Coming In From The Cold
It's been at least five years since our last face-to-face with West Indies and Jamaican batting star Marlon Samuels. During that time he's gone from fallen hero to one to watch once more. His return to the crease has not been without controversy. His latest clash in Australia led to Australia opener David Warner demanding that he "control himself" better on the field. As if that weren't bad enough, Samuels was left with a suspected broken eye socket.
SO takes to the field...
It's futile feigning indifference to the Samuels charm: "You're late!" he states, pointing at his watch in mock amusement. The shoe is squarely on the other foot — the student is reprimanding the teacher and enjoying every moment.
It takes a little time to move from the lobby of the Spanish Court Hotel. Samuels is stopped several times by adoring cricket fans and women flashing smiles and nods of approval. Samuels' tall, elegant bearing is hard to miss. Seemingly unfazed by the many second looks, Samuels ushers us up to his suite.
It doesn't take long to realise that several things have remained constant in the cricketer's life: his unwavering passion for cricket and his obsession with clothes, shoes, colognes and designer frames.
After a fun shoot — post-cricket Samuels plans to dabble in the billion-dollar industry of fashion — we head down to the restaurant and settle comfortably into the plush leather chairs for the real catch up.
Cutting straight to the chase, Samuels is a tad taken aback when we refer to his years in exile as those "awful years". "I don't see them as negative, but more as years of learning," he interjects. "The two years that I spent out of the game allowed me time to reflect on the troubled moments I have had."
Swirling his glass of Merlot, ahead of sipping, Samuels becomes pensive as he harks back to his two-year ban. "At no point," he stresses, "did I think that my career was over. I knew I was not guilty." Indeed, preparing for the return required a catharsis of sorts. Samuels removed himself from the limelight. "I was here in Jamaica where I spent the first year soul-searching, bonding with my family: my mom Daphney Lunan, dad Phillip Samuels, my brothers, sisters and my princess, now six years old, D'journa Dior. (His son Dimitry Dre Samuels, now two, was born during the soul-searching years). Norbrook was my home. I was off the party scene: no partying, drinking, smoking — no bad behaviour. It was time for deep introspection. Outside of my immediate family circle was my mentor Donald McNaughton, who would listen to my plans and help me to strategise." There was, too, a police officer, whose name Samuels declines to reveal but whose advent into his life the cricketer describes as fortuitous. "I felt he needed to be there because he was a source of advice, he was brilliant, he was different and served a purpose. He was doing his work without 'the gun battle'. He always told me to protect my brand and my image." This naturally prompted the question of brand Marlon Samuels. " Yes, there was, and still is, a brand to protect... it was also a brand people knew and wanted more of, regardless of what had happened. It was just about me putting myself out there again."
Putting himself out there again would require yet another year of soul-searching, plus a yoga mat! "I was disciplined in keeping my weight and diet in check. I went to the gym in the mornings, followed by some batting. I took classes at Yoga Angels at Villa Ronai. I went initially out of curiosity, finding the whole thing completely alien. It took me some time to get into. I mean, I was fit, but the whole yoga stretching moved my exercise regime to a whole different level. I can say that this coupled with meditation formed the final part of my introspection. I was once again ready to face the bowler."
The return, in Samuels' own words, came without the glare (of the camera) and was effortless: " I was invited to Cricket World Cup but declined. I didn't think that I was 100 per cent ready. I was scoring a lot of runs, but I needed to prove to the local fraternity who had closed the book on me. I turned down US$300K."
"Three months before my return, Chris Gayle had organised a match in St Elizabeth and I knew I could play that match, so I went and played. We were just friends playing.
"It felt strange crossing the rope, but once I was on the other side it all came back to me. Words cannot explain how I felt! The fanfare, the feedback and the fans, who, up until 10:00 pm that night were still asking for autographs. I was now looking forward to the comeback and was waiting for the announcement that I could play cricket again."
There'd be conditions — Samuels wanted the captaincy of the club. He got it! "I knew I could handle it, because I came back a more responsible person and player."
The heady, almost meteoric, ascent of Samuels is the stuff of Greek mythology — at the age of 15, he became the youngest player in the history of Jamaican cricket to play for the nation. He was, however, dropped as quickly as he was called. At the age of 19, he played his first match for the West Indies against Pakistan followed by an international tour of Australia — he was the replacement for Shivnarine Chanderpaul who was injured at the time — and ended the series with the most runs. His next stop was India, where he'd make his first international century. The subsequent events would have brought lesser mortals to their knees. Not so Samuels, who puts it all down to life's lessons...
On his drop at the age of 15 - I was dropped after being told I wasn't ready. I don't believe one game was enough at the time to prove my worth and readiness.
On being dropped post-India...
The opportunity wasn't there after that. I was on the team, but wasn't playing. It was like a waiting game for me. I was still grateful, though, as I was part of an international team, with the opportunity to play. Some players were dropped after one or two games, never to return.
Honestly, I wasn't happy just being there on the team. I wanted more, to play! And so I knew I would have to stand out. It never got to the place where I thought I would give up... I knew what I was capable of and it didn't matter when I got the opportunity, as I would make the most of it. Cricket is one of those sports with more longevity."
Indeed, the gods, it would appear, have smiled on their protégé once more.
After blindness, light!
Samuels ended up isolated in a hotel room with swelling and bruising around his eye after edging a ball from Lasith Malinga through the grille of his helmet into his face, during a game in the Australian Big Bash Twenty20 tournament. "It was a very difficult time," he recalls. "I had no vision in the right eye. Even when I physically opened the right eye there was no vision there. Whenever I closed my left eye it was total darkness. I'm accustomed to having both eyes functioning, so it was just hard. I had to sit upright all day and night for two weeks, as I couldn't lie on my back with this specific injury.
"It took my own brush with blindness to discover that the West Indies had a blind cricket team... I was in the team to play in Australia, and so if I was out with an injury I'd still get my fee. That fee I donated to the blind cricket team."
Sight would return to his right eye some three weeks later. "I never gave serious thought to the idea that my career could end there. I still had a lot to do: work to be done, people to help... It couldn't end like that for me!"
Far from it! Marlon Samuels picks up his bat once more in a few weeks. SO looks forward to the next innings.
— As told to Novia McDonald-Whyte