Richard Austin: the fallen West Indies star

The last time I saw Richard Austin, he was living in a bush. Location, location, location, the estate agents say, and this was a well-positioned bush, to be sure, in the car park opposite the Hilton hotel in New Kingston. The Hilton hotel, you see, is where international cricket teams stay when they are in Jamaica – England are staying there right now – and Austin had located on the principle that someone might just remember him and give him some money to feed his habit.

He’s moved now – at least when you do not own a home, selling up is not a problem – and he inhabits the Cross Roads area of Kingston in a triangle between Tastee, the patty store, the Texaco garage and Union Square, sleeping rough, begging and, when he is flush, getting high. He is high a lot of the time, says the man who runs the garage where Austin hangs out, but people are still fond of him and enjoy his company, unless he’s so high that he starts talking crazy.

Austin was not a great cricketer, but people in Kingston remember him as a magnificent all-round sportsman. He played two Test matches for West Indies against the Australia team captained by Bobby Simpson in 1978 and then played three ‘Tests’ during Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, bowling off spin and hitting the ball hard. He was a dual international, representing Jamaica at cricket and football, and was, by all accounts, a brilliant table tennis player.

Things began to go wrong when he signed to play for the West Indian rebels in South Africa in 1983. Whereas English cricketers who took the apartheid rand were banned for a brief period of time, then quickly rehabilitated and often rewarded with high office, the West Indian cricketers were banned for life and ostracised from their communities. Many, such as Lawrence Rowe and Everton Mattis, the Jamaicans, left their country, fleeing shadows, but those who stayed had it hard.

Austin, 54, stayed, as did Herbert Chang, another Jamaican rebel, who is also living rough in an area of Kingston called Greenwich Town. Elsewhere, David Murray, the Barbadian wicket-keeper, and Bernard Julien, the all-rounder from Trinidad, both of whom toured South Africa, have also struggled through some tough times.

It was an emotive issue and the memory of the choices made then rankles with some. Last week Rowe, one of the greatest stylists that the West Indies has produced, celebrated his 60th birthday in Miami, Florida, and while the Jamaican Minister of Sport sent congratulations, a prominent lawyer here was moved to say: ‘There are certain choices in life that define you and even predestine you to a certain future. You can’t powder people when their behaviour prolonged our agony. Sometimes life doesn’t give you a second chance.’

It has not given Austin much of a second chance. Everyone calls him by his street name now, ‘Danny Germs’ or simply ‘Germs’. It is as if he is a different person, which he is.

It costs about a hundred Jamaican dollars (less than a pound) to buy a lump of crack about the size of a small piece of road grit and it is readily available in Kingston. Smoking it – the usual way is to put the crack and a piece of copper wire down a syringe, heat it up and inhale – produces the strongest hit, but it is also one of the most addictive drugs known to man. ‘Germs’ has been addicted to it, and homeless, for the best part of two decades.

The last time he was clean was for a short time about ten years ago and he began playing again for Kensington and coaching the youngsters. He had the help of a local businessman to get clean then and the manager of the garage says that there is no end of people willing to help now, but ‘Germs’ has to want to help himself first. The drug rehabilitation programme Teen Challenge, originally a charity for Jamaican teenagers but which has expanded because of the size of the problem, will take only addicts who walk through the front door by themselves.

Dinanath Ramnarine is the president and chief executive of the West Indies Players Association and he regrets not being able to do more to help former players who have fallen on hard times. ‘We’re committed to helping former players, but we are constrained by a lack of funding,’ he told me this week. ‘We started a benevolent fund a while back and we’ve educated a number of our younger players as to the dangers of drug abuse, but these things cost money and we are not a wealthy organisation.’

While accepting that individuals must take responsibility for their actions, that Austin has made poor choices and that a number of people have tried to help him, it is strange that a sport that can pay a player a million bucks for three hours’ work cannot do more to help to look after its own. This week, as the Test match involving West Indies and England takes place at Sabina Park, ‘Germs’ will be on the street less than a mile away looking for handouts.

‘Germs’ was not high when Michael Holding and I met him this week and he laughed readily. He spoke warmly of his time in England, playing club cricket for Enfield and Church in the Lancashire League. ‘Give my regards to the Queen when you see her,’ he said in a moment of high comedy. ‘Yeah, give my best to the good lady.’ And he raised back his head and blew a kiss to the sky. Those in the forecourt of the garage fell about laughing.

He is still remembered with affection. As we were talking, a middle-aged man pushed his young daughter over to us to get our autographs. She asked Holding for his and then she asked me and was about to go when her father ushered her in the direction of ‘Germs’. She held out her piece of paper and he signed his autograph in fine, spidery handwriting: Richard Austin.