On winning crowds; finding cricket’s soul
In his seminal book Beyond the Boundary, CLR James wrote of the unfulfilled promise of the black wicketkeeper Piggott. He spoke too of the character Matthew Bondman, a man so crude and vulgar in everything, but with bat in hand, an exemplar of grace and style.
James wrote glowingly of Learie Constantine and in referring to one shot played delightfully off the legs, the celebrated Trinidadian noted it was as a result not of Constantine’s wrists or his eyes, but of his West Indian brain.
The great scribe posited cricket not just as a sport but representative of the human possibility for achieving greatness beyond one’s inherited status, perhaps, even beyond one’s crudeness and vulgarity. And he suggested that Caribbean people flocked to see themselves in those eleven flannels as together they dreamt of and pursued greatness. The crowd lifted the players to magnificence and the players reciprocated.
When Caribbean crowds watched Worrell, Weekes, Walcott and Sobers display greatness on the field with bat and ball, these cricketers made universal statements for those watching in the stands without a voice; and those with a voice that often no one heard. At any given ground when the West Indies took to the field eleven players might have been visible to the opposition but there were thousands more manning every space on the field.
Those days seem a distant past and now recent scenarios suggest that achieving greatness has not only been sacrificed on the altar of largesse, but that West Indian cricket has lost the crowd, lost much of its soul and has become a crude and vulgar thing.
Dwayne Smith – the prototype – perhaps represents much of what has gone wrong with regional cricket. An unfulfilled talent has determined at age 31 to walk away from first-class cricket, the possibility of further Test cricket, and most significantly, a chance for redemption. It is as though Piggott walked away from an opportunity that finally came. There has hardly been a whimper from the crowd.
To recoil with a Test average of 24 in 10 Tests and 28.74 in 88 first-class matches is akin to resigning to mediocrity; embracing defeat; abandoning the crowd. Those of stronger prototype would find such mediocrity untenable. Still in their spring they would attempt to create better history before the advent of winter. Of course, largesse can still be achieved in the era of Twenty20 cricket even if greatness remains elusive. Those of the Seymour Nurse prototype became established at age 32, unwilling for initial lack of opportunities to break their bond with the crowd.
Sunil Narine – the prototype – represents much of the lost soul of West Indies cricket. Would CLR James’ Worrell or Weekes or Isaac Vivian Richards turn their backs on their crowd at Sabina, Kensington, Recreation Ground or Bourda to parade before unfamiliar faces in a foreign land? Would they have denied themselves the opportunity to lead thousands of their kin onto the field in pursuit of greatness for a chest of silver? Richards, it is said, once turned his back on a blank cheque and inviting pen seducing him into the land of apartheid.
Narine has opted out of the ICC Cricket World Cup – often a once in a lifetime opportunity – as a result of concerns over his remodelled action. His bowling action has not been questioned in the international arena and he has reportedly remodelled it within the legal perimeters. While others whose bowling actions were questioned have hastened or attempted to rejoin their thousands or millions of countrymen back on the international field, our prototype has recoiled. Would Ramadhin or Valentine have demonstrated such weak heart? The Indian Premier League and the England tour beckon. Narine’s journey across these emerald isles, if taken, will be watched as closely as his trek to Kolkata over the next few months.
But there is hope.
Defeatists and some unwilling to veer from linear thought have highlighted every reason why the neophyte Jason Holder should not be entrusted with the responsibility once conferred on Worrell, Sobers, Lloyd and Richards. Could this be a form of history repeating itself?
More than fifty years ago, under obviously different circumstances and for palpably different reasons, many argued why Frank Worrell should not be made captain. Of course, he was no 23-year-old and he was an established player. His pigmentation was very much at the centre of objections from aristocrats of the skin. But CLR James put it succinctly when he said: “Worrell has shown what we are capable of.”
Amid the hurly burly of doubt and derision, one occurrence seems to have been overlooked. Holder accepted the poisoned chalice that is the captaincy of the West Indies team. Chanderpaul didn’t want it. Lara said it was destroying his life. Gayle showed he had neither stomach nor discipline for it. Sarwan could not reconcile himself with it. Holder’s single gesture of acceptance has shown what we are capable of. Turning down the offer was the easier route but this prototype didn’t recoil. He has not surrendered.
Holder’s task is to provide opportunities to the Piggotts, remove the crudeness and vulgarity from the Bondmans and shun mediocrity. Should he succeed, even within the confines of One-Day cricket, he will win back the crowd and return them to the middle. Perhaps the longer version of the game might follow. The advantage of Holder’s era, unlike Worrell’s, is that there are no poor internationals. Some remain worse, though.
His task will not be easy.