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Caribbean lament

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All grace and genius: Sobers was without doubt the greatest cricketer. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library
All grace and genius: Sobers was without doubt the greatest cricketer. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

By Ramachandra Guha

The most depressing aspect of contemporary cricket is the decline of the West Indies.

Were he a cricket coach, wrote Priestley, he would show his wards "films of this great cricketer, asking them to note his posture and movements, his avoidance of unnecessary effort and strain, the whole cat-like style of the man".

IN an essay published in an Australian magazine, I referred in passing to the great West Indian cricket team of the 1950s, its batting stars the three W's - Weekes, Worrell, and Walcott - its bowling heroes those "two little pals of mine", Ramadhin and Valentine. A kind reader from Down Under wrote to ask whether I had ever heard the calypso celebrating the victory at Lord's when Caribbean cricket first properly announced itself. When I said I hadn't, he very kindly sent me a CD with the song reproduced in it.

Clever lines

Composed by Lord Beginner, "Victory Test Match" has some very clever lines indeed. "The King was there well attire", begins one verse, continuing: "So we gave him Rae and Stollmeyer" (these the West Indian openers of the day). The poetry is deft, the singing accomplished, the orchestration even better. While rich in humour, the song seems in this great cricketing victory the possibility of social emancipation. Thus, when West Indies finally won, "Hats went up in the air/People shout and jumped without fear/At Lord's was the scenery/It bound to go down in history".I first heard of the calypso in the first cricket book I ever possessed, the England swing bowler Alec Bedser's following on. Bedser played in that Lord's Test of 1950, and his account conveys a deep respect both for the West Indies cricketers and the songster who celebrated them. Snatches of the calypso-as composed on the spot-are reproduced and there is a moving description of how, at the match's end, a group of black men walked out of Lord's into St. John's Wood Road, singing and dancing.

Mixed sentiments

Listening to `Victory Test', some 40 years after I first heard about it, provoked sentiments of a decidedly mixed nature. For the West Indies were the great cricketing team of my boyhood and youth. But now, as I pass in and out of middle age, they stay just ahead of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the international table. How strange, and sad, it was to be sent the calypso by an Australian, at the very moment that the Australian cricket team were thrashing the visiting West Indies cricket side.I was born in 1958, eight years after that Lord's triumph. Eight years later, in 1966, I first began following the sports pages seriously, and also began listening to cricket on the radio. 1966 was the year when the West Indies, led by Garfield Sobers, humiliated England in England. They won the Test series three-one, with Sobers himself scoring 722 runs, taking 20 wickets, and holding 10 catches. In a tribute first printed in the New Statesman, the novelist J. B. Priestley marvelled at Sobers's fluidity of movement, this is in striking contrast to the stiffness of the English cricketers. Watching the West Indian captain, "admiration came seeping through (the) mud walls off partisanship". Were he a cricket coach, wrote Priestley, he would show his wards "films of this great cricketer, asking them to note his posture and movements, his avoidance of unnecessary effort and strain, the whole cat-like style of the man".It is one of my abiding regrets that I never saw Sobers bat, bowl, or field. However, I did hear his skill and athleticism being described on the radio in 1966, and again in 1973, when he played a crucial part in another West Indies victory in England. Films I have seen likewise. Give one some idea of the grace and genius of a man who, when all his various gifts are taken into consideration, was without question the greatest cricketer born or unborn.

The other greats

I never saw Sobers in the flesh, but I did see plenty of his compatriots. For, as I have said, through my early adulthood the West Indies dominated world cricket. I can thus write, with first-hand knowledge, of the commanding authority at the crease of Gordon Greenide, of the wristly elegance of Alvin Kallicharan, of the elegance and power of Vivian Richards, and of the power and still more power of Clive Lloyd. I can speak also of the great fast bowlers, of the pace and cut of Andy Roberts; of the pace and swing of Michael Holding, and of the pace, cut, swing and variation of the best of them all, Malcolm Marshall. And I am just about old enough to have watched some high-class West Indian slow bowling. This was at the Delhi Test of 1974, when the high-stepping off-spinner Lance Gibbs took seven wickets in the second innings.Speaking recently to that more knowledgeable cricket writer V. Ramnarayan, I found that he too shared the sentiment that the most depressing aspect of contemporary cricket is the decline of the West Indies. And my guess is that all Indians between 30 and 60 must feel likewise. Which is why I heard that lovely calypso with such complicated feelings-admiration for the music, appreciation for the man who made me the gift, and a deep, deep sadness at the gap that separated the West Indian cricketers of that time from ours.

E-mail the writer at ramguha@vsnl.com


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