Firstly for American readers, I must apologise to readers for writing a piece on Cricket. I guess there are two ways of looking at it…as follows!
1 – This piece focusses on the West Indies – as Michael Holding, the great west indies bowler said recently, “No team has dominated any sport for so long as fifteen years” and also of course the fact that the West Indies isn’t far!
2 – The roots of cricket and baseball are interestingly connected. Certainly there was a secondary sport practised by cricketers that was remarkably close to baseball called “Rounder’s” which is still played and another called “Stool – ball”. The cricket equipment in the eighteenth century during the period the great poet Byron played cricket was surprisingly similar to a baseball bat. The cricket bats of that period being slender and curved.
3 By 1861 Cricket was the most popular sport in America but fell victim to the raging civil war. Though it wasn’t the first “Test Match” played, the first international match was not between England and Australia as many would guess…It was Canada versus the United States! For the record Canada won against the New York based team back in Manhattan in 1844…5,000 attended on the first day and 2 million was gambled on it! Just shows you…potential for good old fashioned gentlemanly match fixing is nothing new!
4 Another link is the theory that when cricket was played in New York, locals took the rules, adapted them from a wicket to a diamond pitch and changed the equipment, and baseball was born. It will always be a mystery, rather like the origins of cricket itself.
5 Certainly baseball is as littered with as many characters. There was even a famous occasion when Babe Ruth visited W.G Grace at Lords!
Let’s move on to the subject of this article, the West Indies. Twenty/20 Cricket is certainly my least favourite form of the game and sees the game going full circle in a way. Out are whites and five day matches I know and love and in are dancing girls, loud music and an instant three hour game. Sounds great? Not to me. It can be enjoyable but I much prefer the longer forms, still I must resist the temptation to get on my soapbox! As of this month The West Indies are the number two team in the world at “T/20” and the world champions of 20/20 over cricket. Not bad for a team once lauded as the greatest of all time but that have slipped down over a fifteen period to the very bottom, stumbling from disaster to disaster, albeit largely with one of the finest batsmen of his generation for a lot of that period…the now retired Brian Lara. From beating England regularly five nil and terrorising English batsmen with the most feared attack in history to losing against England every time on miserable wet days in May. A lot of the reason for the huge decline has been politics; it is not for lack of talent. Currently Chris Gayle is arguably the hottest property in Cricket. The history of West Indies cricket is such that they have fought against racism, often institutionalized and since their era of dominance have been strangely absent from the English county cricket system which at one time in the eighties Included as many West Indians as it does South Africans today.
The last fifteen years has seen them slip from the best team in the world to seventh and eighth in the test and one day cricket rankings and a change is needed. Thankfully the ICC is donating 3 million to help rehabilitate the region. Distractions of American sports and the odd decline have made the game not what it once was in the region.
Despite the rest of the world producing such icons as Don Bradman, Shane Warne and W.G Grace and many more, the “Windies” have produced the most ENTERTAINING cricketers, from “the black Bradman” (George Headley), to the greatest all-rounder of all time, Gary Sobers. Pace men from Garner, Marshall and Roberts and Holding (nicknamed the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”) to amazing batmen such as Richards, Lloyd, Gomes and the man with a cut stroke of such ferocity that has never been seen in the game, before or since…Gordon Greenidge. Much has been made of how a team largely at one time led largely by white men in the early twentieth century turned the tables in the nineteen seventies to produce a true “fire in Babylon” and produce a team that were not only invincible but highly entertaining and to me as a cricket fan who was born and brought up in England there is still no doubt that despite all the great teams of the past and since, there has never been a better team than the mighty West Indian team that dominated for fifteen years. They had suffered discrimination and became icons for all peoples from all countries and brought anger, passion, fear, envy, drama, entertainment, magnificence and aggression (even horror) in equal measure. How missed it is, despite a minority feeling otherwise. Aggression is not associated with cricket but the battery of fast bowlers was such that at one point it was felt they might kill someone at any time in any match. This had only been hinted at through the fear of Harold Larwood, the English bowler and his captains “Bodyline” tactics back in the nineteen thirties and what a controversy that was!
So given this background (outlined here for the uninitiated), after all the greatness and dominance, after all the pain and loss and seeming death of the game in the region and after the gentlemanly way they have always played the game it is with a happy heart that I report the winning of a world cup. Many thought the team coming to the tournament that might win would be England (who won in 2009), India (who won in the first tournament in 07 and subsequently set up the IPL which is something of a difficult and divisive elephant in the room and might perhaps be the subject of a future article), or the home team Sri Lanka. Australia had a point to prove after a recent slight decline, and South Africa who are now number one test team in the world must have fancied their chances. So for West Indies to win is an amazing achievement. They have a workmanlike leader in Darren Sammy, who attracts critics as his batting and bowling sometimes falls short…but he must be commended. On paper many admitted the West Indies could have been favourites because of the star players of West Indies extraction playing in the IPL Indian league. Most wouldn’t have believed it could really happen and that the infighting and lack of team spirit would, as usual, undermine the natural talent.
Of the match itself…well the final started strangely. Only a handful of runs came in the first few overs. Even Gayle could not get any boundaries. Marlon Samuels, an underrated and stylish batsman (imagine a West Indian Jacques Kallis) bludgeoned Malinga and co to all parts in one of the great inning’s to resurrect the Windies chances and after Rampaul got a wicket first ball the whole match was turned upside down and the unthinkable happened. Tragically two Sri Lankan fans killed themselves after this loss such is the passion in Sri Lanka. It is only a game, and ironically one can only hope West Indian passion will rise but not in such a senseless way, still…enough of the formalities for those not ofay with the intricacies of the great game. True, doubter may say “it is only 20/20” and none are more questioning of the format than I, but players with talent are talented regardless of the format of the game. Let us hope politics and strange baffling selections don’t stifle and hinder the development of players from the Caribbean any longer.
All I can say is I hope after such a depressing downturn in fortunes that this might signal a turn around. Cricket needs a strong West Indies side and something has been missing during the nadir. Viv Richards was the greatest entertainer I have ever seen and Malcolm Marshall, apart from Shane Warne, the most complete bowler. Marshall, who died prematurely of Cancer, was a complete gentleman, a genius and a true great in every sense of the word.
The celebrations by the players were of the type only Caribbean people can do…let us hope it is not a rare sight, for in the words of the great poet Shelley (a friend of Byron’s of course) may these following words from his great poem the “Mask of Anarchy” resonate for West Indies fans during this trophy winning period…
“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many — they are few”
Ben Manning – Oct 2012.