Finding cricket’s soul beyond the boundary

Cricket in the era of C.L.R. James, Herman Griffith, Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Garry Sobers was more than about donning white flannels and going onto the green.

Though victories over England, in particular, and Australia might not have been so articulated by players and onlookers of African ancestry, triumphs meant more than just bat dominating ball or ball dominating bat. Political statements were made, ethnic and social convictions were expressed, decolonization was further demonstrated, black disenfranchisement had at least one powerful response. In essence, regional cricket had a soul.

In an era of overt class struggle, when the likes of Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and others wore ethnic pride on their flannels was very much apparent whenever they took to the field to play more than cricket. There was still soul to the cricket; the lessons of the past had been learnt and were alive.

It was that soul that led Richards to ignore the lure of a blank cheque to entertain apartheid-era South Africans. That some accepted the lure of the racists’ rand was perhaps the first sign of imminent decline. Money would return later with a vengeance and cricket’s soul would recoil in despair.

The organization of domestic and regional cricket is today better than in the era of Herman Griffith and the circumstances that led to the formation of the great Empire Cricket Club. The opportunities for young men, and women for that matter, are greater than the era that saw a misunderstood and mishandled Roy Gilchrist lost forever to international cricket while in his prime.

The largesse that can be accrued from cricket is so immense that a mediocre to average player can earn in three years in the Indian Premier League circus what Sobers, Weekes and Worrell collectively did not make in Tests between 1948 and 1974.

But while there is much to be gained from the summer game in the modern era, this period has been marked by decline and the now intoxicating taste of defeat. The talent base in the Caribbean is there; the monetary incentives are abundant; the off-field structures are excellent; the availability of technology and modern sports medicine is overwhelming; and coaching for every aspect of the game –– mental and physical –– is present. But yet the present era is proliferated by affluent losers who tease and taunt of turning that mystical corner, only to limp without apology into a series of culs-de-sac.

Cricket’s lost soul in the region cannot be restored by money. Money often makes grown men obsequious. They choose their Indian Premier League franchises over their regional side. Given the choice of playing for the country of their birth or for the noise emanating from obscure villages in Chennai or Mumbai, they opt for the noise.

But the warning signs, again, have been there since the 1990s; the decade when the decline started. This was a forgettable time when a West Indies captain on March 5, 1992, described defeat to South Africa as “just a game”. This was merely one year after the “official” end of apartheid and two years before multiracial elections in 1994. Sir Frank perhaps wept.

That goodly former captain with a porous sense of history sits today in a prominent position in West Indies cricket. An Englishman, not imbued with the spirit of George Headley, Clyde Walcott, Rohan Kanhai, Conrad Hunte or Wes Hall, now directs the regional game, physically in the Caribbean, but spiritually located in Newcastle Upon Tyne. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that soon another whose navel string is buried in Johannesburg or some other distant land is sought out to restore that of which they cannot know.

The late great Malcolm Marshall, the maker of Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener at Natal between 1992 and 1996, lamented 22 years ago that West Indies cricket was heading in the wrong direction.

“Everything seems to be going down the drain,” he said. Marshall complained that the players were not listening, there was no respect, there were no manners. In essence, cricket had become just a game, devoid of politics, pride, passion and played by mimic men oblivious to its import in colonial and post-colonial Caribbean history.

Until that missing ingredient is restored to the game in the islands, the dropping of “control” from the title of the West Indies Cricket Board of Control; the changing of coaches and ancillary staff; arguments –– relevant though they are –– about standard of pitches; improved relationships between board and players’ union; and the pumping of more money into the game will not have the effect that millions of Caribbean people want to see in their regional team.

As Ottis Gibson departs from the helm of the regional side to a crescendo of boos from those on the outside who perhaps do not see cricket beyond C.L.R. James’ boundary, or as he leaves to the triumphant smiles from cricketers on the inside who have failed the region richly, it should be understood that he is not to blame for West Indies’ failures. Perhaps we should ponder on how a product of this environment was such a magnificent success in a foreign English environment. Maybe, Gibson’s was a soul in the right place.

But, to borrow from James, what do we know of cricket who only cricket know?


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