How "Big Jim" Cornwall made it to the big time
The day Virat Kohli got to North Sound, Antigua in July 2016, he went around the stadium asking for a particular local bowler - six-foot-five-inch, 308-pound offspinner Rahkeem Cornwall.
"Is Rahkeem available to bowl a few overs to me during nets?" Kohli was heard to enquire, according to former West Indies cricketer and Cornwall's mentor Kenny Benjamin.
Cornwall, then 23, had puzzled Kohli with his spin and bounce during a three-day tour match between the WICB President's XI and India in St Kitts the previous week. Kohli took several balls on his gloves and pads before a low-flying one caught him in front. Cornwall went on to pick up five wickets in the innings.
Perfectionist that he is, Kohli wanted to spend time working through Cornwall's bowling before the Tests, and the big offspinner spent hours bowling to Kohli before that series. Cornwall remembers thinking, "Man, now I understand why he is so good. He works on every little kink he comes across." It was practice and had no consequences, but if you ask Cornwall, it might as well have been the biggest cricketing moment of his life.
"Kohli is a quality player, so I was thinking I had to be at the top of my game 100% of the time, to try and be competitive all the time," Cornwall recollected in early September this year, at the tail-end of India's tour to the West Indies.
Trainers and coaches were confident Cornwall would make his Test debut back in 2016. It was such an easy decision, Benjamin said. But it would take another three years for that to happen. Three years that involved dealing with weight issues, low self-esteem and rejection after rejection.
The first thing you notice about Cornwall is his size. People around him call him Big Jim, Mountain, Jimbo and Big Man. At 6'5" and 140kg, he is the heaviest recorded international cricketer, overtaking the 1920s Australian captain, Warwick Armstrong, who weighed 139kg.
"I love the way the ball falls out of my hand," Cornwall says and smiles. For a person who is shy - sometimes painfully so - his eyes light up when he talks about spin bowling.
At age seven, he would accompany his uncle, Wilden, who was then a professional cricketer, to the club every day. "He would spend a lot of time with me and a couple of other youngsters, even during the holidays," Benjamin says. "He is always on the cricket field. Always."
After primary school, Cornwall decided to take time off and work as an electrician part-time. But he was happiest when he was on a cricket field. He made it into the Liberta Black Hawks club's senior team at age ten, one of the youngest to do so.
Cornwall can't imagine life without spin bowling now, but he did not set out to be a spinner, not until about seven years ago.
"He always was a batsman. So Rahkeem was a batting allrounder. He started batting, really, first," Wilden said. He even used to keep wicket for the club teams. Though he bowled spin in nets and during practice sessions, that was just something he did on the side.
His physical transformation came in handy. At 12 he was the shortest player in the side, around 5'5". Benjamin would poke fun at him: "You're half the size of everyone else on the team." At 13 he was the tallest, having shot up more than a foot in a few months' time, according to both Benjamin and Wilden. He was suddenly able to use his height to good advantage in his bowling.
In 2012, Kent arrived in Antigua for their pre-season warm-up games. Their coach, Jimmy Adams, invited Liberta to play a few matches against them. Cornwall had bowled spin to his club team-mates and they hated playing him; he was like a puzzle no batsman on the island could solve, Wilden, who was then head coach of Liberta, says.
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Cornwall duly foxed the Kent players as well. Sam Billings and Robert Key were spellbound as they watched him rap the pads of their batsmen through the first day in one game. At the beginning of day two, Adams called a special meeting with his team to discuss their plans for tackling Cornwall.
Key was so impressed with the teenager, he suggested he come to the UK to begin intensive training there. But Cornwall, who had never left the islands, was too overwhelmed by the idea. He stayed put. He would train hard where he was, he decided.
He began to put in the hard yards, building up his ability to bowl and bowl, till he could send down 30-40 overs a day, pitching hundreds of balls in the same area.
Even before Kohli came looking for him, he began to be pegged as the next big spin bowler out of the Caribbean.
Cornwall is currently under the guidance of a special team (including a nutritionist, strength-and-conditioning trainer, and coach) appointed by Cricket West Indies to work on his fitness. Jimmy Adams, now looking at Cornwall from his position as director of cricket for the WICB, says that the team of specialists that has been working with him over the past two years has been able to help him prepare for international cricket. "Given the challenges faced, the focus has been a holistic one, which has incorporated physical, psychological and lifestyle support."
When we spoke, Cornwall said that the past few weeks he had been training with Ronald Rogers, a trainer from Trinidad. "I am trying to get as fit as possible. Basically, more cardio and physical sessions."
Given his large frame, Cornwall is already surprisingly agile on the field, making tough catches look simple at slip and gully. In his debut Test, in Jamaica, he caught both of India's openers, KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal, at slip. "I don't think many people in the Caribbean region can catch and field like him," Wilden says. "It wasn't a surprise to me that he was going to field at first slip [in Kingston]. The catches he took were nothing. He'd catch 100 catches like that a day."
Cornwall's career got a boost after the five-wicket haul against India in 2016. He was picked by the St Lucia Stars in the Caribbean Premier League in 2017, and though he only took four wickets in seven games, he also made 142 runs at a strike rate of over 143. In the regional Super50 tournament in 2018-19, he was the leading wicket-taker for Leeward Islands, with 14 wickets in eight matches, and also their second highest run scorer. He was the best bowler in the last Regional 4-Day tournament, as well, with 54 wickets in nine matches at an average of 17.68.
The months leading up to his Test debut were some of the hardest he had to deal with. The call he had been waiting years for didn't seem to come. And it was starting to take a toll on him. He even thought about giving up the game. During a regional match in Trinidad earlier this year, he looked so dejected, Wilden says, that he had to pull him aside for about 45 minutes to talk to him.
"One of the things that really beat up on him and shattered his confidence was when Courtney Browne, the chairman of selectors, claimed in no uncertain terms a few months ago that [Cornwall] will not play for the West Indies," Wilden says. "He said he will not play for the West Indies, and they will not pick him even for the A team. And I thought that was really depressing. That gets me, as a person, really angry.
"West Indies keep losing and he keeps performing - they cannot overlook him. Society pressure will come into play. I pointed all of this out to him. So I kept telling him to continue performing, because if you get overlooked and you keep performing, you will make it, no matter how hard it is and how much time it takes," he says.
"We all said to him, 'Look, what is yours, no one else can get, yeah? If it is your destiny to play for the West Indies, no one can stop that,'" Benjamin says. "During all of those years, he never lost interest in playing cricket."
Cornwall snapped out of his funk and handled the situation with incredible grace and patience, his coaches say.
"I just tried to focus on the positives and in terms of practice, going to the gym and keeping myself occupied rather than sitting and thinking about it, so eventually when the time comes I will be ready for it."
He was doing everything he could to stand out. And in August, finally, his time came.
The morning of the second Test against India in Jamaica, Cornwall was told he was going to make his Test debut for West Indies.
He immediately texted Wilden and Benjamin. "I made the team, I am playing today."
"You're one step closer, keep your head high," Benjamin wrote back.
While Cornwall had waited long for the opportunity, it almost felt unreal when the day finally arrived. "Do they actually want me to play today?" he remembered thinking.
His first Test wicket came soon enough - and it was arguably India's best player of spin, Cheteshwar Pujara. The ball was short of a length, skidding on outside off and getting big on the batsman as he tried to cut it.
There was a small smile playing on Cornwall's face, but he looked calm. Like he was there for a reason. Like this was no big deal. He bowled long spells, 41 overs in all in that first innings, and another 23 as India hustled towards a declaration in the second.
"Rahkeem is very, very [consistent], he forms good clusters and he keeps bowling those areas, keeps bowling those areas,"Agarwal said at the end of the first day. "I thought it wasn't very easy to score off him."
He looked like he belonged, Kemar Roach said at the end of the Test match. "I thought he did a fantastic job holding one end, creating some pressure, and allowed the guys on the other end to get the wickets."
Growing up, Cornwall had one dream: to play for West Indies, to bowl against the best batsmen, and to bat against the best bowlers.
At long last, all of those dreams seem to be coming true.