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West Indies at the wicket

The Guardian, 21 July 2004

There was a time when English cricket lovers would anticipate a visit by the West Indies with a mix of trepidation and excitement – trepidation at what their fast bowlers and batsmen were likely to do to England’s cricketers and excitement at the invigorating spectacle they offered.

But when the first Test begins at Lords’ tomorrow morning, the mood will be very different. In recent years West Indies have been one of the weakest, most inconsistent, and sometimes downright embarrassing sides in world cricket.

Twenty summers ago, a West Indies team featuring Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, and Michael Holding inflicted a famous “blackwash” on England, whipping them in all five Tests. That was one of the high points in a nearly two decade reign as the undisputed best cricketers on the planet. Between 1976 and 1989 England failed to win a single Test against West Indies and it took them another eleven years to win a series. So awesome was West Indian dominance in the 1980s that even the US-based popular magazine ‘Sports Illustrated’ – which rarely acknowledges the existence of games unknown to North Americans – named them as one of the sporting phenomena of the decade.

West Indies produced not only great batsmen and bowlers but also the most profoundly original writer the game has known, the Trinidadian Marxist CLR James. In his classic ‘Beyond A Boundary’, published in 1963 (long before popular culture was deemed worthy of academic study), he described how West Indies “clearing their way with bat and ball … made a public entry into the comity of nations.” For James, the complexity of cricket was the key to its role as a mirror of West Indian society and a vehicle in the struggle for independence and equality.

Buoyed up by the anti-colonial and Black Power movements of the 70s, the West Indies cricketers toured the world, playing with unrivalled flair and purpose Along with reggae, cricket became the islands’ major cultural export – a style-setter reaching out well beyond the Caribbean diaspora. For cricket-lovers in England, even those whose psychic well-being is welded to the national team’s fortunes, the West Indian cavaliers came to symbolise joy and excellence. Even as they repeatedly demolished the lingering pretensions of their erstwhile colonial masters, the children of the former rulers gasped in delight at the power and audacity of their game. Fans of all nations found their blend of swagger and skill, relentless focus and inspired flourish irresistibly seductive.

However, for prominent voices in the English cricket media, the spectacle of the one-time colonial subjects holding sway on the playing field was intolerable. An editorial in a leading cricket magazine declared that the West Indian “game is founded on vengeance and violence and fringed by arrogance.” Others bemoaned the “downright thuggery” of this “army of mercenaries.” Commentators were also irked by the large numbers of vociferous West Indian supporters at England’s home matches. It was frequently observed, with indignant umbrage, that the Oval in south London had become an “away ground for England.” But in the late eighties banners and placards, drums and whistles were banned from English grounds, and rising ticket prices and advance credit card bookings soon elbowed out the bulk of West Indies fans.

In the whole of the 1980s, the West Indies lost only 8 out of 82 Tests. Since their last visit here in 2000 they have lost 23 out of 43 Tests. Earlier this year, they slumped to a historic low of 47 all-out against England in Jamaica – payback for England’s humiliating 46 all-out in Trinidad a decade earlier.

The precipitate decline has been blamed on a variety of causes: the impact of US sports via television, difficult economic conditions, insularity and disunity, the waning of post-independence élan. But what really requires explanation is not so much the West Indies’ current mediocrity as their two decades of sublime supremacy. It was always remarkable that a sequence of world-beaters should have sprung from such an impoverished, economically marginal and fragmented society.

The cricketing entity we call the West Indies is comprised of a dozen sovereign nations with a total population of under six million and a combined GDP of only $31 billion. (Australia, the current world champs, has a population of 20 million and a GDP of $570 billion). In sport, as in the arts, size and wealth do count, but not for everything. Take Barbados, an island with a population of 250,000 – the size of a single London borough. It gave the game at least a dozen of its modern masters, including Sobers, Hall, the three W’s, Greenidge, Haynes, Garner and Marshall.

Among England supporters there’s little gloating over the old enemy’s current discomforts, which would certainly not have been the case had the enemy in question been Australia. Instead, there is a widely shared sadness over the West Indies’ fall from grace. Strangely, but also logically, many English fans will attend this summer’s Tests hoping to witness a revival in West Indies’ fortunes. Without the islanders’ distinctive genius, the global game seems incomplete.