he himself feels he needs to lose weight, let him!
At that time, he was around 16 and collapsed scales at 125kg. But Wilden noticed his cricketing skills were as good as anyone of his age category. But he was worried whether his frame would hamper his progress and how the world would perceive him, as he began climbing the rungs, which he did as fast as he added pounds. At 18, he made his West Indies U-19 debut. The same year, he became a first-class player. The same year, Vaghn returned from England for good with another under-sized T-shirt for Jimbo. And he then tweaks an old Jim Reeves song and pipes in: Jimbo, Jimbo, it s his name!
As the clamour for Rahkeem s inclusion in the national team grew louder duly so, as he has been the most consistent spinner in the Carribean for the last four years, plus the batting add-on the Board decided to put him through what was essentially a crash weight-loss programme. He was made to sit with a dietitian, a strength conditioner and a nutritionist and chart out a regimented plan to lose weight, as rapidly as possible. The plan was initiated, apparently, by Cricket West Indies president Ricky Skerrit himself.
The results seem to be paying off, as he has knocked off nearly 10kg in six months. But his childhood coach and former accomplice of Ambrose and Co., Kenny Benjamin is puzzled. I never thought his physique would come in the way of his success. The focus, right from the early days, has been about skills and match-fitness. In this regard, he s one of the fittest cricketers around, as I don t recall him sitting out of a match due to injury, for the club or the Leeward Islands, he says.
When Benjamin chanced on him, after he returned home with a coaching stint with the United States, Rahkeem was still a hard-hitting batsman who bowled seam-ups. When he got tired at the nets, he would resort to off-breaks, and much to his surprise, spun them big. I realised he was better bowling off-spin. Being a fast bowler, unless you are really fast, is tough. And he had such natural spin-bowling ability, he observes.
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The focus, thereafter, was moulding him into a good spinner. He had height, so could get natural bounce. He puts a lot of shoulder into his off-breaks, so naturally turns the ball. The endeavour, then, was to teach him the finer aspects of spin bowling, like mastering flight and dip. Fancy weapons like the doosra never crossed his mind. But then Benjamin himself had only fundamental knowledge about spin bowling and in Antigua there weren t too many quality ones around. Occasionally, he would call former leg-spinner Anthony Martin, a firefighter these days, to work with him. Most of the other tricks, they learned by poring over endless Youtube reels of Saeed Ajmal, Graeme Swann and Ravichandran Ashwin. Rahkeem is more in the Swann mould, as he predominantly traps batsmen with his off-breaks. His biggest strength is his ability to turn the ball and make it bounce. Facing a 6-feet-six spinner is never easy. And he can bowl all day long, he says.
His numbers justify the coach s evaluation. Since his debut six years ago, there hasn t been a domestic season where he had failed to pick 40 wickets or more. He has impressed on the A tours too, the one in Sri Lanka in 2017, where he rattled up 23 wickets at 19, being the zenith. Among his scalps were the present nucleus of their batting skipper Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Perera, Lahiru Thirimanne, Roshen Silva and Niroshan Dickwella. Earlier, in a four-day match against India, he picked up five for 118 in more than 30 overs of bowling. His scalps that day included Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. The exploits, many thought, would earn him Test stripes, but the wait just kept getting longer, despite West Indies struggling to nail down a regular specialist spinner. In two years, they have tried everyone from the flinty Devendra Bishoo to Jomel Warrican. But it was batting all-rounder Roston Chase who ended up shouldering the bulk of the spinning responsibilities. And Rahkeem had no place.
The reason, most Antiguans and the whole of Liberta reckon, was his bulk, and unfairly so as he was getting wickets in heaps and occasionally chipping in with valuable knocks he has four List A and a first-class hundred. It triggers a fundamental debate whether over-sized but gifted and proven athletes be denied opportunities solely because they don t conform to the sporting notions of an athlete as a chiselled and muscular specimen? Like Virat Kohli or Michael Phelps or Cristiano Ronaldo. Men of such sparkling physiques do make sport attractive rather than heavyset ones but it shouldn t be the prerogative in skill-assessment, especially in a sport like cricket, which in the past had accommodated men of all shapes. David Boon was on the heavier side, but was as good as short-leg fielders came. So were his peers Merv Hughes and Mark Taylor in his later years. England had Colin Milburn, who weighed 18 stone, but played nine Tests for an average of 46.71in the late 60s before an accident and subsequent loss of eyesight blighted his career. So Rahkeem is not alone. And like them, Benjamin feels his deeds will talk louder. Liberta is living on that prayer.
With gleaming eyes, Kofi James, a 21-year-old fast bowler who made the Leeward Islands side last year and a fellow Libertan, says the whole of his parish will be at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium if Rahkeem happens to debut. Even if the whole of Liberta descends, which is just 3,000-strong, into the stadium, it wouldn t be even quarter full. But they ll ratchet up the noise. He s our rockstar. Everyone in the parish wants to be like him. Even kids. He s that popular, and he sets a good example.
Agrees one of his senior Libertan players , Anthony Chippy , Davids. A lot of people make fun of him, but I can tell you he can be a beast in the gym. He lifts a lot of weight, and I m sure that if he puts his mind, he can be an Olympic weightlifter. He does a lot of running on the treadmill. He has a lot of explosive energy. It s just that he s built that way.
However, they do indulge in lighthearted banter. Mostly, when they go jersey-hunting. We do get plus sizes, but even by those standards, it s sometimes difficult to find his size. So we always joke we need to hire a tailor to stitch him jerseys. Or things like an entire team can fit into his jersey. But it s all lighthearted, and he takes it lightly too. He cracks a lot of jokes at his own expense, Davids says, chuckling.
Rakheem has never been over-conscious about his weight either. A lot of people underestimate me because of my size. I fool a lot of people especially bowling from my height and getting a lot of spin. So losing weight would probably help my health more than anything else. But I m fine as I am now, he had told Antigua Observer in an interview last year. So would feel the whole of Liberta, if indeed he makes his Test debut at home. And there wouldn t be any shortage of noise and dance. And Vaughn piping in the old Jim Reeves number: Jimbo, Jimbo, it s his name!