“Often the bridesmaid,” a television commentator summed up England’s performance in the 11 World Cups so far contested, “never the bride.”
The comment put a broad smile on my lips. And immediately afterwards, a disturbing thought in my mind. It wiped the smile completely off.
Although the evidence, in my view, abounds, I refrain from declaring that the West Indies remains a slave society. But, more than a century and a half after Abolition and Emancipation, I can say without fear of successful contradiction that the remains of colonialism are still very much with me.
When the ICC poll of The Greatest World Cup Moments asked me to choose between MS Dhoni’s 2011 title-sealing six and Bangladesh’s 2015 upset win over Eoin Morgan’s side, I needed only a nano-second to make my mind up. And truth be told, every time I take a moment to think about the World Cup starting next week, my first thought is almost always this: I sincerely hope England do not win.
That didn’t start yesterday or last week or even last month when Jason Holder’s men somehow managed to get the better of Joe Root’s troops in the Tests and then to hold Morgan’s highly fancied One-day cricketers to a 2-2 draw.
Where lie the roots of this curious behaviour?
“Rule, Britannia,” I sang lustily as a boy, “Britannia, rule the waves. Britons never, never shall be slaves.”
Certainly by Independence but probably as early as the late 1950s, I had got those 12 words all mixed up in my pre-teen head. They had been whittled down to five: “Slaves never shall rule Britannia.”
It started around 1957. That was when the MCC changed the LBW rules to counter the menace of Sonny Ramadhin and Alfred Valentine, who had embarrassed them in 1950. Somewhere under the cobwebs now decorating my sexagenarian mind still smoulders the seething anger in my eldest brother’s letters, written in the distant Mother Country and read verbatim around the dinner table, chronicling the unfairness of it all.
I have no recollection of reading The Nation. Nor do I remember being aware in those days of Learie Constantine’s insistence that the West Indies “need a black man to lead them” and CLR James’ campaign in that PNM paper to make it reality. But even before I read Beyond a Boundary in the years immediately following Independence, the exploits of Frank Worrell’s young black warriors, Garfield Sobers, Conrad Hunte, Rohan Kanhai, Lance Gibbs and Wes Hall, in Australia in 1960-61 were a source of immense pride for me.
In 1966, goal line technology was still nearly half a century away and there was not yet any live television when England’s footballers arguably stole what is still their only World Cup. A Swiss referee controversially decreed that Geoff Hurst’s shot had deflected off the crossbar and come down inside the goal.
England 4, Germany 2. And we were not pleased, my friends and I. But even if Zeus sometimes nods, God doh sleep.
Twenty years later in Mexico’s Azteca Stadium, Peter Shilton leapt high, Diego Maradona went up with him and the ball came down into the back of the net. You have to hand it to the celebrating Argentine skipper; you’d never believe he had cheated.
And he had the effrontery, blasphemy be damned, to tell the world that “Fue la mano de Dios,” God had put a hand.
I knew, we all knew, my friends and I, that he had fisted the ball; the slow-motion television replays left no doubt. But, like Dieguito, we remembered the Falklands. And we had not forgotten Hurst. So when, mere minutes later, he zigzagged his way brilliantly from inside his own half past a dozen defenders to beat Shilton again, his redemption was complete.
“Father, forgive him,” I remember praying that night, “and forgive me. I couldn’t help it; is England!”
Fast forward to the 1979 cricket World Cup final when, with England chasing WI’s 286, openers Geoffrey Boycott and Mike Brearley spent almost 40 of the allotted 60 overs getting to 129. If there was a live television broadcast, we certainly had no access. We listened, my friends and I, on the radio. But the mental images of the colossal collapse that followed remain some of the most unforgettable snapshots in the bulky sports album in my brain.
Almost 40 years later, in April 2016, we no longer needed to make our own pictures when Carlos Brathwaite delivered the miracle at Kolkata. The image of the Bajan, arms spread wide in triumph, bat held high, roaring ferociously into the Eden Gardens sky as his fourth successive six sailed high over midwicket, is etched on many memories, including, I feel certain, Ben Stokes’.
But undeterred, undaunted and seemingly undiminished, Stokes, Morgan and the top-ranked English are threatening to be a real factor in this World Cup.
“The pressure of expectation on England as they enter a home World Cup in a stronger position than they ever have been in before,” writes Melinda Farrell in the May edition of Cricket Monthly, “can’t be underestimated.
“But it’s doubtful they will change the high-risk, high-reward approach that has taken them this far. And they will be led by someone who feels he has changed considerably as a player and as a captain since their last campaign.”
Nowadays, they marry technical competence and total self-confidence. Morgan, Farrell has argued, the best man for the job, has groomed this group of players into a side that believes in itself.
Always the bridesmaid? Perhaps until now!
So when the question is asked about if there be any in this assembly, expect me to raise my hand and get to my feet…