There are things which you wait for to happen, and when they do, you ask yourself why you wanted them to happen. Last Sunday night in Colombo when Darren Sammy and his men went wild as the West Indies lifted the World Twenty20 Cup, people had different reasons to celebrate the moment. And it had least to do with the “support for the underdog” argument (for a change, Caribbean team wasn’t an underdog in this tournament). In times when the professional juggernaut has reduced sports to mechanical coaching programmes and training regimes, a whiff of Caribbean flavour somehow reminds us of one of the original purposes of sports – the creative joy of purposelessness, something that can exist beyond reason, beyond analysis.
For Indian men (very few women watched cricket then) who fancied the BSA-SLR bicycle (remember the “it moves like a champion” catch-phrase) as they grew up in the Eighties, one reason seems obvious. This might be just a wish to see winning normalcy in the invincible team of their childhood years, whose decline was as unimaginable in the Eighties as was the Twenty-20 format. Though only consistent glory at the summit of test cricket could come anywhere near that Caribbean era, winning a world title after a gap of 33 years (nobody is taking into account the irrelevant 2004 Champions Trophy triumph) has its trigger value for nostalgia. And remembering the last time they won a world title (World Cup at Lords,1979) is to remember Clive Lloyd (the bespectacled captain who was closer to your idea of a school principal than that of an elegant left-handed batsman), the feared pace battery of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft (later making way for other legends like Marshall, Ambrose and Walsh), and of course the incomparable batting legend Vivian Richards giving company to batting stalwarts like Greenidge, Haynes and Kallicharan.
It was a team that went on to conquer everything that it surveyed in the next decade, the Eighties – winning most matches and drawing some of them. It didn’t lose a test series for 15 years (though the downhill journey from the mid-90s has the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy). But, that’s the catch. If you are stuck in counting wins and losses, you perhaps don’t understand the Caribbean brand of cricket. The team had (and to an extent, continues to have) so much to offer beyond the binaries of wins-losses and numerical fetishes of records.
The era might have missed the great prose of cricket writers like Neville Cardus or that of Afro-Trinidadian historian C L R James. But it has found some late favour with visual arts. For people who might not even be following cricket and for cricket fans in their teens or even in their early twenties, Stevan Riley’s 87-minute documentary film Fire In Babylon (a British production released in UK in 2010, and in India recently in September, 2012) could provide a historical narrative of those high noon years of Caribbean cricket. Within the tale of a team’s journey, Riley’s documentary weaves together the subtexts of identity politics, the undercurrents of racism in post-colonial sporting rivalries, and the distinct cultural appeal of calypso cricket. Have a peep into Riley’s attempt to tell the story of that era:
A review in The Hindu put it tersely: “Riley’s point is that the rise of the West Indies team had a political ring to it as years of colonial subjugation and racial abuse had propelled them to a sort of war on the pitch. He gives it a spiritual spin by bringing in the advocates of the Rastafarian movement and the fact that Richards ascribes to the thought gives it a sense of believability. And selective use of racial controversies of the time gives it an air of authenticity”. As is apparent, the documentary-maker has sought to identify too many strands in the team’s story. The question: should this much be read into this tale?
But, there is something not so warlike. The calypso milieu of Caribbean cricket sets it apart and even makes the results of the games redundant. It’s refreshing to know how generous and rhythmic the grounds and streets can become in these islands in praising as well as remembering the great performances of even the visiting teams. Sample this: In 1971, India achieved a historic 1-0 series victory in West Indies (with a win in second test at Port of Spain), and the series also witnessed the emergence of Sunil Gavaskar as a world-class batsman. In what is considered one of the greatest pieces of cricket calypso, Relator put the Indian team’s achievement and Gavaskar’s masterly batting at the centre with a composition which had lines like:
“It was Gavaskar
De real master
Just like a wall
We couldn’t out Gavaskar at all, not at all
You know the West Indies couldn’t out Gavaskar at all”.
Listen to the full audio rendition of the composition.
However, from a cricketing point of view, the most endearing aspect about Caribbean cricket is the natural flow of things they did on the field – elegant yet effortless. If you had an eye on those cover drives and pulls that came with high backlifts from bats of Sobers, Sir Vivian, Greenidge and Lara (though the unsung Hooper, and now Samuels are as elegant), when there was no breathing space left by that relentless attack from the pace battery and that natural athleticism of fielders and legendary wicketkeepers like Dujon, you can sense what ugliness professional training has now brought on cricket fields. In the way they play these days, many coached players lack identity – they look as similar as soaps from the same manufacturing brand. The most valuable asset of West Indies cricket was (and hope it continues to be) its distinct flavour, its character. It’s interesting to note that even the least flamboyant of its contemporary greats, Shivnarine Chanderpaul has a distinct character of tenacity and passion for surviving for another day to fight.
Being naturals, West Indian cricketers stand out in today’s times when the celebrity trap has ensured that many sportspersons have become captive to the camera image, calculated soundbytes and self-delusionary bubbles. In some ways and quite refreshingly, Caribbean cricket can’t be seen as part of this “made-for camera- expression” industry in both its on-the-field and off-the-field presence.
West Indies cricket represents an antidote to the “the war minus shooting” description which George Orwell had once used for modern sporting culture (reduced to a cliché now). Any sign of renewed interest in the West Indies is welcome – either it’s through a documentary on the team’s legacy or through its feat of winning a world title. Though any early talks of the team’s revival would be a case of jumping the gun (further diminished by the fact that it’s a title in game’s shortest version), what counts more is that the team is reclaiming its place in our sporting imagination.
It’s important because the great thing about Caribbean teams hasn’t been what they achieved, but how they do whatever they do on the field. They fulfill the original role of sport the world over – to entertain purposelessly, naturally and creatively.
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