By Sham Ali
He stepped off his lawn mower from under the blazing sun, and in his own inimitable slow pace, he made his way towards our Cosmos club van loaded with seventeen cricketers as we landed at the iconic River Valley cricket ground. This dark-skinned, hardcore gentleman with the steely physique chiseled over the years by grisly hard work made his way forward to greet us. Trousers a few sizes beyond his willowy frame, adorned with a few rips; and pulled together at the waist with a leather belt overhanging by several inches, tucked into battered long “water” boots that reached almost to his knees.
Morning Chief! “Yes Chief” – that was the signature manner in which The Chief always replied. You had to listen carefully when he spoke, such a soft-spoken, unassuming gentleman with a most peaceful demeanor. His eyes would brighten as sweat poured down his shiny face with craggy grandeur, brimming with enthusiasm at the sight of cricketers. He would reach for the bottom of his dinged shirt to wipe his face; a shirt with only one button that was often misaligned into the wrong hole; one that had hard work written all over it, sleeves hanging and torn, every tear telling its own story, with one shoulder almost completely off. Chief was a man of uncanny, creative fashion, pristine character and uncompromised class.
He would gesture to the corn on the grill, freshly harvested from his own farm of course. He would make his way towards the batting cage. A Batting cage? Yes, a batting cage that he built with his own two hands – and it was a classic by any global standard. It had the two main ingredients: a good concrete pitch with a half matting draped over it; and a bowling machine – which, at the time, was one of the first of its kind in the USA Northeast region. The surrounding fences were beautified with the remnants of life and nature. He would remove the wire hook and lift the gate ever so cautiously so as to not dismantle the ingenious architecture of a mesh and a few pieces of sticks, all held together by wires woven into it. “Chief, it’s like you bring this gate from Jamaica?” The reply: “Yea Sah” – in his signature witty voice coupled with a pleasant smile, the true epitome of a classic West Indian verbal exchange. The sides and top of the batting cage had a unique architectural design with pieces of net, mesh, wood; all tied firmly together, further reinforced with another layer of the same. Like the Chief himself, it stood tall, firm, and strong.
He often walked towards the small shed, fiddling with a huge bunch of keys to unlock the door that housed the bowling machine. He would clear away a few things and attach the plugs to an electrical wire that ran endlessly to some unknown source of electricity. He would put up the stumps. “Get a little practice chief,” he would say, as he made his way back on top of the mower to finish off his curation of the cricket field, and then continuing on to the surrounding area. HE IS PLAYING TODAY, ACTUALLY, HE WAS ALWAYS ON THE TEAM – and named in the PLAYING XI. The smell of fresh cut grass and the crispness of the air down in the Valley was life. True life for cricketers and the two teams playing cricket on the day, deep in the woods and down the Valley in Poughkeepsie. A path made possible by the vision, passion and an undying love for cricket by one man, Denzil ‘The Chief’ Roy Powell.
Now ‘The Chief’ has taken flight – at the ripe age of 87.
He was born in Allison District, Manchester, Jamaica, in February 1936, to parents Gladstone and Susan Powell. He was raised in Bath District and attended Nazareth school and church, also located in the parish of Manchester. After leaving public school, he attended trade school where he learned the art of shoemaking, and opened his first shoe shop in Mandeville, Manchester. He kept the business for several years before migrating to the United States. On his arrival in the U.S., he worked in various jobs before eventually venturing out into his own business, opening a shoe store with a concentration on orthopedic shoe service, a clothing department and a grocery store all within the same commercial complex.
CHIEF BUILDS A CRICKET FIELD!!! As if his accomplishments were not enough – and although he did not play cricket in Jamaica – he began playing in 1976. Chief always said that his family and cricket were his first loves; and his love for the game was fueled by the gentlemanly principle under which the game is played, a principle that he maintained throughout the years. Along with the likes of Granville Haughton and Lloyd Miller, they formed River Valley Cricket Club (RVCC) in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1979. After playing at Marris school ground and encountering issues with permits and not being able to construct a proper wicket, Chief knew that he had to secure a place to construct a permanent cricket field so that the game could be played without the perils endured through the years in order to keep cricket alive in his adopted community in a foreign country. He arranged to purchase a ‘suitable piece of property’. How on earth did he envision that this piece of property was suitable for a cricket field is beyond conception? He worked on the excavation to prepare the landscape and built a permanent home for the River Valley Cricket Club in the Metropolitan Cricket League (MCL) in a place where there was only one road that ran to the top of a hill, leading to somewhere – perhaps to nowhere.
A creative thinker and a true stalwart of the MCL for over five decades, Chief has drawn the curtain on a life decorated by the many that graced his cricket field, and the pride and humility with which he took to embrace and accommodate his guests. His challenge to hold the Club together was at times overwhelming but Chief kept his faith through his struggles as the custodian of his beloved River Valley Cricket Club. He had in his corner a few die-hards – the likes of Dandy, Kharren, the late Riley, and of course Mascelles Bailey, the then president of the MCL, whom made it his duty along with his executive team, Trevor Walfall, Venelda Wallace, Yours truly, and the late Carl Patrick – to assist and ensure that River Valley Cricket Club would continue their reign. The then MCL executives would not have it any other way as a league that had RVCC in its composition over decades modeled an unbelievable atmosphere of genuine friendship, respect and dedication.
Chief’s induction into the United States of America Cricket Hall of Fame in 2011 was a deserving recognition for man who lived among the legends of the game and exemplified righteousness at a place where the purity of the game resided; at the grassroots level. Chief may not have matched the prowess of other “name brand” cricketers or that of the former West Indies Cricketer, Everton Mattis, whom made River Valley Cricket Club his home; however, Chief’s contributions to the game were not merely limited to runs and wickets, but an unmatched exponential dedication of hard work that ran deep in his veins. That dedication was admired and appreciated by everyone whom had the privilege of playing on his field of dreams.
He played the game into his seventies. A tender age where many cricketers could only dream, but this soldier of the soil kept marching on, and that was a remarkable achievement by any measure. His signature stroke was played with minimal footwork employed – that familiar slight push to gully. His chest guard was patented – he invented it himself; a solid piece of thick leather carved perfectly and fitted with a few straps, it protected A HEART OF GOLD. His fielding position on the cricket field was always short mid-on. Whether his team won or lost, he had the same expression of happiness; he epitomized class and the true embodiment of the spirit of recreational cricket in North America – it was not who won or lost, but how the game was played. Some said he bowled off spin, some said he bowled ‘a likkle ting’, despite what some unkind souls may have attached to his ability, he bowled well enough to earn the runner-up in wickets in Division 2 in the 2001 season, with a best of 5 for 26 versus Wanderers and another ‘fifer’, 5 for 11 versus Manchester in 2003. Both fifers were accomplished at RVCC.
The picturesque River Valley cricket ground has a storied past. In the beginning, the drinking water was sourced from the valley – Yep. Seating was on the ground, then tree stumps, then a few benches, then chairs, then a small pavilion – the place continually evolved over time. The wicket was concrete to neutralize the natural moisture in the ground with matting over it. The boundary markers, eighty and ninety yards, were tall sticks, and then a white plastic was mounted on top. Any cricketer worth his salt will forever cherish those days spent at the village cricket ground at River Valley. “Everything in life got its purpose; find its reason in every season,” says Bob Marley. A once desolate place saw a cricket pitch that arose from the depths of mud, water, and overgrown trees, down a hill. A place where friendships were made, men in whites became brethren over the years, and rallied with one love, one heart all under the banner of cricket, all nestled together by one man’s unparalleled desire and fortitude extracted from every fabric of his being. Each season Chief gave the River Valley cricket ground and extended community a reason to be proud as he single-handedly transformed it from nothingness into a place of sheer beauty and magnificence.
Cricketers like all sportsmen come from the same society as everyone else and among cricketers are the decent, the hard-working, the gentle, the strong and the Chief. He ran deep where many flattered to deceive. He never professed to be part of the hierarchy – the fabric – though he would have fitted comfortably, ever so aware of the multiplicative inverse of humankind in its finality. Instead, Chief remained true to his humble beginnings and found comfort among his fellow cricketers in the quiet surroundings down in the Valley. A place where the aroma of roasted corn and jerked chicken filled the air, the crack of leather within and the pounding of dominoes beyond the boundary; life for all in its glory.
And for the many paths, and multitude of acquaintances along the way, the end often paints a familiar ‘picture’ with a common denominator that one’s memory is often savored only by a few. His colleagues will cherish those memories but in a fleeting world where life is often taken for granted, the journey must be cherished as somewhere beyond there is a land that is fairer than day. We may find some strength and comfort in the words of the legend Bob Marley “One love, One heart…; Hear the children Cryin…; Give thanks and praise to the Lord, and I will feel alright. Chief’s passing has left a gaping hole that may never by filled. He was the kind of man who controlled his own destiny, eagle-eyed on what he wanted to achieve. He carved his road with a sculptor’s patience and fashioned the outcome to near perfection. He did so with aplomb since 1936, and throughout that hyphenated period of his life.
What resides in the deep recesses of one’s mind may be volumes of untold stories. There is something mystical about his work, as if an attempt was made to draw a line under all that had gone before, but that another force remained to deny it. We shall never know, but behind that gracious manner hid inner steel; he has removed the mask and put a clever and creative mind to rest. For this champion of the cricket world, a man of few words, he finally whispered a few only to himself on that inexplicably lonesome day of September 10, 2023, bringing an end to an illustrious journey. Chief will be sorely missed. The wisdom, the kindness, the simplicity, the lack of ego, the high standards, the hard but fair marking, the unparalleled resolve, the shared love of so many things that stretch hearts and minds – above all the enduring friendship. His vision ensured that his fame was less dimmed in old age than that of his peers, some of whom without such a focus, have faded from memory. Saddened by his passing, Denzil ‘the Chief’ Roy Powell is on a peaceful journey. By being so spiritually aware of what lies beyond the physical world, he has become an irresistible conscience for those left behind as he makes his way to join his fellow MCL stalwarts, Derrick Scott, Clement ‘Busta‘ Lawrence, Roy Sweeney, Hugh Pitter, Lloyd Scott, Carl Patrick and many others. Hail to “The Chief” of River Valley Cricket. May his soul rest in eternal peace. Farewell to a cricketer! Farewell to a true servant of cricket.