By RON FANFAIR
The first Dominican to play Test cricket for the West Indies is dead.
Grayson Shillingford, who resided in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for 24 years after retiring from first-class cricket in 1979, passed away in Dominica two days before Christmas. He succumbed to kidney failure that resulted from a rare blood disorder disease he was diagnosed with almost two years ago.
Shillingford, who was 65 at the time of his death, was buried on December 31.
The right-arm fast bowler, who made his first-class debut against the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1968, was all set to move to Canada a year later when former Trinidad & Tobago and West Indies all-rounder and selector Gerry Gomez successfully persuaded him to put his migration plan on hold.
Five months after Gomez saw the young fast bowler make his regional debut against T & T at the Queen’s Park Oval where he took just one wicket for 77 runs off 29 overs in the Windward Islands innings and 57-run loss, Shillingford made history by becoming the first cricketer from his island to represent the West Indies when he was selected for the second Test against England at Lords.
Shillingford played seven Tests (five drawn and two losses under Sir Garfield Sobers’ captaincy) between 1969 and 1972 and helped Dominica win four straight Windward Island tournaments in the late 1970s before migrating to Canada nearly three decades ago.
“Grayson was a very likeable and jovial person,” said St. Lucian-born former Canadian wicketkeeper/batsman and coach, Bryan Mauricette, who played in Shillingford’s first regional game for the Windwards.
They reunited in the early 1980s as teammates with Toronto & District Cricket Association club Victoria Park.
“He was also very competitive and an extremely good teammate who added value to a side,” said Mauricette.
Shillingford, who also represented the Combined Islands, lived in the same Scarborough apartment building for several years with ex-Jamaica and West Indies fast bowler Tom Dewdney, who was stunned by his death.
“I am totally shocked,” was Dewdney’s response when Share informed him of Shillingford’s death. “I did not even know that he was sick…We used to get together and reminisce about the game and old times over a few drinks in my apartment. Grayson was knowledgeable about the game and he was a very decent person.”
Dewdney and Shillingford traveled together to Jamaica in 1996 for the West Indies Cricket Board commemorative banquet to honour the players who had represented the region in Test cricket.
International Cricket Council (ICC) Americas Region manager, Martin Vieira, also played with Shillingford at Victoria Park.
“The thing that stood out about Grayson was that he was always willing to help the young players,” said Vieira. “He was obviously very talented and he could always be called upon to work with the club’s youths.”
Former teammate Des Gouveia concurred.
“Grayson was good with the kids and he spent a lot of time with the juniors,” Gouveia said.
A graduate of Dominica Grammar School, Shillingford was introduced to cricket by his cousin Irvine Shillingford in 1967 who asked him to bowl on the concrete wicket they constructed at Grayson’s Macoucherie Estate home.
“Grayson bowled leg breaks and I encouraged him to bowl fast to get me out,” recalled Irvine, a gifted right-handed batsman who played four Tests for the West Indies. “We practiced everyday.”
Shillingford, who was also a useful lower order left-handed batsman, made his first appearance for Dominica in 1967 before his surprise West Indies selection two years later.
“The West Indies dropped Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Lester King and Richard Edwards after disappointing tours to Australia and New Zealand in 1968-69 and were in the process of rebuilding during a difficult period,” recounted West Indies cricket journalist, Tony Cozier. “Grayson had a long and bounding run and he was a bit sharp with a good outswinger. He was also full of fun and always looking for a good joke.”
Shillingford yorked former England wicketkeeper/batsman Alan Knott for his first Test wicket and ended the series as the leading West Indies wicket-taker with 36 (av. 18.58) despite a torn muscle that sidelined him for a month during the tour.
One of the highlights of the tour was when the Queen, accompanied by Prince Philip and Prince Charles, met the officials and players of both teams who were presented to her in front of the pavilion after lunch in Shillingford’s first Test.
The photo was one of his few prized possessions.
“Grayson never made a big fuss of what he did before coming to Canada,” said Ned Blair who worked with Shillingford at Steelcase Canada in Markham for several years. “While on a visit to the factory one day, the president of Steelcase North America was introduced to Grayson and he was blown away when he learned that one of the company’s employees played international cricket and when Grayson produced a West Indies team picture with him shaking the Queen’s hand.”
Blair said he spoke with Shillingford, who left Steelcase in 2004 and returned to Dominica with a fishing boat to enjoy his retirement, by phone two days before his death.
In the second Test of India’s 1971 tour to the Caribbean at the Queen’s Park Oval, Shillingford bowled opener Ashok Mankad, who died in August 2008, in the visitors first innings before the late T & T off-spinner Jack Noreiga proceeded to become the first and only West Indian to take nine wickets in a Test innings.
As Noreiga led the team off the field after his record-breaking performance, Shillingford turned to him and said, “Don’t get no horrors Jack, but we walking in together because we wrecked them.”
In the next contest at Bourda, Sobers – fielding at second slip – dropped Sunil Gavaskar, playing in his second Test, off Shillingford when the batsman was on six. Gavaskar, who was let off again at 37, went on to register the first of his 34 Test centuries.
Shillingford claimed Gavaskar’s wicket a month later when he bowled the opener for 12 in the second innings of the Indians’ drawn contest against the Windward Islands in Dominica.
He played his last Test in 1972 against New Zealand in Barbados, finishing with 15 wickets (35.80). Overall, he took 217 wickets (av. 26.54) in 81 first-class matches.
A supporter of the 40-year-old Commonwealth of Dominica Ontario Association and a Canadian team coach at the International Cricket Conference Trophy tournament in England in 1986, Shillingford spent almost seven months last year in the GTA undergoing treatment before his son, Grayson Jr., took him back home about six weeks ago.
“I will remember my dad as a really great person who treated everyone with respect and dignity,” said the younger Shillingford, a York Regional police officer and former Canadian Football League (CFL) wide receiver who was on the National Football League (NFL) Seattle Seahawks practice roster in 1996-97. “I never met anyone who had anything negative to say about him.”
Shillingford, who captained Dominica in the Windward Islands tournament in 1978 and played for Thornaby in England’s Yorkshire league the following year, was awarded Dominica’s second highest national honour – the Sisserou – during celebrations to mark the island’s 31st independence anniversary last November.
In addition to Grayson Jr. who celebrated his 35th birthday last Christmas Day, Shillingford – who was never married – is survived by daughters Sasha, who lives in Virginia; Nadine, who lives in Houston; and Nicaise, who makes her home in Whitby.