West Indies Woebegone

In just under three weeks the Australian cricket team, as part of the international game’s now whirligig schedule, begins another tour of West Indies.  A few years ago I was fond of saying that anyone who thought themselves a cricket “tragic” could not properly claim that title until they had experienced such a tour: nowhere else could you find such a passionate following for the game, such an encyclopaedic knowledge amongst fans, and such a buzz that emanated from exotic locations like the Recreation Ground in Antigua, Sabina Park in Kingston and the rest, let alone in the small and isolated grounds that provided the nursery sites for a string of great players.  Just one example: the Shorey Village ground in St Andrew parish, now named after Conrad Hunte, one of nine children of a sugar plantation labourer and who played for Barbados and West Indies before devoting his life to Moral Re-Armament.  To see such places was not just a cricket entertainment, it was also a lesson in life and a marker for what sport can mean socially and politically in some locations.

Now, though, West Indies has probably lost much of that attraction and even some of the symbolism.

In part some of it is to do with the frenetic and dysfunctional nature of world cricket.  The game now is so much driven by dollars that playing significance almost disappears.  India is now the economic hub of the game and that determines the scheduling.  India, too, has driven the T20 revolution that so many cricket purists hate but new crowds love, along with a horde of players now making salaries they could never have dreamed of just three years ago.  In the maelstrom of all that West Indies has slid by, in an awkward part of the world for television purposes, with small crowds at the best of times just from a sheer population perspective, and an inability to generate the buzz that was once present.

That latter point, however, points to a more sobering one: in large part the decline in significance of West Indies cricket is because it has yet to find a way to end its own fairy tale.

That is because, in many ways, West Indies cricket as we know it began as an interaction with and then a liberation from slavery.  (http://www.amazon.com/Liberation-Cricket-Culture-Society-Politics/dp/0719043158 )      As the game became organised during the nineteenth century the former slave masters and now economic bosses in places like Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana became the cricket lords and, as the great Caribbean writer and activist C.L.R. James pointed out  (http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Boundary-C-L-James/dp/0822313839/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1330140385&sr=1-1 ) , even the cricket clubs themselves became organised along intersecting class and race lines, and that persisted for a very long time – in the 1980s my club in Barbados, Maple, was more or less an outer urban black lower class one, as compared to Wanderers, once the great bastion of the white plantocracy.

That gave cricket a meaning, a symbolic struggle, so that the stories about wonderful players like Everton de Courcey Weekes, one of the famous “3Ws” of the 1950s and 60s, were as much about how they escaped from trapped social positions to become world stars as about their playing abilities.  Weekes had to join the army in order to get into a higher grade of cricket that provided selection for Barbados and West Indies.  Garfield St Aubrun Sobers, one of the greatest players ever, had to join the police as a bandsman to get his break.

All that became translated into a collective pride when, in 1950, West Indies won a test series against England  in England, immediately interpreted as a win by colony over overlord, by former slave against former master.  The symbolism was powerful and carried West Indies through the next several years, and included the campaign to have the team led by a black rather than white captain, which happened with the appointment of Frank Worrell.

There was a down side to this, though, with a racialist tinge, the idea of “calypso cricket” in which black players were considered dashing but ill-disciplined and lacking a winning edge.  That reached its peak, if that is the right word, in the 70s when West Indies suffered a series of bad losses, at which point came the resurrection led by Clive Lloyd and the rise of the fearsome and feared West Indies pace attack that blitzed teams all over the world: Roberts, Garner, Marshall, Holding, Croft, Ambrose and all the rest, backed by dominating batsmen like Richards, Greenidge, Haynes and, of course, Lara.  But by the 90s they had all gone, and for almost twenty years now West Indies have been a minor force, at best.

It may well be argued that is partly because there has been a loss of meaning in the Caribbean game, and some analysts see that reflected in the rise of athletics and basketball and, now, even baseball.  But there is also an organisational issue that was best signified in the essential chaos that surrounded the 2007 World Cup staged in the Caribbean: the very final was disrupted because of power failures and the resultant organisational mess, evident throughout the tournament, seemed to indicate a cricket structure ill-equipped to deal with the modern condition.

That has been underlined by a protracted distancing between players seeking better finances by signing with sponsors then coming up against a West Indies Cricket Board intent upon privileging its own financial backers.  That has gone on to produce players like the talented but difficult Chris Gayle.  One of the world’s most explosive batsmen, he now roams that world blasting meaningless T20 runs while fighting with the Board for the right to play again for West Indies.  Gayle recently made a century for Jamaica in the regional first class series, but the stoush with the Board goes on. (http://www.espncricinfo.com/westindies/content/story/554728.html )

This player-Board sort of dispute is not uncommon in world sport, but in West Indies it has been a long running soap opera, interrupted only by spin-off series like Alan Sanford who promised millions to revive the game but now faces charges of fraud running to the billions – the Board’s due diligence efforts on Sanford were clearly perfunctory.

As if to demonstrate the lunacy perfectly, Clive Lloyd (who led the playing resurgence in the 70s and 80s and is now a prominent world figure in world cricket management) has resigned as a West Indies Cricket Board director. (http://www.espncricinfo.com/westindies/content/story/553791.html )    He comes from Guyana and has been appointed the Chair of the Interim Management Committee for cricket there, following an episode in which the Government of Guyana locked the Guyana Cricket Board out of its own premises following disputed elections to that Board.  The WICB does not recognise the interim body that Lloyd chairs, and issued him an ultimatum to choose what he wanted to do.  He chose Guyana.  The Board has used precisely the same intransigent approach it has adopted with Gayle, and now lost Lloyd.

That is catastrophic.  Two years ago I sat over dinner in Oxford with Lloyd and my friend and colleague Hilary Beckles, himself now a controversial member of WICB for his comments on Gayle.  Lloyd is still passionate about the game, about West Indies, despairs of the present malaise and has many solutions in mind.  Now he is not even on the WICB which somehow sums up the problem, especially when you consider the struggling playing side Australia will likely meet over the next month or so.

The irony is that the playing strength is still inherently strong but struggles to become realised at international level.  In a recent first class match Barbados beat Trinidad and Tobago by 5 wickets.  The Trinis batted first and made 338 with test players Simmons, Bravo and Ramdin all making over 50.  For Barbados test player Fidel Edwards took 5/64 backed up by other test bowlers like Kemar Roach and Tino Best.  Test opener Kirk Edwards made a 50 for Barbados but the Bajans were behind on the first innings.  Edwards, Best and bad boy test player Suleiman Benn then rolled T&T for 119 and made the required 179 to win.

These are all very good players and there are a lot more of them in the pipeline, like Raymon Reifer who is from Barbados but plays first class cricket for the Combined Campuses and Colleges side.  He has a father, uncles and a cousin who have played for West Indies so has a pedigree, and a talent as an all-rounder: in the series so far he scored a half century and took four wickets in an innings in his first couple of matches. However – and here is the problem – it is unlikely that he and others of his generation will play against Australia.  There are 5 one dayers between Australia and West Indies, all played in St Vincent and St Lucia.  Then come 2 T20s, followed by three tests in Barbados, Trinidad and Dominica.  There are no games against teams like Barbados, and no games at all played in Jamaica, Antigua or Guyana, all formerly “must stops” on any tour like this.  Players like Reifer do not only miss playing against Australia, they may not even see them play.

Therein lies the problem with West Indies: an absent building culture, a crumbling cricket heritage, a dysfunctional management, a stuttering player supply line, alienated stars, and an unknowing International Cricket Council.  It is a sad state that the Australian fans who make the trek will see, an environment far from the great one that once was.

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