Cricket: W Indies fans in state of trauma

Cricket: Humiliating defeat to Australia reflects a decline in the Caribbean game which is not yet conclusively terminal
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The Independent Online
WEST INDIES cricket is in crisis. The popular view, is that a vortex, largely of its own creation, is dragging it down to unplumbed depths of humiliation. Only last week, the Test team collapsed to 51 all out against Australia, the lowest score in its history. Rock bottom it seems, if not already reached, is perilously close at hand. It is a situation unthinkable five years ago, when their players, headed by a quartet of fast bowlers, still ruled the cricket world.

The current situation is serious and the cricket lovers in the Caribbean know it. But instead of the expected sound of wailing and the mass gnashing of teeth, an eerie silence has descended. Losing a Test match is one thing, but this, their sixth Test defeat in a row, has left many feeling too numb to express their anger. According to one journalist from the region: "It's as if the people would rather not think about it at all."

In some ways you can understand why wholesale criticism would be considered sacrilegious. Cricket, at least since the 1960's, has been the Caribbean's most famous export. Sure, rum, bananas and reggae also served to put the region on the map, but it was their cricketers, especially their uninhibited flair and athleticism, that first gave the region a recognisable face and flavour.

Now, with cricket bringing only despondency, it has been left largely to rum and bananas (though the latter has become an issue of contention with the United States) to leave the Caribbean's footprint in the world at large. Sadly, reggae and calypso, those most original and infectious of musics, have also been eroded by facsimiles of American hip hop. "Reggae gone rap, cricket gone to pot", is how a dub poet might have put it, the pun now sadly unintended.

Make no mistake, the West Indies were one of cricket's most impregnable empires, which makes the gloom even harder for its proud followers to accept. The Romans and Greeks may have dominated their rivals for longer, but in the 15 years from 1976 until 1991, world cricket had but one master.

Normally it is the words "decline" and "fall," that are applied to the disintegration of great empires. Yet despite the alarm bells, which the doom prophets insist have been ringing for some time, the fall, like walking over a precipice, has been sudden and severe.

Perhaps the shock should have brought about the kind of indiscriminate grieving that follows natural disasters, but that has not happened. Instead, it appears that the manner of the recent Test losses has largely failed to touch the younger generation, both here and in the Caribbean. So far, only the older generations of West Indians appear to be in a state of shock.

David Lawrence, an England fast bowler of Jamaican heritage, believes the apathy amongst the young, at least in England, is due to distance, both real and imagined. Lawrence believes that for the West Indians whose parents were born in England, the strong connection with the region's cricket, so vital to people of his father's generation, has been more or less lost.

"Kids now have a new set of sporting heroes," reckons Lawrence, who was himself born in England. "Footballers like Ian Wright, Dwight Yorke and Sol Campbell have largely replaced cricketers like Gary Sobers and Viv Richards. My own hero was Michael Holding, which is why my run-up was quite as long as it was.

"There is pain over what is happening to West Indies, but in England it's mainly being felt by those who were around during the glory days. I feel sad, but it's my dad who is really hurting at the moment."

And what gloriously heady days they were, not just for West Indians, but for cricket fans everywhere. One of the feats of great sporting teams is that they can transcend culture and race. With their uninhibited strokeplay and aggressive fast bowling, those great West Indies sides of the Seventies and Eighties rewrote the rules. Fortunately, inspiration was not just limited to those with geographical or historical attachments to the Caribbean. For hundreds of callow middle-class white youths like myself, an exciting new force had arrived and we were smitten.

Having grown up in Kenya, my first taste of West Indies cricket came in the Sixties and early Seventies, through squalls of static on the BBC World Service. Later, during the height of their powers, I was to get much closer, playing 11 Test matches against them for England between 1984 and 1991. As a measure of just how good the West Indies were during that period, eight of those Tests ended in defeat, while only one Test - Headingley 1991 - resulted in victory. Remember, these were mostly England teams that contained Ian Botham, Bob Willis, David Gower and Graham Gooch, four of our greatest-ever Test players. In American sportspeak, the West Indies were simply awesome.

In truth, the road to hero worship began much earlier. Too young to remember Sobers and Rohan Kanhai - apart from re-runs of that grainy black-and- white footage of Sobers marmalising Malcolm Nash for six successive sixes at Swansea - 1976 was when the big bang occurred.

Although punk served as a catalyst, too, for those of us obsessed with sport rather than safety pins, it was the dazzling flair of the West Indies touring side which stimulated us most. Little then did I realise the extent of the side effects, and soon I was to be surrounded by the whole cultural shebang, or at least those bits safe enough for a white boy to handle.

In the space of a few short months in that red-hot summer, I had not only watched (on telly, of course) Viv Richards and Michael Holding destroy England at The Oval, but bought my first roots reggae albums to boot. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Lee Perry and the Upsetters and U-Roy, could easily have come from another planet. That they came from Jamaica, the home of Lawrence Rowe as well as "Mr Whispering Death" himself, Michael Holding, gave them an instant cachet of cool. A year later, I saw Bob Marley perform live at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park. The gig, which co- incided with half-term as well as the England v Scotland football match at Wembley, felt exciting and subversive.

Catching the tube back to a friend's house in north London, several drunken Scottish fans took exception to the red, green and gold "tams" (balaclavas), most of us had bought at the gig. With nowhere to run, a punch-up ensued and with bloodied noses, our new badges of allegiance were meekly surrendered to pagan hordes making their way to some twilight world obviously untouched by Viv or Bob.

Mind you, playing against the West Indies at the height of their powers was just as confrontational. Honed to a strict professionalism under Clive Lloyd, the team, with its overkill in the fast bowling department, became even more motivated when Richards assumed the captaincy in 1985.

Proud of his Afro-Caribbean heritage, Richards politicised the fact through his cricket. Arguably the greatest of post-war batsmen, Richards showed his fellow Antiguans, as well as the West Indies at large, that playing second fiddle in what many chose to see as a white-dominated world, did not have to be. When you bowled at Richards, you knew you were about to be assaulted and that it was indeed personal. If it was his day, and inevitably it was, humiliation, the worst thing for a sportsman, was virtually guaranteed.

Ironically, it is probably the strength of these two characters that has thrown the current team's problems into sharp relief. The only thing that has held together the concept of West Indies as a place, has been cricket. Now with the old enemies like the West Indies Cricket Board - until recently a disparate body run mainly by whites - suddenly agreeing to players' demands, the political edge, prevalent under Richards, has been removed. Quite simply, there are no big fights to be fought anymore.

Professor Hilary Beckles, an eminent figure at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, feels that it is the cult of the individual that now rules in the Caribbean. Indeed, he likens the recent sides to bands of wandering minstrels, foraging for themselves rather than pulling together as a single, unified force. It does not end there, and for players also read islands and administrators, which is why the bickering and rivalries, never far away even in Lloyd's time, have once more resurfaced.

Mind you, perhaps those of us who wish to analyse these things should approach the problem from another angle. Instead of seeking explanations of the present malaise, perhaps we should be marvelling at what a miracle it was to have produced such great sides in the first place.

There is another factor, and that is the role played by county cricket. Much maligned recently, county cricket played a vital part in moulding the key West Indies players of the golden era. Nowadays, limited to just one overseas player per county (rather than the two that prevailed in the Seventies and Eighties) the clubs want an established star rather than a youngster with promise.

Improbable though it seems, Lloyd, Richards, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts all owe a huge debt to county cricket. Apart from giving them regular cricket, the system brought both discipline and professionalism to their natural gifts, things glaringly lacking in Brian Lara's side. Of course, people say there is little infrastructure in most parts of the Caribbean, but that has always been the case. With county cricket offering a ready home in the past, there has never needed to be.

Watching them succumb so meekly against Australia, admittedly on a poor pitch, was to see a familiar face made unrecognisable by some awful trauma. Yet before we, in our safe European homes, all send our condolences and prepare to sprinkle soil on the coffin, one small point should be remembered - England have not won a Test series against them since 1969.

Whatever anguish Australia are able to inflict over the next few weeks, the second Test starts today in Kingston, it is only when they lose to England, that the malaise will be considered terminal.