A Cricketing Calypso

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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India’s tour to the Caribbean could produce a great contest in the wake of an unforeseen West Indian renaissance

ALMOST everyone I encountered In St Lucia, between touching down at Vieux Fort Quarter on the southern tip of the island to my arrival at the Darren Sammy Stadium on the northern tip the following day, told that they were looking forward to watching some live Test cricket. Henix, who I chatted with while disembarking from the plane from Atlanta, the smartly dressed policemen at immigration, the friendly women in the tourist information office, my taxi-driver David, guesthouse owner Moses, and half a dozen others: all said they were planning to attend at least a day of the game. There were plenty of tickets still on sale, they said. And what cricket fan could resist?

The last of a three Test series between West Indies and England, this game would be only the eighth five-day game ever held in the lovely Windward island. It would also be the first held against England, the former colonial power whom all West Indians, including the 170,000 St Lucians, especially love to beat. More gloriously still, West Indies had already secured the series—for the first time against England in a decade— having won the two previous Tests in Barbados and Antigua. The St Lucia Test would be a victory parade. From the very first over, it would be a celebration of what was starting to look like the Holy Grail of international cricket: a genuine West Indian resurgence.

The victories in Barbados and Antigua had not been lucky or even close. The islanders, superbly led by their young captain, Jason Holder, the top- ranked all-rounder in the world, had annihilated the complacent and overrated English players. In Bridgetown, the beating heart of Caribbean cricket, they had won by 365 runs—West Indies’ third-biggest winning margin ever. At the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, scene of the second Test, they had won by 10 wickets. These were margins to recall the West Indian hegemony of the 1980s and early 90s, when the Caribbean islanders went 15 years unbeaten in Test series. And they were secured in a style that recalled that heyday: in particular through fiery fast-bowling.

In Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph and Holder himself, West Indies had their best battery of pace bowlers in many years. The quickest of them, Gabriel, was terrifying on a bouncy wicket; 22-year-old Joseph was almost as quick, more skilful, and looked like one of the best younger bowlers in the world. Holder was not only one of the world’s top-ranked seamers, but also good enough with the bat to have struck an immaculate double-century in Barbados. After so many dreadful years for fans of West Indian cricket, what a glorious prospect this third Test in St Lucia was! To complete the occasion, it would also be West Indies last home Test before India tour the Caribbean, later this year, after the World Cup. I was looking forward to considering how the resurgent islanders might get on against the world’s top-ranked Test side.

Waking in a state of nervous excitement on the morning of the game, I wondered how long I should allow myself to get to the ground. It was a Saturday, so most of the islanders would be off-work: another reason to expect a big crowd. The weather was perfect. A shimmering sun was already burning away wisps of sea-mist from an azure Caribbean sky. The country road to the stadium, named after St Lucia’s only Test player, the former West Indies captain and now jobbing T20 player, would surely be choked. I certainly did not want to risk being late. This would be my first experience of watching cricket in the Caribbean: a pilgrimage of sorts, for any cricket fan old enough to remember the 1980s. I therefore left my guesthouse, bumping along in Moses’s pickup, in good time. Yet it quickly transpired that I had been misinformed.

There were a good few people on the winding back-road to the stadium, but almost all except their drivers were White tourists. More were string along in the roadside. There gaggles of English retirees in sensible sun-hats, enjoying a sunny break from the English winter, and there were bigger parties of boisterous young Englishmen, sunburned and topless or wearing England shirts. There were hardly any West Indian cricket fans, on the road, outside the stadium, or seated inside it. Around 5,000 travelling English fans would attend every day of the St Lucia Test. At most a few hundred West Indians did—and that was the official estimate, which I suspect must have included the ground stewards, vendors and policemen. On all three days of the Test, which would end prematurely in a crushing English win, the pretty St Lucian stadium, with its small sun-baked stands and grassy bank running along one side, resembled an English holiday camp.

It had been the same story in the previous Tests—which is why my hopes of a decent local turnout were unrealistic from the start. In the quarter of a century that has passed since West Indian cricketers were great, the people of the Anglophone Caribbean have largely given up on Test cricket. There is no other explanation for their no-show against England. The reasons for this change are contested, however, in part because the subject of Caribbean cricket’s astonishing rise and calamitous is rife with idle speculation. Yet it is important to understand them correctly. Because where West Indian cricket goes, the game at large could follow.

WRITING ON a more routine cricketing slaughter of the English in Jamaica in 1986, at the height of the glory years, one West Indian commentator detected an air of apathy in the crowded stadium. Winning, he surmised, had become too predictable to be altogether enjoyable. West Indies cricket fans had started taking their team’s world domination for granted. Then how to explain the lack of black faces at the Darren Sammy stadium? I put that question to Lance Gibbs, the great Guyanan spin-bowler who, now aged 84 but still spry, had flown over to St Lucia to watch the game. “They don’t like losers,” he said of the West Indian fans. “If you’re not winning, they’re not going to support you.”

That attitude underpins the shift in cricketing emption Caribbean islanders have undergone. Cricket is almost certainly still the region’s most popular game. There are possible island exceptions: Trinidadians love soccer, as do Jamaicans, who also adore athletics, especially when their sprinters are running rampant at the Olympics. But the American sports, especially basketball, that are often said to have supplanted cricket in the Caribbean in reality hardly figure. Most primary schoolchildren play cricket. Driving up and down St Lucia’s coastal roads, along which most of the islanders’ live, there seemed to be a decent turf pitch outside every school. Cricket’s roots in the Caribbean, for all the game’s notorious mismanagement in the region, are deep. Cricket is still the region’s shared passion, its common denominator. “It is what unites us,” mused Gibbs.

Cricket's roots in the Caribbean, for all the Game's notorious mismanagement in the region, are deep. Cricket is still the region's shared passion, its common denominator

As that might suggest, cricket was always much more than a game to the islanders. When West Indies played their first Test match in 1928 the islands were still White-run colonies. It would be another 32 years before Frank Worrell became the first non-white West Indies captain. Cricketing excellence was in the meantime a rare means for black islanders to thrive and dream--— least because of the steady procession of world-beating players they produced. George Headley, the “black Bradman”, was one of the world’s best players of the 1930s and 40s, and a figure of enormous political significance. ‘When he walked to the wicket, brisk, self-assured, and took guard in his quaintly old-fashioned ‘two-eyed’ stance,’’ wrote his fellow Jamaican, Michael Manley, the island’s former prime minister, ‘He became the focus for the longing of an entire people for proof: proof of their own self-worth, their own capacity. Furthermore, they wanted this proof to be laid at the door of the white man who owned the world that in turn defined their circumstance. What better place to advance this proof than in cricket.’

And after Headley came the revered ‘three Ws’—the Barbadian trio of Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes. Largely through their batting feats, West Indies started winning regularly. By 1960, they had won 25 of their 86 Tests. India, by contrast, had won only six out of 70 at the time. And of course things were about to get so substantially better for the West Indies that they would start to forget what losing felt like. Led by their murder squads of fast-bowlers, the West Indies ruled cricket from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s with a relentless consistency unparalleled in sport. There really has been else nothing like it: not the Boston Celtics in basketball during the 1960s, or Brazil’s footballers in any age. The mismatch between the tiny size of the West Indian population and the enormity of their success defied explanation. Antigua, with an impoverished population of 50,000, produced the best batsman of the era in Viv Richards. It also produced Ritchie Richardson, Andy Roberts, Eldine Baptiste, Curtley Ambrose and Winston Benjamin, among others, all of whom would walk into any international cricket side today. By the same token, such remarkable over-performance was always likely to be unsustainable.

It was the product of a remarkable sporting monopoly over the islanders’ interests and talents. Every Caribbean boy wanted to play for the West Indies. Yet a sporting dominance based on such an unusual maxing out of the available talent pool was necessarily fragile. After the team’s fortunes dipped, in the 1990s, at a time when economic growth, rising opportunities for outward migration, and the distractions of the media had started creating competing outlets for the islanders’ attention, the slump was dramatic. And as it has endured, so the weaknesses inherit in trying to forge a strong regional identity in cricket from so many disparate nations have become apparent. “Cricket is also what divides us,” reflected Gibbs at the stadium in St Lucia.

He was thinking of the furious arguments between islanders that West Indies’ selections often invoke. The regional prejudices and rivalries that have always dogged Indian selections seem manageable by comparison. Last time India played a Test in St Lucia there were at one point more local fans outside the ground protesting against Sammy’s recent exclusion from the West Indian T20 side than inside watching the cricket. Indeed, while India’s regional prejudices are fading with the dual success of the Indian cricket team and Indian economy, the dream of regional cooperation that the West Indian team was founded on has largely evaporated. The West Indies Federation, a hoped-for grand political union launched in 1958, lasted only four years. The West Indies Associated States, a freer-floating club of islands in the eastern Caribbean, including St Lucia, which ceded their defence and external relations to Britain, ended when St Kitts and Nevis opted for full independence in 1983. While India’s regions have come together, politically, economically, culturally, the islands have drifted apart. Pan-Caribbeanism now hardly exists outside cricket. This has given the West Indian side a more parlous place in its fans affections, especially when it is losing, than other international sides can count on. When, dismayed by the poor turnout against England, I asked St Lucians for an explanation, almost all said they had “lost faith in the West Indies”. They still loved cricket, they said. But it seemed they no longer saw it primarily through the lens of international competition.

The weakness of the West Indies side, coinciding with the deepening anomaly of a regional Caribbean identity, goes a long way to explaining this. But commercial pressures, unrelieved by the arrogance and selfishness of cricket’s economic masters, the Indian board, and to a lesser degree the boards of England and Australia, have made matters much worse. Compared to their great West Indian forebears, Holder and his team-mates are handsomely rewarded. A player contracted by both the West Indian board and a Caribbean Premier League team such as the St Lucia Stars earns around $400,000 a year. Then again, this is so much less than the best English, Australian and Indian players earn, and so much less than a career as a jobbing T20 star pays, that the best West Indian players have increasingly taken the latter course. The IPL and other T20 franchises have robbed West Indian cricket of Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russsell and Sunil Narine, among many others.

A cricketing catchment of just 6 million people, across Guyana and the islands, cannot easily survive such a talent drain. Meanwhile, the popular enthusiasm for T20 franchise cricket, the source of the drain, has been replicated in the Caribbean. The CPL plays to packed stadiums. This is perhaps not only because the crowds love T20. It may also be because their local franchise, such as the Stars in St Lucia, matches the islanders’ sense of national identity more closely than the jaded West Indies. (Never mind that all the CPL franchises are owned by Indians or Indian Americans— including Philadelphia-based Jay Pandya, owner of the Stars.)

These related developments, the rise of T20 franchise cricket, the downgrading of international cricket, and the slow death of Test cricket are the current reality of cricket in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the same cocktail of changes is being felt, albeit less powerfully, in every other cricket region. Cricket’s tectonic plates grind slowly. The institutional support for Test and all international cricket will keep them alive for a good while yet—even if that means a lot of cricket being played in empty stadiums. Yet it is hard not to see in this a vision of cricket’s future.

For the many who still revere Test cricket, and who consider that cricket’s international culture adds an irreplaceable drama to the game, this is deeply depressing. Indeed, I found it hard not to be dismayed by the St Lucians’ lack of interest in the game at the Darren Sammy that I felt so fortunate to have watched. But at least I had the consolation of some excellent Test cricket. The England team’s improvement in this game, which included an overdue century by Joe Root and victory by 232 runs, was welcome, and satisfying for an England fan. But it did not take away from the West Indian triumph overall, which, for a Test cricket fan, was more satisfying still.

The Indians, when they come touring after the World Cup, should present the West Indians with a stiffer challenge than England did. While the West Indies once again have a cohort of serious pacemen in their ranks, so, for the first time ever, does India. It will be the first ever face-off between Indian and West Indian fast-bowling, marshalled by the two most impressive captains, Holder and Virat Kohli, in international cricket. It is a glorious prospect. Cricket fans everywhere must enjoy it while we can.

(The author reports from Gros Islet, St Lucia)