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Our cricket caught out

By Theodore Lewis

 The thing with Caribbean society is that we really believe that you could get something for nothing. Just like that we got Ramadhin, Constantine, Ganteaume, Valentine, Headley, Stollmeyer and Gomez,   names I draw upon at random and without effort.  We had local club cricket. No one made a living here from that. Ours was an amateur game.  But the great players kept coming in waves, from Barbados, Jamaica and Guyana mainly, then increasingly from Trinidad and Tobago, and from Antigua.  Soon some were catching the eyes of the English county teams, and we began exporting them. It took a while to get a regional tournament going. 

We ventured into Test cricket. At first our boys were said by English commentators to be playing “calypso cricket”. This is cricket where you come in to bat and regardless of the state of the game—whether or not the team had lost early wickets—players would go for the boundary.  Players like Collie Smith. The early West Indies teams were talented but short of resolve. The players had difficulty putting down their heads and crafting long innings. But gradually that began to change.  It might have been the captaincy of Worrell that did this.  We saw that by playing irresponsible cricket we were confirming for the colonials, whether English or Australian, that we were a carefree people.  That had to stop.

But as much as the region started yielding a parade of talent, no thought or effort was given to professionalising the game. American baseball had long been organised into a professional game, with heavy emphasis on coaching, and on player remuneration. In the early days of West Indian cricket, the players were treated as wards.  There was heavy emphasis on comportment.  Roy Gilchrist, our ace fast bowler, was sent home from a tour, like a school boy, basically for his vigorous temperament, and bowling too many bouncers. But he was no different from Freddie Trueman, Jeff Thomson or Dennis Lillee. 

Even today, some players must get permission from employers to tour with the West Indies, and over time more than one player would have lost his factory job on his return from a tour. West Indian identity cannot feed your family or send your children off to university. Richards, Sobers, Greenidge, Hall, Griffith, Garner, Croft, Ambrose, Walsh, Hooper, Kanhai,  Kallicharan, Gibbs, Haynes, Weekes, Worrell, Walcott, Patterson, Hooper,  Lloyd—no one knows if their life is comfortable enough for having played cricket with the pride of an entire region at stake.

And you are looking at your TV at the great football leagues across the world, and the great professional sports—basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, American football, rugby, and you see the players getting contracts and becoming multi-millionaires even before they play one game. There is Tiger Woods on his yacht, Phil Mikelson flying his own plane, and Serena Williams winning yet another million. There is Michael Jordan with his lucrative commercials. There is David Beckham and Leo Messi and Ronaldo and Drogba, Adebayor and Eto’o with their multiple millions. There is Sachin Tendulkar, estimated to be worth  US$160 million. Where is Sobers, Richards, Lara? For the talent of these men regional cricket has given them nothing.

Lara is of the order of Picasso, Michelangelo, Beethoven, talents that come every 500 years. And what he got here was mauvais langue and bad mouth, pressure to step down from the captaincy. He remains the object of debate as to whether he is as good as Sachin. 

Innovation in cricket here means girls wining in front of the stands at the Oval and moko jumbies. That is what is passing for ideas on how to develop the regional game. 

Yes, I too long for the old days and nights, when I listened to cricket on the radio, every ball, as our players beat the devil out of England and Australia and India and Pakistan, routinely for decades. There was the era when teams had to pick their poison. Walsh or Patterson or Garner, or Ambrose, or Holding.  I miss seeing the long lines outside of the Oval trying to get in on the morning of a Test. I am glad I  was there to see the excitement that the young Inshan Ali brought, watching the thousands of people who came down from central to see the Preysal magician.

But cricket organisation here is the same or worse than it used to be. Where is inter-school cricket across the region? Where are all those great players of the last three decades? Where are Sobers, Lloyd, Richards? No room for them in West Indian cricket? Where are the new grounds and the new facilities? 

I don’t like seeing our teams perform as poorly and inconsistently as they now do. I wish the great players like Gayle and Bravo would be as consistent as Chanderpaul. But the players are not the problem. The problem of West Indies cricket is that its organisers believe that like an old canefield, new shoots will simply ratoon from prior crops, and that there is no need to cultivate new and different varieties.  They are also lacking the imagination that has seen the game blossom in other parts of the world, where the stands are filled when the game is played.  Many territories remain on the margin of the game. Where are the players from Grenada, or St Kitts or St Vincent? What is being done about that?

On the whole, were it not for innovations like one-day cricket, cricket along establishment lines would be dead everywhere, not just in the region, where only a very few could make a living from it. The great Larry Gomes said recently that the problem with today’s West Indian game is that the players do not play for the people any more. Well, we have to stop putting on the backs of cricketers the burden that the remainder of us refuse to bear. Here in the region the Jamaicans are rightly envying the good relations we  are cultivating with Guyana. They want to put pressure on imports from T&T.  We are detaining Jamaican citizens and repatriating some. Where is West Indian unity in this?  It is a fiction. The cricketers have adopted David Rudder’s calypso “Rally” as their anthem. It takes the place for them that “God Saves the Queen” takes for the England team.  West Indies cricket has stalled for lack of organsational imagination.

• Theodore Lewis is emeritus 

professor, University of Minnesota

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