Remembering Esward Thomas
By Sham AliShort. Simple. Stoutly and focused, with a quiet demeanor. Muscular yet unbelievably agile. Esward “Cobla” Thomas was too many cricketers rolled up into one. The man who had played some tough innings over time and stroked his way to a few centuries in the Metropolitan Cricket League made his way to the “crease” for one last time in a battle for his life. Individuals like him often sit under the sycamore tree, fretting over the consequences or oscillating over whether he really wished he had played for his beloved Jamaica or perhaps felt relief that he never faced the fire at the national level or the life-ending ones like he faced a week ago. It was an inning which he didn’t anticipate so early in his life even though he had a warning a few years ago. Cobla fought to the end until he ran out of breath and partners, except for the 12th man.
Born in Clarendon in 1954, he made his debut as a teenager for his beloved St. Catherine Cricket Club. As much as cricket was his passion, he was indeed an excellent footballer but cricket took the priority in his choice as his pride and joy. In New York, he found Lucas CC as his first home and batted them into Division 1 contention with three centuries gliding off his willow. He moved on to Mid Island CC where he was the rock in the middle order, and later he resorted to playing masters with his friend Hutchinson for Bleachers CC. His customary sweater always looked oversized, reminiscent of the old stalwarts of yesteryears, but his bat was intact, it leaked runs, although it appeared as if it had gone through the oil mill a few times with a few layers of tape.
Cobla was one of those measured hard-core cricketers who held firm to tested methods. He looked like a lion in distress whenever he got out, fretting aloud “cho” and “blouse and skirt” — a proud Jamaican warrior competitor in heart and soul who could not wait for the next encounter. On the field, he threw himself around as if he was in water constantly brushing and dusting himself off — on occasion, more than one voice from the bewildered crowd would echo, “wait, a Cobla that?’
Those of us who knew him over the years never expected anything different from him as he was a team-man who played the game hard and battled to the end. One of the most stubborn middle-order batsmen in the Metropolitan League in the 1980’s, and 90’s – he was consistent and disciplined. He was tough but never paraded his toughness. It emerged in his many innings in the Metropolitan Cricket League, if seldom a crowd-pleaser; except for once when the seagulls cheered a blistering cover-drive over at Breezy Point. He was good enough on that day to amass a century and through it all he remained unobtrusive.
Over the years, we have had many battles on the cricket field and Cobla responded with the grit and determination that gives the game its glory. But, this was the toughest match of them all that awaited him and he was at the vanguard. When I visited him in the hospital, I knew what to expect, but when it is your friend for over two decades it is harder to accept. His daughter and sister-in law were in his company. I walked into his room and greeted him the way I always did whenever we met at the cricket ground, “what’s up boss?” At the ground though, that greeting would always follow a hand shake and a hug and the most pleasant of conversation. He would immediately inquire of my brother, Ashmul Ali, whom he referred to as his Brother. They were good friends – two class cricketers; they travelled together every Saturday over the years when they represented that formidable Metropolitan League Team in the 1980’s and 90’s.
He was a crafty cricketer who competed in the true spirit of the game, a gentleman, and most of all he was a genuine friend. As ever where many cricketers falter in the finer qualities of life Cobla runs deep. One would gather from his warm concern about others and their family that family and friendship were essential to his life and his values. More notably, you sense he was a man who held his eternal love for his family in the deep recesses of his heart.
Cobla was playful with that inimitable boyish chuckle; if you did not notice him coming he would tap you on one side and move to the other. But on this day, my greeting was received with a turn of his head and a slight nod. He attempted to raise his hand to shake mine but I had to help him to it. In a lighter word I said, “you are taking a water break”, he tried to smile but couldn’t since he was “cared” for in many ways, but gave another nod. And like all die-hard cricketers we often referenced the world on cricket anecdote and lingo, so I said to him, “this is a tough inning Boss, you have to keep fighting. When I come back to see you we will have a ginger beer for Christmas.”
I left his company as there were a few other things to do that we “deem important.” And for so many of us, in our travels we do not realize that we have become so oblivious to how this material world has engulfed our daily lives, that a moment for a friend or reflection on the meaning of life seemed like a lifetime of burden. I left knowing that the tough, muscular Cobla was showing some signs of fragility and at Cosmos CC’s 30th Anniversary celebration last Saturday and with many members of the New York Region Cricket Fraternity present, Nathan Henderson prayed for our dear friend and colleague hoping that he would pull through.
Cricketers like all sportsmen come from the same society as everyone else and among cricketers are the decent, the hard-working, the gentle and the strong. Cobla walked with a slight tilt to one side as though one leg was a millimeter shorter than the other, but it wasn’t. It was his swagger of the Cobla we knew. When I saw him again, strong was not one of those words. He was having tremendous difficulty batting on five day old pitch that had a few cracks opened up. Cobla looked tired for the first time since I knew him, his timing was off, but he was still fighting, fighting a tough fight nonetheless. I planned to return later hoping to see him improved. I did return but the curtain was pulled. I refused to acknowledge the obvious. I asked the head nurse how he was doing. She didn’t answer but said come and took me into his room. He was neatly draped “in his whites” up to his shoulders, pads off, gear bag in the club house.
His ability to counter the barrage of pace attack on the cricket field over the last three decades had waned. He was so close to achieving what would surely have been an impregnable position as his dear wife and family and his colleagues in the cricket community who were backing him. That intractable Cobla who once stood poised in the traditional vertical stance parallel to the popping crease was in an uncertain circumstance. The Lord, the 12th man, had delivered a beauty, a well flighted googly that hit the spot but did not get up; Cobla played forward, lost his timing, that millimeter must have come into play, and he was outdone by a japer.
He didn’t make it. The nurse said, “he was so young.” We prayed and left him for the last time. Esward “Cobla” Thomas was at peace with his Lord, perhaps in his chair smiling. Those who knew “Cobla” knows that he is still fretting, how could the 12th man get to bowl and deceived him with such a japer, and thinking how he could have taken that one out of the cricket ground, if he had another chance. And if only he could tell his colleagues how to prepare for such a beauty, he would, but he was satisfied that he had given it his all. He had played a determined inning but for the last session, in the last over before the close of play on the fifth and final day. The Lord delivered a timely beauty and his call came, ‘“when the road is call up yonder, I’ll be there” and he went joyfully with that unmistakable swagger of his. And so it is, in the inevitability of life, it was a soft horizontal line that ultimately determined his last stance. The Metropolitan Cricket League and the Cricket community have lost a gentleman, a champion cricketer at his best and a great friend — retired on 59.
NAME HOW OUT RUNS 4 6 STRIKE RATE
E. THOMAS RETIRED 59 1 1 100.0