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Heroes of the Caribbean
by Celia Sankar
Written in 1995

If Latin America is passionate about soccer, then the Caribbean is zealously passionate about cricket. The game permeates life in the region. Throughout the islands, the scene is the same: On village greens, on the beach, in deserted streets, in fact, wherever there is clear ground and whenever there is free time children and adults gather around a makeshift wicket for the game. No doubt they are fantasizing that they are part of the region's larger-than-life professional team, whose members carry the pride of the Caribbean on their shoulders.

Hardly anyone misses a match played by the team-called the West Indies cricket team for historical reasons-even if it means staying awake at ungodly hours to listen on radio to their exploits in England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and Pakistan. Serious business comes to a standstill in the entire region at crucial moments in the game. And when matches are played in the region, schools are given holidays and governments are known to postpone parliamentary sessions. Against eight opposing teams from the British Commonwealth, the eleven-man West Indies squad, made up of players chosen from various islands, has infused the region with pride by dominating the sport. They have won the quadrennial World Championship Cup twice and until last May had held test cricket's longest unbeaten record.

In 1975, the sport's governing body, the International Cricket Conference estate fished the World Championship Cup to determine supremacy in the relatively short version of the game, the limited overs, or one-day competition. The Cup was captured by the West Indies in the first two tournaments. In international one-day matches played outside the Cup the West Indies has an impressive win rate of about 75 percent.

The West Indies team made its name however, in the longer, traditional version of the game, the test series. This is the highest level of the game, and it is played only by England and eight countries that have been accorded test match status by the London-based International Cricket Conference-the West Indies, Australia New Zealand, South Africa (which was banned from the sport until 1992 after its apartheid regime was dismantled), India, Pakistan, and, most recently, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. (In addition to playing international test cricket, many West Indian cricketers sign lucrative deals with English cricket clubs to play in matches among English counties.) International test matches are regularly organized between the governing bodies of the respective territories, and after twenty nine of these encounters over the last fifteen years, the West Indies remained unbeaten. Their encounter with Australia last May in the Caribbean brought an end to that record, however. That defeat was the team's first loss in fifteen years, and it was their first humiliation at home in twenty-two years.

The West Indies' formidable reputation was established from the 1950s to the 1970s by such greats as batsmen Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Jeffrey Stollmeyer (all knighted by the British queen for their contributions to cricket); George Headly, Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, and Vivian Richards; and bowlers Lord Learie Constantine (again, decorated by the queen), Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Sonny Ramadhin, Alfred Valentine, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, and Malcolm Marshall.

The stars of today are no less outstanding Among the bowlers, there is the giant of a man, Curtley Ambrose (who, on the English tour last year, struck down six batsmen for twenty four runs in an England total of forty-eight), Courtney Walsh, Winston Benjamin, and Kenneth Benjamin. Among the top-scoring batsmen : are Richie Richardson, Carl Hooper, and : Jimmy Adams. Outshining all others is Trinidad's twenty-five-year-old left-handed batsman, Brian Lara who made international headlines and batted his way into to the Guinness Book of World Records by scoring 375 runs in a test match against England in Antigua, and two months later, scoring 501 in a first-class match in English county cricket, the highest scores in the history of the game

The region's zeal for the game is perhaps incomprehensible to its detractors, who, according to former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley, number heavily among North American baseball fans. Says Manley, a cricket aficionado who wrote a Five-hundred-page tome, A History of West Indies Cricket, while in office: 'Pressed to say what he honestly thinks, the baseball fan will probably confess to the impression that cricket is played by eleven languid gentlemen in long, cream flannel trousers over in terminable periods of time and to no particular purpose."

Cricket, indeed, is a bat-and-hall game evolving two teams of eleven players who play-or used to play-in long, cream flannel trousers, over man days, and in some cases for as long as two months. But Manley dispels the notion that cricket is a sissy's game or a genteel diversion. It takes stamina and true grit to take up any role in a cricket match, Manley notes for the information of the baseball fan, whose game, by the way, emerged out of cricket and another English game, called rounders.

For example, the bowlers are quite extraordinary athletes. As part of cricket's elaborate rules (known as laws), the bowler is not allowed to bend his elbow when he throws the ball, which is probably inconceivable to a baseball pitcher. To achieve pace, bowlers run up about thirty I yards to the wicket and toss the ball overarm. They bowl in spells of six consecutive deliveries (called overs) and may be called upon to bowl anywhere from twenty to thirty overs per day. That would have them sprinting thirty yards for some 120 to 180 times per day, while tossing the ball overarm and varying deliveries in throws known as yorkers, in-swingers, out-swingers, and bouncers. It is no wonder that many bowlers' careers end because of shoulder and back injuries.

The star bowlers are the fast bowlers, who can hurl the five-and-a-half-ounce, hard leather ball at 125 miles per hour. Unlike the batter in a baseball game, the cricket batsman faces these fast balls coming in at all angles and at various heights. Additionally-if he's good and doesn't get himself out in one day the batsman may face well over a hundred such deliveries. Getting hit by the ball is inevitable, and in addition to a helmet and gloves, cricket batsmen must wear pads to protect their arms and Legs, and, if they face particularly fast and hostile bowling, pads to protect their upper thigh and rib cage as well.

To his advantage, however, the cricket batsman, unlike his baseball counterpart, has a great, deal of control over his game. He is not required to swing at every delivery. He can choose to slam the ball or simply to duck and let it go over his head. And, even if he does strike the ball, he can decide to stay put, and not attempt to run if it looks like he would not have enough time to get, safely to the other wicket. This often results in long spells of relative inactivity on the field. However, the result is not necessarily a dull game, as a batsman's inability to make runs usually indicates stunning bowling-which enthralls spectators as much as stylish batting and daring running.

Fielders, too, must be fearless. A wolf-hit cricket ball travels fast, faster than a baseball due to the nature of the cricket bat and because the cricket ball is slightly harder and heavier than the one used in baseball. Yet the cricket fielder, often only ten feet away from the batsman, has to catch the ball as it zips through the air--with his bare hands. Gloves are worn only by the wicketkeeper, who stands directly behind the batsman.

No one can defend the game, however, against the accusation that it is long. A cricket test match lasts five days, and the game played on each of those days is six hours in duration, running from about ten in the morning to five in the afternoon with a break for lunch. Test matches are played as part of a series of up to six tests so it may take two months before fans know which side has won.

"The typical baseball fan will throw his hands up in horror at the thought that one game occupies thirty hours of time," says Manley. "In fact, the time which a test match occupies gives to cricket its particular texture, a texture in which the spectator can become involved not only in the explosive episodes that make up a game but also in its tactics. He becomes involved in how each side deploys its talents. He shares, furthermore, in the strategy that is necessary since resources have to be marshaled and husbanded and directed to the well-thought-out plan because of the very length of time during which the contest is pursued."

Those explosive moments are often chronicled in calypso, the indigenous music of the region.

It was the greatest excitement that
we ever had
In the history of cricket in Trinidad
To see the last over,
the second-to-last ball,
The last minute and
the last man fall. . .

sang by calypsonian Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore) in 1934. And three decades later, Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) paid tribute to bowlers Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith:

England was in trouble
From the very start
Hall and mighty Griffith
Really broke their heart
At a hundred miles per hour
They made the ballfly

That anyone should think the game boring is unbelievable to islanders. Hearing the ecstatic roar of the crowd at the international cricket grounds at Sabina Park in Jamaica, Bourda in Guyana, Recreation Ground in Antigua, Kensington in Barbados, and Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad is an experience that many have confessed sends chills up their spines. For West Indian spectators, cricket is a musical affair. At Kensington, comedian Mac Fingall and a band of amateur musician. keep a jam session going during matches At Recreation Ground, "Chiki," a disk jockey, acknowledges each brilliant ball or show with a chorus and a verse of calypso, while in Trinidad, well-known cricket fan "Blue Food" does it by blowing on a conch shell.

In 1912 historian Algernon Aspinal observed that West Indian spectators "are very demonstrative, and it is not at all unusual to see many of them rush out on the ground and leap and roll about from sheer excitement when a wicket falls on the side which they do not favor, or when, brilliant catch is made." These remark aptly describe West Indians at cricket matches even today.

Cricket was brought to the Caribbean from England, where it originated, historians say, about the twelfth century. It was taught by missionaries who worked among the slaves, and by school masters who, taught the sons of planters. Soldiers stationed in the colonies after the Battle of Waterloo were also important in popularizing the game. They whiled away the tedium of garrison life by playing cricket, a game linked with manhood and gentlemanliness back home.

The children of slaves played on pastureland with coconut palm leaves for bats, wickets made of sugarcane stalks, and balls sometimes made of gum from trees; however, there was little encouragement from masters to develop the sport among them. They were sometimes called upon to take on the rigorous and exhausting role of bowlers to the sons of masters, and older slaves often bowled to the soldiers. After emancipation, it took many decades before the former slaves were allowed to join the clubs that their former masters established.

Barbados had one of the region's first cricket clubs in 1806, and Trinidad followed in 1840; others sprang up from the 1850s to the 1890s in Barbados, Jamaica and British Guiana (present-day Guyana). In the early days, cricket. was an insular affair, with each island staging interclub matches among planters, merchants and soldiers. Then, in 1865 a team from British Guiana broke through the geographic isolation and sailed to Barbados for the first intercolonial competition. By 1894, a triangular tournament among Barbados, British Guiana, and Trinidad became firmly established. The tournament, which expanded to include other islands and has taken place under various names, has gone unbroken, apart from the intervention two world wars.

Interestingly, the first foreign tour by a West Indian cricket squad (comprising of players from Jamaica, Barbados, and British Guiana) was of North America, in 1886, when the legacy of the English cricket-loving colonists was strong enough to encourage such a visit. The team won five of the six matches played in Canada. They performed less spectacularly against side from Philadelphia; they won only match, lost three, and drew one. Even then, however, North American sports fans seemed not altogether fascinated by cricket. The total gate receipts for the tour fell short of 50 pounds (about US$70-80) The U.S. returned the visit a few years later, becoming the first foreign team to tour the West Indies. That team, from Philadelphia, did well, winning five matches, conceding four, and drawing two.

It was not until the 1890s that England sent a team to the colonies, and in 1900 the West Indies returned the visit. Most players were from the planter and merchant classes, and one English editor wrote of the "men of color" who were included on the team: "neither in the Indies nor in England could this type of player ever hope to bring the same amount of intelligence to his game." However, barriers of race and color came tumbling down in the postcolonial era as democracy swept into the region. Cricket clubs became open to all players. Selection on the regional team became based on merit and the West Indian territories, even after they became independent, maintained the team, realizing that their strength in cricket lay in their unity.

The advent of live televised matches has brought changes to the game in the last few decades. Because television demands instant gratification, it has led to an increase in the popularity of limited overs games-matches that are completed in one day. It has also literally brought more color to the game. In matches outside the West Indies, players discard the traditional cream flannels for colorful jumpsuits, much to the horror of veteran cricketers. "Nowadays, we can look forward to teams parading out in the middle like schoolgirls dressed up for a pajama party," batting legend Sir Garfield Sobers once said.

"Cricket is the Englishman's game par excellence," says Orlando Patterson Jamaica-born professor of sociology at Harvard University. "The very term 'cricket' has become a byword for all that is most English in the British way of life." He adds, "Yet, this is the game which West Indians have usurped, have come to master. What the former colonial subject has done is to literally beat the master at his own game. But more important, he has beaten him symbolically.... Cricket is the game we love for it is the only game we can play well, the only activity which gives us some international prestige."

Cricket appeals to the West Indian psyche, says University of the West Indies lecturer Gordon Rohlehr, who has written extensively on cricket and culture and who has contributed to publications by the Center for Cricket Research, based at the university's Cave Hill, Barbados, campus. "Cricket figures prominently in calypso, which I consider oral literature," Rohlehr says. "That's because cricket, like calypso, is a ritualistic folk activity. Both of them construct the hero. The people who go out and bat and bowl are heroes."

He adds that West Indies players, with their natural flamboyance, have elevated the game: "My wife says writers from outside the region don't understand the West Indies team because they don't understand magic. Our cricket is magical. It is magical in that it's not supposed to happen. I mean, you win a match by one run; that's the kind of thing we do. In one game all the English wickets fell for twenty-eight runs. How does that kind of thing happen?"

At the West Indies Cricket Board of Control's Cricket Development Committee, one of the major goals is to spread the passion for cricket across the hemisphere. They plan to start by raising the level of the game where it is played and later introduce it to other parts of the Americas. In North America, where the game is played largely by West Indian expatriates, according to Alloy Lequay, the Cricket Development Committee's chairman, the level of play is lower, as it also is in Canada and Bermuda. These three compete in an International Cricket Conference tournament with seventeen other nations, such as Singapore, Bangladesh, and Gibraltar, to qualify to play in the World Cup against the nine countries with test cricket status. In the World Cup, Canada has the ignominious record of losing all their players for the lowest score, forty-five runs, in a 1979 match against their host, England. "We will start with one-day matches against Bermuda, the United States, and Canada because that will encourage and excite the spectators in these countries; they want to see instant results, and we'll have to give it to them," says Lequay. He admits it would be a tougher task getting cricket into the rest of the Americas. "We would want to expand to South America, eventually," he says. "We're told that Argentina plays cricket, and that Suriname does as well."

Today cricket is the only sport in which the Caribbean has a united team, and the sport is often held up as an example of what is possible if political unity were achieved. Indeed, many West Indians link the development of the sport to the growth of the region's own political identity Dr. Hilary Beckles, dean of history and founder and coordinator of the Center for Cricket Research at the University of West Indies, calls cricket "our most sophisticated cultural lens through which we view the sociological development of the West Indies from the emancipation era of the 1830s to the independence era of the 1950s and beyond." The team, Manley says, "Has become a symbol to the people of the English Caribbean. To a profound extent, it influences the mood of the region which exults in its victories, and is cast into gloom when it looses." He adds, "Perhaps one day the people of the Caribbean will do more than admire their cricket team; they might even seek to emulate its success by discovering for themselves the unity which is its secret."


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