It was a promotional email about a new DVD version of Fire in Babylon, a few weeks ago, which made me sit down once again in front of one of the greatest films to have emerged from the field of sport. The story it tells of how the great West Indies side of the 1970s used cricket – their colonisers’ game – as a devastating expression of their independent spirit is so inspirational that you wonder how the team and Test cricket on the islands can have withered to a state of near collapse in the space of just 40 years.
Dwayne Bravo and his players have just become the first team to abandon a tour – in India – because of a dispute over pay and, amid the catalogue of incompetence and intransigence which has brought things to this, you wonder why someone didn’t think to sit the players down in front of Stevan Riley’s masterpiece. To let them hear Colin Croft discussing the patronising view of West Indians’ “calypso cricket” before Clive Lloyd assembled the pace attack which blew the world away. And to witness the sneer on Tony Greig’s face when, in his South African drawl at the height of the apartheid era, he declared before the 1976 England-West Indies Test series that: “If they are down they grovel. And… I intend to make them grovel.” “That wasn’t a clever thing to say,” reflects Gordon Greenidge, the great West Indies opener. And boy, was he right.
The film also reminds us that India, the country which may now bring West Indies cricket to its knees and render it bankrupt in reprisal for Bravo’s walkout, also know a thing or two about aborting Test matches. In 1976, Sunil Gavaskar’s players were the ones walking out in protest, surrendering the Sabina Park Test because of the pace and aggression of the West Indian attack. The five Indian batsmen who declined to take the field were officially “absent hurt”.
The current circumstances are different, of course. India, whose cricket board says it may sue the West Indies for $65m (£40.4m) in lost television revenues and refuse to tour the Caribbean next year, feel they hold the moral high ground. The West Indians command none of that territory after the farcical failure of the game’s governing body in the Caribbean and its leader, Whycliffe “Dave” Cameron, to anticipate the storm clouds that have been gathering over wages. “President Cameron”, as he defines himself on Twitter was retweeting philosophical quotes from Nelson Mandela and others when the storm was brewing, rather than taking a flight to India to sort it out.
The roots of the problem are also located in the fact that the West Indies is a fictional concept. “It’s the only thing we do together,” Michael Holding says of cricket in Fire in Babylon and the islands have certainly become more fragmented and mutually hostile. Witness Trinidad and Barbados recently refusing entry to and deporting Jamaicans. In the current conflict, the players’ union leader Wavell Hinds – a Jamaican – seems to have cut a deal with the West Indian Cricket Board that favours the second level of players, including lots of hungry Jamaicans, against the most established stars like Bravo, of Trinidad.
But for all that, it was hard to stomach last week’s Indian expressions of outrage. They said they were “shocked” and “extremely disappointed” at the West Indies showing “little thought for the game”. As if their country had not played a very substantial part in what has come to pass.
It is the Indian Premier League and its wages which has made Test match cricket so vastly less attractive to players, leading the best West Indians to travel around the world from one T20 league to the next rather than participate in the islands’ domestic competition – the proving ground of Test players – which has suffered the consequences. A West Indian can earn in seven weeks what he can earn in seven years on a West Indian Cricket Board salary. Consider the West Indies match fee which has become the source of such controversy: $5,750 (£3,570). That’s half the kind of money an England Test player will earn and around a lower-league footballer’s salary in this country.
It is also India – with England and Australia – which has presided over a culture in which the rich get richer and hang the rest in international cricket. The divide between the so-called Big Three and the others has grown vaster in the past year. Their push for the idea of two-tier cricket, with the three of them immune from relegation, was abandoned last year, when a leaked draft document detailing the plans caused outrage. But in exchange for that concession, a redistribution of cricket’s wealth made the Big Three richer to the detriment of all others. Wisden India calculated at the time that India, England and Australia would be around $520m (£323m) better off. The West Indies will see very little of the additional £600m the International Cricket Council has secured from broadcasting rights.
Neither has India been averse to pulling out of fixtures it does not fancy. It cancelled an away series in South Africa last year so that it could host Sachin Tendulkar’s final Tests at home – a very significant development since the biggest source of income for most teams, ICC money aside, is the sale of TV rights from an Indian tour to that country’s broadcasters.
In a cricketing sense, the West Indies really are grovelling now. The islands’ distinguished journalist Tony Cozier detailed on these pages last week that the West Indies Cricket Board’s losses in 2013 were around $6m (£3.7m) and served a reminder of how the auditors KPMG raised “considerable doubt that the company will be able to continue as a going concern”. As the Test side has declined, so has the level of sponsorship. This year’s visitors, New Zealand and Bangladesh, seldom attracted more than 1,000 spectators. Only tours of the Caribbean by India and England are profitable – which is why India carrying out its threat of a boycott would spell the end.
India has a choice: either to stride off over the horizon with England and Australia, leaving the West Indies shrivelling to irrelevance in its wake; or to show some philanthropy and help nurture a once-proud competitor.
Fire in Babylon is a reminder of the spectacle which West Indies can bring to a sport which needs as many as it can get. It is heartbreaking to recall the old strength which has now gone.Reuse content