T20 World Cup: Beyond the Caribbean

Cricket, even in its abbreviated and amnesiac Twenty20 variant, becomes a more meaningful space when the West Indies are doing well. They have the women’s and men’s teams in contention in Kolkata today for the World T20 title, and the sport has an opportunity to stir out of its ICC-driven Big Three distortions and recall the older legacies that validate its claim to being greater than its match summaries.

“The West Indies's legacy is key to giving cricket its robust claim to exceptionalism.” Picture shows the West Indies team after its win in the Women's T20 2016 semi-final against New Zealand in Mumbai's Wankhede stadium. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The West Indies legacy
There are periodic reports from the Caribbean that the islands have less time and interest for cricket, as their exceptionally talented young people find excellence in athletics and other team sports like football. Indeed, as the fiasco of the India-West Indies series of 2014 showed all too depressingly, the financial and managerial foundations of cricket there are very precarious. But it’s not just that the cricket legacy is so integral to the history of the West Indies — the West Indies legacy itself is key to giving cricket its robust claim to exceptionalism. Without the West Indies team, and therefore without active support from the International Cricket Council and national boards like India’s, cricket would be a lesser sport. World T20 may or may not be enough to return purpose and cohesion to West Indies cricket so that it is able to overcome the appeal of other sports in the domestic talent pool and of the riches of the Indian Premier League — but it should alert cricket about its historical debt.

Blessed with writers
To appreciate West Indies cricket is to know the islands’ history of slavery, colonialism, migration and the plantation economy, and then the cultural forms through which its people found selfhood and expression. It is to understand calypso and steel bands in the stands for more than celebratory abandon and wicked humour.

It is to return to a rich bookshelf of literature that places cricket at the heart of the islands’ history. As Clive Lloyd wrote recently in an introduction to Simon Lister’s Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to Its Feet, “We have been blessed with writers who have understood what the game has meant to the people of the Caribbean — C.L.R. James, Michael Manley, Hilary Beckles, Tony Cozier and Tony Becca.”

These writers, and many more, have served to highlight, and evocatively so, how the succession of victories for the West Indies was more than an assertion of supremacy. As Lloyd writes, also in the introduction: “It sounds simple, unremarkable even, but when you consider our painful history, the bitter impositions forced upon those who came before us and the particular ordeals that the inhabitants of the Caribbean have had to overcome each day of their lives, you can begin to understand why winning cricket matches for the West Indies meant so much to us all — those at home and those making their way around the world. Excellence had arrived… We represented a people who could make a difference.”

To his list of writers, I’d add Andrea Stuart. Her Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire has just a tiny passage on cricket itself, but the social history of Barbados, of the cruelty and exploitation of the island and its people, provides an informative backdrop to so much cricket writing. (As James famously asked, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”) Stuart, a Barbadian-British historian, explains how by the mid-18th century, “Sugar was the commodity that drove the geopolitics of the era, just as oil does today.” It fuelled urban infrastructure in Britain, and the Tate Galleries and Oxford colleges were funded by sugar, and slavery.

(Or as Lister quotes Eric Williams, Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister: “It was the slave and sugar trades which made Bristol the second city of England for the first three quarters of the eighteenth century.”) But for her too, by the mid-20th century, “Much of the Caribbean region’s restless longings for independence during this period were projected onto one sport: cricket.”

Calypso and nostalgia
James’s Beyond a Boundary is a beloved book so well committed to memory in large chunks that I can see the pages in my mind that to jog my imagination I now instead keep returning to a slim volume edited by Hilary Beckles, An Area of Conquest: Popular Democracy and West Indies Cricket Supremacy. Brought out by a Jamaican publisher, it has a fascinating essay by Gordon Rohlehr on calypsos, tracing them from the 1920s to the 1990s, from their aim of chronicling and celebration to analysis and admonition. The samples are reminders that you cannot enjoy a day’s cricket in the Caribbean’s stands if you cannot elevate yourself to withering humour — and honest praise. Recall the Gavaskar calypso from the seventies — they’ll still chant it for you in Kingston and Port of Spain.

What the crowds in Kolkata today return the favour, attentively and informatively?

Posted by on April 3, 2016. Filed under Sports World. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.