On the last day of March, a friend of mine, temporarily in London, wandered into a pub. It was night in India, but afternoon in England, so there were just the odd drinker around. My friend persuaded the pub’s owner to switch the channel to Sky Sports, so that he could watch the World T20 semi-final.
The request was acceded to. My friend ordered a beer, sat down on a school, and began watching the match. The customer next to him was an English lady in her thirties. ‘Who is India playing?’, she asked. ‘West Indies’, was the answer. ‘Then West Indies will win’, she remarked, ‘my father told me they always do’.
The Englishwoman’s cricket-loving father would have grown up in the 1970s, when Clive Lloyd and his men made Tony Greig’s team grovel. He would have then followed, with a mixture of admiration and disgust, the ‘blackwashes’ of Botham, Gooch, Gower and company in the 1980s. Those were the memories the father still carried with him, and which he passed on to his (otherwise cricket-ignorant) daughter.
I too grew up thinking the West Indies always won. My first aural memories were of hearing Test Match Special in 1966, the year Gary Sobers’s side carried all before them in England. Some years later, when I joined Delhi University, I got the Australian High Commission to lend me films of the Tied Test of 1960-1, and of Sobers’ double hundred for the Rest of the World in 1971-2 (which Bradman considered the greatest innings he had watched). These films I then had screened in my college, to a large and approving crowd, so approving that I repeated the (West Indian) performance every year thereafter.
I came to admire Vivian Richards almost as much as Sobers. I first saw Richards bat in my years at Delhi University. He hit a magnificent 192, with one six sailing northwards out of the Ferozeshah Kotla, all the way from New Delhi to Old Delhi. Twelve years later, at the same ground, I saw Richards score another matchwinning Test hundred, this time in the fourth innings, on a crumbling wicket against artful Indian spinners. Two years later still, Richards did little with the bat in a one-day international against India at the Kotla, but again won the match, with the ball, taking six wickets.
To Indians of my generation, the West Indian cricketers were supreme. In later years, as they declined and fell away, we felt that something was missing in the game of cricket. That is why, for people like me, if there was one team we didn’t much mind India losing to, it was the West Indies. This sentiment was especially strong in Kolkata, whose cricketing crowd has a deep sense of history. Bengalis who watched Worrell and Ramadhin in the 1950s passed on their memories (and their praise) to their children, who, watching Richards and Roberts in the 1970s, passed this on to the next generation. It therefore came as no surprise that all except a few people at the Eden Gardens last Sunday wanted West Indies to beat England in the final of the T20 World Cup.
While Darren Sammy and his men were making their way through the tournament, I was reading a fine new book on Caribbean cricket. This is Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to Its feet, by the British writer Simon Lister. A documentary film of the same name was screened in India (and elsewhere) some years ago. Lister’s book is far better than the film, partly because a book of 300 pages allows one more room than a film of an hour-and-a-quarter, but mostly because the author has a richer and more subtle understanding of Caribbean history than did the film’s director.
The Hindu, in an editorial after the World T20 final, called the West Indies’s win a triumph of ‘instinct’. This is an old trope; back in the 1930s, watching the West Indies play, Neville Cardus said their cricketing style was ‘a consequence of impulses born in the sun and influenced by an environment and way of life much more natural than ours.’ One of the merits of Lister’s book is that he comprehensively demolishes these stereotypes. He shows how the success of Clive Lloyd’s team in particular was based on hard work, tactical intelligence, and long-range planning.
That is true of this victorious West Indies T20 team as well. Where Dhoni was too scared to use his main spinner in the opening overs, Sammy wisely chose to start with his own best slow bowler. The rapid bowling changes, the ability to move batsmen up and down the order as the situation demanded, and the way in which Simmons, in the semi-final, and Samuels, in the final, paced their innings, were emphatically a triumph of intelligence over instinct.
The film Fire in Babylon presents a uni-dimensional picture, of Afro-Caribbeans taking on the ruling whites. Lister’s book of the same name does not shirk from describing the horrors of slavery and the ways in which cricket provided a pathway for black pride and social emancipation. But, unlike the film, he does not ignore the Indo-Caribbean element. Ramadhin in the 1950s, Kanhai and Joe Solomon in the 1960s, Kanhai and Kallicharan in the 1970s, were all key to the success of the teams they played in. So it has been with Denesh Ramdin and Samuel Badree in this most recent side.
T20 is not Test cricket. In the longest and best form of the game, the West Indies are no longer competitive. But perhaps that day will return. Meanwhile, let me thank Darren Sammy and his men for, albeit so fleetingly, making me young again.
IN PRAISE OF WEST INDIES
CRICKET AND CRICKETERS
(published in the Hindustan Times, 10th April 2016)