When in 1963 CLR James completed his seminal work on cricket, the title of which I have borrowed for this column, his introduction posed a simple question to readers.
‘‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’’
James was of the mind that, in order to fully understand the game and the wide public appeal that it enjoys, one had to look far beyond the cricket square itself and delve into the social, political and cultural spaces of the society. In just over a decade, by the middle-to-late 1970s, exactly what James had been referring to would become much clearer.
In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement had first Martin Luther King and then Jesse Jackson to lead the charge. Africans struggling for independence concretised their hopes in the person of Nelson Mandela and the ANC and Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF. In the West Indies, however, and in the diaspora, the heroes would emerge from a somewhat different mould.
Superbly led first by Sir Frank Worrell and later by the bespectacled Clive Lloyd, the West Indies cricket team jumped feet first into the cauldron of political upheaval and emerged from its turbulent confines with their own and all West Indian heads held high.
It was the majesty of the bats wielded by men such as Lloyd himself, Vivian Richards, Alvin Kallicharan and Gordon Greenidge twinned with the unrelenting fury that emanated from the hands of Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Joel Garner (to name only that quartet) which ultimately carried the fight and won the day.
Cricket became so deeply woven into the fabric of an independent West Indian society that today, despite paltry returns in the international arena, it remains the post-colonial glue which binds us all together.
More than any other sport, cricket is the game which is inextricably intertwined with the social and cultural mores of the true West Indian. More than sporting events, cricket matches came to resemble social and cultural gatherings.
Characters such as ‘‘Gravy,’’ ‘‘Blue Food’’ and ‘‘Mayfield’’ became de facto regional luminaries with their outlandish dress sense and voyeuristic behaviour. The conch shell, the tassa drum and the iron, noise to the untrained ear but sweet melody to the West Indian ear, fused into a euphonious regional genre in its own right.
Exploits on the field of play seemed to mirror the struggles of everyday life; with Richards’ refusal to don a protective helmet, for instance, a reflection of the ‘‘devil-may-care’’ attitude of many West Indians but also a metaphor for our determination to take the best the Third World had to offer and remain unbowed, not “grovel.”
And then there was Malcolm Marshall, his broken left thumb bandaged but his belly so banded that he could rip out the heart of England’s batting and claim 7 for 53 at Headingley.
But it is written somewhere that “this too shall pass.”
All good things must come to an end and, unfortunately for us, we were caught unawares. We thought that the wheels had simply fallen off and that, with a little tinkering, we would soon be back on the road and making our merry way steadily back to the top of the world.
Closer inspection, however, revealed that both axles were broken, the carburator was flooded, the transmission leaky and the engine underpowered. Many a wise cricketing head has sought – in vain – to solve the West Indian cricketing problem; long-suffering fans have watched from the sidelines as the players blamed the Board and the Board pointed fingers at the players.
The reality is that both parties are perhaps equally guilty; far too often, the off-field antics have assumed greater significance than what was transpiring within the boundary. But it is true that true leadership does start at the top and so one has to conclude that it is the West Indies Cricket Board that has been found more wanting.
Seemingly lacking the basic man-management nous and often adopting an overly confrontational approach, the WICB has reportedly disbursed no less than some $20 million dollars in legal wrangles with its own players alone. If that is not insanity, it is at least inefficiency and one has to hope that the new CEO can and will set about quickly realigning the organisation’s priorities and righting the ship.
As for the players themselves, no one can begrudge them the wages they demand that are commensurate with their status as international sportsmen. But they need to realise that the only guarantor of recognition and reward in the sporting domain is success on the field of play.
There is a simple reason why Manchester United players are paid more than the unknowns from Stockport County; it has nothing to do with the bargaining ability of their agents or the brandishing of cringe-worthy, hastily scribbled messages on pieces of paper exposed in full view of the world’s media.
The nature of the international game is changing and, as India and more recently England have shown, retaining the number one spot in any format for any considerable length of time is proving to be a hugely challenging undertaking.
The rise of the T20 version may yet prove to be both blessing and curse for the region’s cavaliers, though. For while the abridged version suits our natural swashbuckling style, our Test team seems destined to remain starved of the services of those who understandably seek to make their fortunes in the IPL and elsewhere while the fortune-hunting market is bullish.
The challenge going forward will be for all those concerned to manage the situation in a way that most benefits West Indies cricket.
And so, as Darren Sammy’s victorious team danced gangnam style well into the humid Sri Lankan night, questions were naturally being asked as to whether this triumph represents a turning of the corner. Who knows?
Many have been the false dawns for West Indies cricket before, most notably, claiming the ICC Champions Trophy in 2004 and then launching out on an upward path financed by Allen Stanford’s generosity with other people’s money.
In 2012, last Sunday’s win in Colombo notwithstanding, it is still too early to tell whether the recently concluded T20 World Cup was the watershed moment for which we have all been waiting impatiently.