Thursday, March 31, 2005

Not Playing The Game

gary+sobers viv+richards michael+holding
For as long as I can remember the West Indies has been my cricket team. This affinity had more to do with accident than design. When we moved to England we lived not far from The Oval and it was there, sitting in front of the gasholders, that I first saw Gary Sobers and Rohan Kanhai, Wes Hall and Lance Gibbs: names to conjure with. To be part of that South London crowd – at least half of whom must have been first- and second-generation Caribbean settlers – was a wonderful education. Kanhai hooking into the crowd off bended knee, and then blocking the next ball with due care and attention: "Tell him no, man!" The days of Clive Lloyd's ruthless winning machine were still years off but I knew what I liked and the WIndies rarely disappointed. And then a succession of greats and their never-to-be forgotten performances – Viv Richards's stamp of genius in 1976 or Michael Holding's deadly beauty at a parched Oval that same year, Gordon Greenidge's swaggering authority at Lord's in 1984 or Malcolm Marshall's heroics four years later.

All great teams rise and fall (though I'm not sure the current Aussie team is quite ready to call it a day). But the fall of West Indies cricket from its elevated state of grace has been evident since the mid-1990s and shows no sign of reversing any time soon. For a while the real depth of the decline was masked by the efforts of three wonderful players – Brian Lara, Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. The two fast bowlers have gone now and Lara remains a troubled and troubling presence.

All kinds of reasons have been put forward for the decline. Some blame the influx of satellite dishes and cable companies, leading to the saturation of American sports on television. Others point to the changing economies in the Caribbean making cricket too time consuming and expensive to play. The West Indies Cricket Board has also been castigated for not planning sufficiently for the future. Or maybe it is just the cyclical nature of sport. Perhaps the most brutal assessment comes from Hilary Beckles, the doyen of Caribbean cricket historians. He blames the players:

You cannot get a more miserable, self-dividing people anywhere in the Caribbean like West Indian cricketers. It's a miserable community that cannot rise and take responsibility for their own craft.
If this seems harsh then the latest crisis to envelop the West Indies seems to bear him out. On the eve of an important home series against South Africa, half a dozen of the best players – including Lara – were not available for selection because of an unseemly dispute over sponsorship deals and money. The details are not important and it looks like a settlement might soon be reached. But the longer term omens are not at all good. Something is rotten in the state of West Indies cricket.

In today's Guardian, the Trinidadian writer B.C. Pires offers a sobering tale of "self-inflicted pride and prejudice". He is clear about the way in which today's impasse between the players, the Board and the sponsors is symptomatic of much deeper problems:
The root causes of the crisis are the same as they have always been in Caribbean cricket: the last three weeks of brinksmanship are only a reflection and inevitable consequence of years of decline, mismanagement, greed and insularity.
In particular, Pires says,
the accusation of greed is difficult to avoid... [all] have been plainly seeking to feather their own nests.
And his conclusion is especially bleak:
Against this barrage of negativity the West Indian population has been able to bring only hope. Up to yesterday Caribbeans were praying for a last-minute, miraculous resolution that would give them a team they could love as well as support. This morning many of them could be forgiven for thinking that, in the Caribbean in cricket at least, there is no future, just the past happening over and over again
Beyond the very obvious problems that have long beset Caribbean cricket I had always held on to the cyclical view of sporting decline and eventual revival – the West Indies' time would come again sooner or later. Now I am not so sure. What if there really is no future?


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