Making sense of the rise and fall of West Indies cricket

book cover photo by Debbie Ransome

By Debbie Ransome

Everybody has an opinion on the rise and fall of West Indies cricket.

But few can place this in a historical perspective, linking the ebb and flow of the regional team’s success to the waxing and waning of the Caribbean’s broader prospects and aspirations.

This is what University of the West Indies (UWI) Vice-Chancellor Prof Sir Hilary Beckles sets out to do in his new book, Cricket Without a Cause: Fall and Rise of the Mighty West Indies Test Cricketers.

At the book’s London launch, hosted by the joint forces of the British Foundation of UWI (BFUWI) and the Ramphal institute, Prof Beckles laid out his narrative.

A historian by education, Barbadian by birth, educator and leader by passion, Prof Beckles’s historical but pragmatic approach to charting the development of the Caribbean psyche is best known for his arguments on reparations for slavery.

His perspective has gained the attention of many in the Caribbean, its diaspora and in Africa, as it has moved on the age-old argument from “Four hundred years of slavery - you owe us” to a global movement with facts, historical analysis and a price tag for reparations.

In similar fashion, Prof Beckles has used his practical application of history’s lessons to help power the recent drive and focus of the current West Indies team.

It is no coincidence that nine members of the current West Indies team are former UWI students.

Not only were they plucked from young schoolboy cricketing potential to study at UWI, but they were also schooled regularly in what Prof Beckles calls “reconnecting” with a past UWI ethos to understand why West Indies cricket goes beyond cricket.

Prof Beckles, who lobbied for the West Indies Cricket Academy and served for a short time on the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), outlines how he and his university team set out to “start to build a whole new cadre” of cricketers who, he said, understand the need for a “rescue strategy for Caribbean society”.

Hero versus star

Prof Beckles charts three periods for the rise and fall of West Indies cricket. It began with what he called a 30-year apprenticeship in the 1890s as part of a North American cricket league. Then came a 20-year apprenticeship while playing at the invitation of the British-based Imperial Cricket Council in the early part of the 20th Century.

Along the way came the periods that all fans of West Indies cricket celebrate: the 1958 ascendancy of Frank Worrell’s team, the second rising from 1966 to 1968 of the Gary Sobers “superstar” team era and, of course, the 1976-78 period of Clive Lloyd’s world champions side.

Prof Beckles portrays the ups and downs of West Indies cricket as linked to cracks in West Indies society itself. First, there was the collapse of the West Indies Federation, which allowed Frank Worrell to become a “Caribbean president” in the absence of regional political unity after the 1950s. Then, the emergence of Caribbean/West Indian pride as a result of the 1960s/70s movements in the Caribbean, including independence and black power, fuelled another “rise” in society at large, reflected in cricketing success.

Explaining the "youth critique"

Prof Beckles provides an analysis that also gives us a narrative for the decline of West Indies cricket over the last 20 years.

He points to a period of “rot”, during which International Monetary Fund (IMF) programmes led to the “destruction of the nation state”. He recalls a conversation with then ailing former Jamaican leader Michael Manley, who referred to this change as the “crack in the wall”.

A state no longer serving and supporting its citizens and turning a blind eye to official abuse and misuse of power provides the basis for what Prof Beckles calls “youth critique” – a generation of young Caribbean people who say, “Show me the contract,” rather than, “I would be proud to represent my country and region.”

From this perspective, Prof Beckles makes it clear that he set out to understand, rather than condemn, the players of the 1998 team who stood up Nelson Mandela to haggle from a London hotel with the WICB over salaries.

This narrative also allows him to contrast that event with Michael Holding turning down $1m to play in apartheid South Africa, calling it a “mess of potage” with the “stars” of the 1990s whose ethos seemed to be “let the light shine on me”.

Prof Beckles also points out how hard it would have been for young cricketing stars to identify with the cricketing heroes of their immediate past who were living under the threat of poverty. He points the blame at a West Indian people who failed to give their 1970s stars their just reward, leaving the next generation to choose to seek wealth and fame over becoming heroes.

This focus on contracts left a West Indies team choosing from the best “available” players, rather than the best players in the region, unlike most other global sides.

A fourth rising

Following this narrative, Prof Beckles returns to the work behind the current team and the role of education, leadership training and perspective for Jason Holder and the new-look Windies side.

“What had driven Caribbean cricket had been a determination to... create a space for ourselves in modernity,” Prof Beckles told his London audience.

He said that UWI sought to link the young cricketers to a sense of their history, getting them to connect with and learn from former cricketing heroes, such as Curtly Ambrose, who was hired as a bowling consultant from 2013 to 2016.

If the Caribbean narrative plunges into that of “failed states” and hurricane-hit “colonies”, the UWI chief says that education will be to blame. So he has used education as a means of raising the sights of the current team.

“This group,” he said, “represent a radical transformation from anything that has gone on in the last 20 years.”

As it applies to Jason Holder, Prof Beckles argues that the “role of leadership” in the Caribbean is “even more critical in developing countries” which do not have a civic structure to carry them through dysfunctional times at the top.

He said of UWI social science student Holder that “we grew him to be the leader of this transition”.

It is in this context that Prof Beckles predicts a “fourth rise” in West Indies cricket, linked to education of the lessons of the past and the passing on of a consciousness from previous cricketing generations to the next.

He talks of a future of “Caribbean people taking their cricket back” – and he does not just mean on the pitch.

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