West Indies cricket's latest humiliation at the hands of their former colonial masters here yesterday has deepened the sense of despair about the future of the game in the region. From an unequalled period of global reign that lasted 15 years, yesterday's loss to England in the Second Test at the Queen's Park Oval in Port of Spain, marked the Caribbean side's 40th Test match defeat in six-and-a-half years.
More than just a slide from the dizzying heights of the Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards eras, the current captain Brian Lara heads a team that has left seasoned commentators and ageing fans struggling to explain the embarrassing turnaround in fortunes.
But to paraphrase the seminal work of CLR James, the West Indian writer, on the influence of cricket in the former British West Indian colonies, the problem goes beyond the boundary. It is about more than finding more demonic fast bowlers and brilliant batsmen.
Pride, dignity and honour were, for more than 70 years, the defining characteristics of the conveyor-belt supply of world-class players who have emerged from these territories.
Now, in an era where the values of small societies and cultures are rapidly being devoured by globalisation, cricket has become one of the casualties of the profound social upheaval that our tiny islands have undergone in the space of a single generation. Although most of our nations still retain their palm-fringed allure for British and American tourists, the true picture behind the white sand beaches, smiling faces and fruit punches is less than idyllic. Unemployment, drugs and violent crime have proven to be a destructive concoction for Caribbean societies. Youth culture, fuelled by an incessant diet of consumerism via US satellite television, is increasingly disconnected from the values that defined West Indian peoples and shaped the cricketers who grew up believing the game was not just a means towards social and financial upliftment, but a way of showing a condescending motherland that the little Davids under the palm trees could slay the Goliaths in their own arenas.
At every turn, Caribbean societies are being fractured by forces almost completely out of the control of a visionless class of political leaders. Filling the vacuum between ideal and grim reality is a new colonialism, a mental enslavement to America replacing the binding to Britain that characterised previous generations.
Poorly educated, and often inadequately parented, our kids in their Michael Jordan T-shirts, have become walking time bombs. They exude an anger and restlessness that is at its most destructive when manifested in gang wars fuelled by the drug trade. As the region of the world second only to sub-Saharan Africa in the prevalence and spread of HIV/Aids the young are under threat in more ways than one.
In such a destabilised environment, although cricket is still held passionately in the hearts of most West Indians, it is not surprising that the sport is on the wane. The growth in the popularity of football and basketball has reduced the talent pool from which the next crop of cricketers will emerge. Indeed, in Jamaica and the twin-island state of Trinidad and Tobago, football and its financial rewards are challenging cricket on the sporting pedestal. In that context, the West Indies cricket team's last tour of England in 2000 was instructive: the usual throngs of expatriate Caribbean fans and their offspring were conspicuous by their absence.
The second generation of immigrants had gravitated more towards football and the promise of almost instant wealth than to a game that seems caught in a time warp while promising relatively modest returns. In seeking to win over a "new" young audience to cricket, West Indian officials seem to have missed the point in their preoccupation with peripheral issues rather than attending to the open heart surgery the game requires.
The phenomenon of "party" stands, complete with scantily-clad dancing girls and incessant booming music, has grown over the past decade to the point where it is competing with the cricket for attention. While its adherents claim cricket is benefiting from the spectacle, financially foremost, the so-called "new" fans have little interest in the game. In effect, the party has moved from the beaches and nightclubs to the cricket grounds. After the first two Tests in Kingston and Port of Spain the respective party stands played on for hours, seemingly oblivious to the latest West Indian embarrassments.
There is no easy way out of a decline that is attended to by characteristic Caribbean indifference. Cricket may not be quite dying along this chain of islands, but it is certainly in danger of becoming irrelevant to large sections of the population.What was once a proud badge of West Indian identity and unity has been allowed to become little more than a cash-earning commodity.
And in the language of the global economy where the market rules, stocks in West Indian cricket have collapsed, and show no signs of reviving.
The writer is a cricket commentator based in Trinidad
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