By Sham Ali (Cosmos Cricket Club)
With bated breath we waited after we heard the news that “Slugger” had taken ill. Instinctively, we are burdened with that feeling of breathless anticipation as we silently ask in an impassioned appeal to the Almighty that he would ‘stroke the winning run’ like he has done on so many occasions, one last time. Oh, how we hoped, for this one last time. The man who we wished would just shut-up at times; we wanted to hear him now. It was not to be. This is the one we lost. Wayne Bernhardt Stuger is gone. Heads fall in open palms in a revealing moment of cherished memories, and a silent prayer to the Almighty that man has not lost faith in God, for his soul to find a peaceful place. But for that fleeting moment the feeling of helplessness ultimately revealed the inevitability of life’s frailty.
It was just last September we were sitting on the bleaches at Idlewild after the game doing what we do best “shooting the breeze trying to recreate the world” and here we are now, mourning his departure from this world. The New York Cricket community has lost a legend. Wayne ‘the Slugger’ Stuger. A larger-than-life, pragmatic, opinionated, lively personality has died at the age of 74. He migrated from Plaisance on the East Coast of Demerara, Guyana to New York in the early sixties where he lived and worked as an architect.
Wayne Stuger graced the New York cricket scene as a cricketer with a sort of pretentious ‘playboyishness’ about him. He had class, he had style, and oh, he had character. He wore his cricket pants a little higher than most and kept pulling on it habitually. The upper buttons on his shirt were never in use, but the prominent feature of Wayne Stuger was the RED HANDKERCHIEF which he religiously tied around his neck. It was part of his ‘uniform’ and his signature style. It may have had the look of a rebel of sort, but that was quite contrary to his warm, pleasant, sociable personality.
He was an opening batsman who took great pride in his bats. Preparing them the old fashioned way; strip it clean, sand and oil, and well knocked-in. He proudly presented it at the park for all to see followed with a few superlatives of kind. Of course, it suited him perfectly- it was heavy, nameless, and thick with enough wood on it to start a fire, if needed. As batsman of pure belligerence, an absolute ball-beater with a short back-lift and a ‘wicked’ swing through the arc, did start a few ‘fires’ , and never shy away from challenges like he did with Guyana paceman Kevin Darlington one day at Idlewild. He took one of Darlington’s faster balls over the mid-wicket boundary, over the bleachers, over the trees, and onto the road. To which Stuger motioned to Darlington “have respect for your elders.” Well Darlington did show respect, if not, his fast bowlers’ instinct would have taken over with a vicious bouncer, and perhaps we would have been mourning Stuger on that day.
Stuger was a gentle giant in his own right whose cricket career would span almost six decades from the early seventies. Perhaps his crowning glory came in 1979 when he made his debut for the USA national team in the inaugural International Cricket Council Trophy tournament in England on May 22 and June 21 between 15 teams. His 48 runs against Sri Lanka at Northampton Saints Cricket Club Ground, and 37 runs against Wales at Grange Road, Olton were quite notable, and enough to get his team into the ranks on the points table. The USA was tied on points for the top two slots with Sri Lanka and Wales but failed to qualify for the semi finals based on net run rate. It was a defining achievement for Stuger and one that made him proud, especially to see his picture posted on a half page in the Wisden cricket magazine. He proudly brought the magazine to the park for the boys to see him with his open shirt button and his RED handkerchief prominent around his neck.
Unfortunately, the level of disconnect within the leagues in the New York Cricket Region over the years has left a huge hole whenever there is the need of a historical/statistical perspective on the game and its participants, much of it is left to conjecture. And while many will engage and debate on who is/was the best batsman in these parts, Stuger will rank among the top five batsmen to have scored the most centuries in New York cricket. Those who were fortunate enough to absorb the spectacle of fifteen cricket games being played every Saturday and Sunday at Van Courtland Park in the New York Cricket League in the Bronx, from the sixties to the turn of the century, would have seen him in full-cry.
He appeared oblivious of the challenge to find a balance between the extremes of aggression and the uncertainty of it, fearlessness and a rapid accumulation of runs was his primary purpose – a leather-hunter from the old school with a present day T20 temperament. The construction of his innings may fall short of the classical flair; it was a distance of him being technically sound or aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, but a batsman on an overdose of adrenalin. He was imperious in the arc between mid-off and mid-wicket where he accumulated almost ninety percent of his runs, and it weighed heavily on his opponents. He practically ‘owned’ the place – a coveted piece of real estate when he is in his zone.
A defining inning away from his comfort at Van Courtland Park was his 99 runs for Demerara v Berbice in an inter-county match at Ferry Point Park. It remained the most explosive inning by any batsman in that encounter over the years. It rained sixes on that day. The NYC parks clean-up crew must have thought to themselves that a tornado had passed through with all the broken tree limbs. Stuger was that kind of a batsman. The forward defensive stroke was used only for him to catch his breath, and even that was played with a punch. As a fielder, he also owned an area of about two square yards which he seldom stepped out of; a terrible fielder – I can only imagine how he would admonish of me if only he could read this line, but he was chap who can take a taunt.
Stuger had a decorated career with Diplomats cricket club and later with Cosmos cricket club. Those who saw him as a cricketer would be happy to know that he was equally if not better as a Table Tennis player. He participated in TT competition during the winter months. He took his racket with him whilst on tour. I saw Stuger and Keith Lawrence silenced two European TT players at Breezes in Jamaica in a highly competitive match-up. In his golden years he participated in the New York Masters completion for Everest and Bleachers. Few, very few cricketers in New York can bear the title of a legend. Wayne “the Slugger” Stuger was undoubtedly one of them; that was a fitting tribute to him by New York Masters President Austin Hutchinson and Shadi Khan.
Stuger was a star on tour to Jamaica in the Masters tournament in 2009. The ball-beater became a singer. We stayed at Breezes and the band was playing one evening blasting all the jump-up Reggae and Calypso music with the boys enjoying themselves. Stuger got the vibes and wanted to sing. He urged me I asked the band for him to do so, and they willingly agreed. In my mind, I thought Stuger would sing another popular reggae or so, the man took the stage, pull his pants up. The announcer introduced him as ‘Big Wayne’. With microphone in hand, ‘Big Wayne’ swaying from left to right burst out an original Sam Cooke “Cupid”, draw back your bow, And let your arrow go. Straight to my lover’s heart for me, for me. Cupid, please hear my cry. And let your arrow fly. Straight to my lover’s heart for me”. We went from 100mph to 5mph in one note. We almost fell off our seats. He lighted up the crowd to a resounding applause in the end. He nailed that tune! What-a-guy! He came back and said “I can go and sing another one” to which I reply ‘no slugger, that’s it you are done. We will miss him, a good friend, and good company.
In the finality, many have lost the true meaning and value of the hyphenated space between the beginning and the end. The true and only purpose and pleasure in playing the game is your ability to enjoy it and your colleagues, the opportunity to give opportunities, and the warm priceless camaraderie that comes along the way. No championship is worthy of it, or the deep desire to achieve it, and lose your soul in the process. Stuger, knew his boundaries, he knew that this was only a game. Oh, how we, at times hoped that he would just shut-up and be quiet as he held court. It was a testament of his presence at the cricket field and he basks in the glory of company after the match, and only willing to turn the lights off for the birds to sleep.
Consequently, if only we were able keep the glory days rolling we undoubtedly would, but as cricketers, we often battle the difficulty to write our last act or choreograph our departures after decades on the field. It is that invisible potion of ‘cricket tonic’ that runs through our veins and torment our minds into an indiscernible sense of addictiveness. If ever we can muster the gumption, it is usually with a daunting unwillingness to pencil a period in a poignant moment to end a long cherished life-lesson on the cricket field. But Stuger was one of those old school cricketers who refused to acknowledge the inevitable, that his time on the cricket field would have to end sometime. He had charisma and a Lions heart for the game, even though; there were silent signals within his battered frame, but sported a facial expression of courage and determination. The needle flickering on near empty to indicate that the fuel in the tank was running low, but he kept playing more on desire and love for the game than that unstoppable passion he once had in his glory days. He played much to his hearts’ contentment until September 2020 and the lime after the game ended when the cool breeze of fall reminded us that our ‘old-bones’ chill faster these days. We shook hands and he said to me ‘you good’ it was his generosity to indicate if I needed a ride home. I replied, ‘I’m good’ he then said ‘I have a new bat you know, you gon see it next year.’ Those were his last of his parting words. If only he knew what was in store for next year. No restoring of his ebullience. He played his last inning.
Gone is that familiar glowing look on Stuger’s face, all decked out in his whites, red handkerchief around his neck, and ready for battle as he hurriedly make his way to the cricket ground. Passing a few other cricket fields in his sight and some over the hills and highways in his way. His memory quietly transcends into a new world and searches through the billions of cells in him to find, in a nanosecond, his exact performance at that field, and the priceless joy of relating it. The man who made the red-leather-sing as it sailed over the boundary has been silenced. His well-oiled willow has now been shaped-into-a-box-of-sorts, linseed oil is replaced with coats of varnish, and a rubber handle for one is replaced by six glittering handles for six to carry him, leaving his colleagues to ponder life’s true meaning. A new bat for next season eh bai?
Wayne Bernhardt ‘the Slugger‘ Stuger out on 74. He is survived by his beautiful family – his wife, daughter, and son. A thunderous personality and a gentle giant among cricketers have been laid to rest. “Slugger”, you will be missed! Rest in peace, my friend. Rest in peace.
A Cosmos tribute to our friend and colleague Wayne Bernhardt Stuger. Our sincere condolences to his family.