Cricket: Sad end to a state of grace

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THE only appropriate emotional response to the strike by the West Indian cricketers is an overwhelming sadness. Even on their broodier days, West Indians have shown an instinctive love and understanding of the game which goes deeper than the colour of the next bank note. Now, the heirs to a precious inheritance laid down by Lord Learie Constantine of Trinidad, Tobago and Nelson (Lancashire) and Sir Garfield Sobers have to be talked down from the ledge to be paid for what most West Indians would gladly do for the price of the next rum. The scowl has replaced the smile as the symbol of West Indian cricket. Or perhaps the rubbing together of thumb and forefinger, the universal language of the hustler.

It is easy to be nostalgic about the great West Indian sides. When they were indisputably the best side in the world for 20 years, their cricket was tinged with menace. The image of the joyous Caribbean cricketer looked a little different wtih a bat in your hand and Michael Holding 22 yards away. No teams were more calculating and single-minded than those captained initially by Clive Lloyd and then by Viv Richards, but their batting was still shot through with an attractively hedonstic streak.

From the days of George Headley, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes through to Viv Richards, run-making was an expression of character, individuality and sovereignty. The way the runs were made was as significant as their number and recklessness was always on the flip side of the cavalier's coin. The very vulnerability added to the attraction and spectators the world over flocked to watch them play. Politics were never far from the surface, but most inter-island and colonial inequalities were levelled once the team took the field.

The adulation which accompanied the rise of Brian Lara reflected universal joy at the perpetuation of a glorious tradition. Lara seemed to combine the best of Caribbean and orthodox methods just as Headley, the Black Bradman, had reputedly done before and after the Second World War. Lara bats like a West Indian should, with classical rigour yet a barely disguised disdain for the refinements of the coaching manual. The backlift is too prominent, the footwork a little casual and the shot selection often dubious, except that Lara in full flow renders such matters largely irrelevant. It did not, perhaps could never, last. The tainting of Lara has been one of the more melancholy of recent morality tales. The fact that the most gifted batsman of this or any other generation should be the focal point for, some say the cause of, the discontent within the West Indian camp serves only to sharpen the indignity.

The people of the Caribbean can quite justifiably feel insulted by their team's sulks. It is doubtful if the streets of Kingston or St John's will be awash with sympathy for cricketers who, by the standards of the locals, are handsomely paid. Whether the overtly emotional pitch taken by Ali Bacher struck the right chord is equally open to question. But the West Indies' reaction to his arrival, bearing a note from Nelson Mandela, was aptly summed up by Courtney Walsh, who kept him waiting for half an hour. This is the man who has done more than anyone to break down apartheid barriers in South African sport.

The West Indians have been nurturing grievances against their Board for some years. Divisions have been heightened by the rival candidacies for the captaincy: Jamaicans rallying behind Walsh, Trinidadians for Lara. Antigua, new home for the Board's offices, harbour ambitions of their own. Neither is the parlous state of the Board's finances anything new. What has changed is the attitude of the cricketers. The charm has gone, mislaid amid the potted palms and piped music of a non-descript hotel near Heathrow. Not much of a place to lose a glorious tradition.