Thursday, December 14, 2017

In the season of cricket


Mark Fraser

Things coalesce. What seems like a haphazard series of events gets tied together by an unexpected thread. So it was that, laid up for a couple of weeks, I resorted to revisi­ting cricket books—it being the season after all. I wended my way through umpire Dickie Bird’s tale of the English counties, Henry Blofeld’s commentary, and snippets here and there of other writers.

The English series was on, and I was able to watch all of the three ODIs and the T20s, with the readings adding texture to the contest. British attitudes on the cricket field seem hardly to have changed over the years—despite fluctuating fortunes, an air of entitlement still hovers. Perhaps the difference in these times is that West Indian players no longer carry the weight of colonialism into the arena.

I also looked at the fabulously entertaining movie, Lagaan, a story of cricket and colonialism that is as charming as it is poignant. Weaving history with all the elements of good storytelling and breathtakingly beautiful scenes, it is worth its nearly-four-hour duration.

Later, as I picked up Ramachandra Guha’s fascinating account of the history of Indian cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field, I found much to compare with the development of West Indian and Indian cricket in terms of relations with the English. Oppressive and discriminatory behaviours sought to continually keep the “natives” in subservient roles socially, and cricket was one of the sites where it was visibly expressed. Just as West Indians were only allowed to bowl to their colonial masters, so too were Indians; similarly, distinctions were very clear about which club would entertain what class of player.

Guha describes excesses of the English with formidable detail. Lord Harris, for example, born in Trinidad to the then governor here, was a cricketer more than an administrator. His time in India, where Poona was his playground, was spent rather languidly and leisurely pursuing social entertainment rather than managing the empire’s affairs. Guha provides a list of the liquor used at his home for one year, and it numbers 5,399 bottles; with champagne coming in first at 2,414, claret next with 1,123 and whisky third with 545! Although he was credited with supporting cricket’s development there, the underbelly of that story reveals he did more to keep it down for the locals.

Interestingly, an invitation to attend an event presented by the Socio­logy Unit at The University of the West Indies: “Mega Sporting Events in the Caribbean: Issues and Challenges”, came to my Inbox a couple days ago. The speakers are Professor Emeritus Jay Coakley, of the University of Colorado, and Brian Lewis, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee. The event takes place today at UWI, St Augustine, at the FSS 101 East and West from 1.30 p.m. and it is free and open to the public.

I remember Prof Coakley’s assertions that a lot of money is spent on promoting sport based on the premise that since sport is good and healthy, it follows that any expenditure in this area needs only rubber-stamped approval. He outlined numerous ways money is ill-spent because not enough research is done to ascertain the real needs; and how many pockets can get lined along the way.

Discussing it in the context of racial divisions within India, Guha noted, “The idea that sport would promote racial harmony, and thus confirm the continuity of Empire, came naturally to British administrators in India.” Grudgingly, investments were made, but on the basis of so much politics and partisanship that it often exacerbated strained relations. Sport has long been inextricably interwoven with politics. Cricket has been described as the least threatening arm of Empire, a benevolent assimilation of culture—but cricket came to pass into the culture of the colonies despite the exclusionary tactics of the British, who were forced to watch it take root before taking the role of spreading its gospel.

Sport and politics, sport and money, sport and culture—links that need to be made, as indeed many others, as we try to work out where our cricket is to go. The West Indies team is bracing to defend their World T20 title in Bangladesh. It’ll do them good to have beaten England in the warm-up match.

Often they have seemed to lack motivation in their quests. Truth is, when they look out at the vacuous landscape, what motivation can they find? They aren’t fighting colonialism; nationalism has gone astray; and racism lurks in the shadows. While the athlete today is fettered to the idea of being professional, it is a still murky concept that gets blurred within the framework of rampant individualism.

Mega money, the kind that Prof Coakley associated with mega sporting events, calls the shots. If you think about it in the context of cricket, with all the lucrative tournaments running neck and neck, once you’ve climbed high enough up the ladder—the same ladder that would once have meant you were good enough to represent your country—you can now cruise and pick and choose. I mean, if you’re already a millionaire in your 20s, what motivates you?