Editorial | Cricket and Caribbean society
KIERON POLLARD, the captain of the West Indies limited-overs cricket team, was refreshingly frank about his team’s failings in their 2-1 defeat by Ireland in their recent One-Day International (ODI) series, and the generally poor state of batting in the region.
But, unlike Mr Pollard, it was not for this newspaper only the defeat by Ireland, a minnow of the game, that made it “a sad day for West Indies cricket”. And neither did the batting problem he identified arise “in the last couple of years”. Nor is it primarily a failure of physical fitness.
West Indies cricket has been in crisis for more than a quarter of a century. Its decline seems to have tracked certain socio-economic and political trends in Caribbean societies: high debt, slow growth, high rates of unemployment, rising crime, a meandering integration movement, and great swathes of marginalised young people.
We, however, do not assert these as causation for the state of West Indies cricket. Strong correlations, though, deserve investigation. For, as C. L. R. James observed in his seminal work on cricket and life in the West Indies: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’
The West Indies enjoyed nearly two decades of dominance, from the late 1970s until the great teams under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards started to the fray in the early to mid-1990s. Despite the rise since those glory days of a batting genius in Brian Lara, and great fast bowlers in Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, the team has not been able to return to the heights of the past era. But worse has been their abject lack of consistency.
No one can with reasonable certainty place a stake on how the team might perform on any single day, in any game, or in a session of a match, except, maybe, at points, in the blurry dazzles of Twenty-20 Internationals – games in which either side faces only 120 deliveries. This format of cricket does call for strategy and highly energetic fielding. Players must be physically fit. Another of its compelling requirements is that batsmen have sharp eyes and the ability to hit the ball hard and far – not the subtle skills and draining concentration demanded of Test matches, played over five days, or ODIs of 50 overs or 300 balls. Modern West Indian cricketers, especially batsmen, have found these latter formats difficult to master.
From 2009/2010 to present, of the 42 Test series the West Indies played, they won only nine and drew six. They lost 27 or 64 per cent of them. During the period, they were involved in 102 Test matches, of which they won 16, or 15.7 per cent. In terms of ODIs, they played 47 series with other nations and won nine. These series involved 162 matches of which the West Indies won 27, or approximately 17 per cent.
Over the same period, the regional team played 52 T20 series, of which they won 17 or 33 per cent. They drew seven of these series. Of the 105 matches in those country-on-country competitions, they won 28, or 27 per cent. They also won two T20 World Cup competitions.
Clearly, the team is more proficient at this fast, furious format of the game – which many people might argue is reflective of the current state of Caribbean society, with its embrace of instant gratification, a receding of considered and thoughtful action and low levels of trust and cooperation, and perhaps, too, the death, or retreat, of ideology. People and politics do not stand much for anything concrete or substantive.
For cricket lovers who share those perspectives, it might be tempting to track the growth of West Indian cricket against significant social/political movements. The great team of the ’70s and ’80s happened to be the backdrop of the Black Power and various trends in ideology. The anti-apartheid movement was growing, Third World solidarity and South-South cooperation was on the agenda. The Caribbean was at the forefront of these debates. The 1950s and into the ’60s was the confluence of the Three Ws and Sobers and Hall and the nationalism of the independence movement. George Headley, in 1930, was coincidental with the rise of trade unionism and the labour movement of that era.
If there is indeed causation between these factors and the quality of regional cricket, its fixing may demand more than fixing fields better, paying players well, getting them fit, and offering them psychological support. It might have to include determining what went wrong in the region and how it influences those who now play the sport – how it shapes their personalities.
Cricket administrators may have to think differently about their roles. Cricket West Indies, in this regard, would have to add new dimensions to how it manages the sport, taking into account James’ admonition about knowing cricket.