The caps are maroon, the accents are lilting, the attitudes laid-back, but don’t be fooled. The team coming to South Africa this summer is not the West Indies.
It comes from the Caribbean. It boasts some excellent cricketers – Shivnarine Chanderpaul deserves an ovation at every ground he graces – but the true West Indies, well, they haven’t been seen in over 20 years.
A month ago it would have been easy to launch into a praise song about the champions unleashed on a frightened world by Clive Lloyd in the late-1970s. It would have made sense to reflect on how they based their revolution on dangerous fast bowling, and to suggest that the new breed are mere pretenders, imposters even, because they have none of the aggression of the old greats. But that was before Phillip Hughes. A hush has fallen over cricket and we are no longer sure how we feel about hostile pace. Is it still permitted to celebrate a team that changed cricket by deliberately trying to hit batsmen on the head?
I think it might be. West Indies’ legacy of pace was an integral part of the game before Hughes’ death, and it will survive his tragedy. We all know bouncers are a part of the game, and wherever the new West Indies play, the history of short-pitched bowling will be revisited.
History, in fact, is front and centre whenever they play these days, mainly because our relationship with them is so firmly stuck in the past. Cricket has failed to come to terms with the passing of the great West Indies, and so, without realising it, has begun to believe in reincarnation. Like Tibetan villagers waiting for that baby who will be revealed as the reborn Dalai Lama, we look at each callow Jamaican or Trinidadian, yearning to see a gleam of Viv Richards in his cover drive or a flash of Michael Holding in his run-up. When the team scrambles a win against minnows we allow ourselves to hope that it is some sort of corner turned, the start of a Caribbean Renaissance. They are understandable responses but they are in vain. The new West Indies is systemically barren. Nothing but disappointment will grow in the soil of the Caribbean.
We mourners who have circled the grave of West Indies cricket in our long, oddly hopeful wake, have trampled this terrain flat. We’ve tried endlessly to understand why modern teams have been so bad, and come up with a few generally accepted explanations. The first, and most widely accepted, involves bad administrators, a procession of worthies each seeming to care about the game but soon bogging down into incompetence or petty inter-island rivalries. (It is fitting that the word ‘insular’ derives from ‘insula’, Latin for ‘island’.) Then, there is the often-lamented failure to invest in a sustainable development system. The great players of the ’80s materialised out of poor islands with rickety facilities and few coaches, so perhaps it seemed logical that the new greats would do the same. The result was that West Indian cricket didn’t just rest on its laurels, it fell fast asleep on them.
The assumption that talent would simply appear fully-formed placed a terrible burden on every youngster making his way into the senior team. The moment he pulled on his maroon cap it was assumed that he was just a Test or two away from megastardom. To fail (as most young internationals do) was considered an almost counter-revolutionary act, as if he was spitting on their history. The greats themselves didn’t help either: some have been criticised for being too disparaging. And yet it must be infuriating for them to see their legacy endlessly cheapened. It’s an impossible position. To speak up is to hurt young talents, but to stay quiet is to damage them just as much.
The fans, finally, have a different, and very simple, explanation: the players are selfish, money-grubbing weaklings, individually blessed with talent but refusing to knuckle down for the good of the team. ‘Chris Gayle’ are dirty words in some parts of the Caribbean.
It seems a fairly comprehensive post-mortem: that, to build a team for the ages, you need good administrators, world-class facilities, no former icons looming over the squad, and humble players. But here’s the problem. The true West Indies had no administration to speak of, poor facilities, icons like Garry Sobers and Wes Hall looking down at them, and egos that were more than healthy. So what the hell gives? Where did all that crazy talent come from? How did Barbados, an island with the population of East London (and which had already produced Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Conrad Hunte, Charlie Griffith and Sobers) roll out Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes?
One explanation might be obsession. Football has shown us what happens when a sport becomes culture. The more people playing a national game, the greater the concentration of talent at its pinnacle. (The glaring exception is India, but that’s a gripe for another day.) Cricket was the Caribbean obsession, played not as a pastime between life’s more important bits but as an essential part of life itself. It was inevitable that cricket’s most famous book, Beyond a Boundary, was written by a West Indian, Trinidadian Marxist intellectual CLR James. For James, as for most boys and men in the Caribbean, cricket was as much a part of existence as eating a meal or having sex.
And yet I don’t believe that obsession is enough to create what the great West Indies teams did. For obsession to evolve into mastery it has to be turned outward towards a larger context, to find itself in a bigger picture. In short, it must become belief in something greater than itself.
Most cricket people know about James’ great book, published in 1963, but fewer will know his next. Published in 1969, A History of Pan-African Revolt seems to have nothing to do with cricket, and yet in retrospect is a powerful symbol of the game’s history. James, the poet laureate of the West Indian game, had gone from writing about cricket in Trinidad and England to writing about revolution in Africa; about shaking off white rule; about black power. Cricket had married revolutionary politics, and at last found something to believe in.
There’s a certain kind of fan who says sport and politics shouldn’t mix, never realising that his relationship with sport exists only because politics has shaped it just so. Politics is in the lifeblood of sport but it was never closer to the surface than in the Caribbean in the late-70s and early-80s. Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that ‘War is a continuation of policy [or politics] with other means’, and he might have nodded approvingly had he watched the teams of Lloyd and Richards. The individual islands of the Caribbean were evolving their political relationship with the old overlords in England, but on the cricket field Von Clausewitz’s ‘other means’ had been added into the mix: violence.
The history of the fast-bowling arms race is well known: how Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson humiliated West Indies in 1975; how Lloyd vowed it would never happen again and set about finding not two but four dangerous quicks. But the team’s initial shame and subsequent rise were about much more than sporting pride. The gripping 2010 documentary, Fire in Babylon, makes it clear that it was about a societal moment, a shift away from ‘Calypso Cricket’ with its undertones of laughing (and servile) minstrels, towards a new consciousness; a hard consciousness; a Black Consciousness.
Of course, it’s easy to romanticise the players and to see them as revolutionaries rather than cricketers, and Michael Holding (ever the diplomat) insists that cricket, rather than revolution, was at the forefront of their minds. But soon it didn’t matter what the players were thinking. They had become potent symbols of a region that was heeding Bob Marley’s call to ‘get up, stand up’, and to ‘emancipate itself from mental slavery’. When they travelled to England and smashed Tony ‘Grovel’ Greig and his England team, reggae legend Bunny Wailer didn’t see a cricket series. He saw ‘slaves whipping the asses of masters’.
The great West Indies had something to believe in. Cricket was merely a means to an end, and that end was to strike back at the Empire, to step out of the shadow of the periphery and strut in the sun, reborn, free. Each new series, especially against England, was a chance to take back history, run by run, wicket by wicket.
Black consciousness; emancipation; dignity; domination; belief: which of these are left to the modern West Indians? How can any of them know what it was to play for a region and an ideology when revolution has fizzled into collaboration and black power has given way to largely white multinational greed? What music sharpens their souls now that reggae shares the airwaves with a deluge of Americanese? Hash has been replaced by hash-tags. The only politics at play in West Indian cricket is petty internal squabbles.
What does the current team play for? Money? Or is it just contrived national pride? Old-fashioned nationalism seems to be waning in cricket: only South Africa, Pakistan and India still indulge in that brand of 1950s chest-thumping patriotism that wants to salute a flag flying in slow motion with the sun behind it. Australia is growing out of this. English and Kiwi fans don’t even pretend to take it seriously any more. If even sovereign nations can’t be roused by national pride any more, what hope is there for West Indies, representatives of a region rather than a country, without even the superficial glue of national identity to hold them together?
But there’s a more practical reason the real West Indies will not return. And that reason is bowled short, at 145km/h.
It was pace, a demon from the pagan world, which animated the true West Indies and made them something greater than cricket. They had belief, but it was pace that summoned the magic and lit the fire. And now that demon has been defeated, exorcised by pious pitches, its fires doused by the holy water of saturated schedules. It has bent its knee to the new orthodoxy, a fundamentalist form of cricket which follows only one Commandment: thou shalt not concede boundaries.
It is an orthodoxy that cannot abide the profligacy of pace, cannot accept the short ball into the hip, flicked down through fine leg or the full, wide ball nicked over the slips for four. In a game in which dot balls are brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh by bearded statisticians, true pace is a liability. The ancestors of the modern speedster ran in thinking bloody thoughts. Those are gone, replaced by anxieties. As he runs towards a batsman who is thinking quite seriously about hitting a good ball for six, his mind is a mess: ‘The faster it arrives the faster it leaves. Short of a length on a fourth stump … or a yorker … unless he steps out and makes it a full toss. Oh God, why didn’t I listen to my dad and become an offie with a vicious doosra?’
If one tearaway is a liability to the modern captain, four are simply out of the question, and without pace quartets (or even duos, nowadays) these West Indians are merely a group of talented individuals, slightly less than the sum of their parts. Until four new Horsemen of the Apocalypse can play their game on their own terms, pulling behind them a Caribbean united by belief in something new and fierce, the true West Indies will not rise.
Then again, why should they? The true West Indies were not a sports team; they were a social movement. They did not play cricket; they laid down a manifesto. They dominated for 15 years, but theirs was just a moment in history. They were magnificent. They have gone. Cricket has found new heroes, and so must I.
First published in Business Day/Sunday Times Sport Monthly and sacricket.co.za