Books: Bowled over by the bankers heady heady - The Development of West Indies Cricket by Hilary McD. Beckles Pluto Press, 2 volumes: pounds 14.99 & pounds 13.99; 256pp & 208pp

Did the IMF stump the once-great West Indians? Mike Marqusee gives his verdict and society
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FOR THE best part of two decades, the West Indies dominated world cricket with a power and panache that won them an army of supporters beyond the Caribbean and outside the ranks of the West Indian diaspora. Offended as Norman Tebbitt was by second-generation blacks who backed the ancestral homeland against England, he could not even begin to cope with the large numbers of English-born whites who adopted the West Indies as their own and cheered as a succession of great fast bowlers mowed down a generation of English batsmen.

But for lovers of West Indies cricket, the last few years have been painful, as the former invincibles were humbled by Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, and even, on occasion, England. In the West Indies, of course, the experience of defeat has been devastating and the post-mortems agonised. But everywhere, cricket fans have pondered over this strange and apparently sudden collapse of a great sporting tradition.

Perhaps the really puzzling question is not how West Indies lost the winning habit, but how a poor and relatively small society ever came to lord it over a world sport. Thirty-five years ago, in Beyond a Boundary, C L R James inaugurated the serious study of the game, and in particular its link with the national destiny of the West Indies. Now, in this scholarly but deeply personal two volume work, Hilary Beckles, a disciple of James and a professor at the University of West Indies, has produced as searching an account of the rise and crisis of a sporting culture as has yet been written.

In his first volume, The Age of Nationalism, Beckles chronicles the transformation of Caribbean cricket from a colonial and elitist into a popular and nationalist enterprise. The heroes of this inspirational saga include the familiar figures of Constantine, Worrell, Sobers, Lloyd and Richards, and, more surprisingly, Sir Pelham "Plum" Warner, the MCC grandee who championed multi-racial cricket in the islands.

At the core of this story, however, is the West Indies cricket crowd, in whose many voices Beckles hears a subject populace coming to a new consciousness of itself as a modern nation. Beckles dedicates his second volume to a study of the crisis of West Indies cricket in The Age of Globalisation. He reconstructs the highly nuanced debates prompted by the historic 1995 defeat by Australia and concludes "the nation was on trial and the evidence was not good". The current cricket malaise, he insists, can only be understood in the context of the IMF-dictated structural adjustment process, which has engendered a "crisis of social trust and confidence in the region".

Beckles notes that while "the West Indies cricket team for 15 years was the world's strongest, its financial integrity was the world's weakest". However, he is sceptical about the cricket authorities new market-orientated strategy, which "has deepened the fracture between the managers and the masses".

Thanks to his socio-economic framework, Beckles is able to make sense of the enigmatic Brian Lara, whom he describes as "the first hero of the new paradigm that is characterised by the privatisation ... and global liberalisation of cricket". Paradoxically, Lara's "corporate style and connections" are admired by West Indian youth even as their own prospects dwindle. Hope for the future, Beckles believes, lies with a revived pan- West Indies nationalism.

Beckles' concern with theoretical issues may prove daunting to some readers, but his passionate engagement is sure to win over anyone with a fondness for cricket, an interest in the West Indies, or a curiosity about the conundrums of modern sport.