Nirmal Shekar

Is the Calypso cricket culture dead and buried?

One felt sorry for the old man who turned 80 on that day — although he looked a good 15 years younger.

Sir Garfield Sobers — one of two cricketers with a reasonable claim to the title The Greatest of all time — the other is Don Bradman — had to grin and bear it, literally. He is unlikely to have seen a worse West Indies side. Even as he was being felicitated on the occasion, you felt that — as fantastic it may be — Sir Garry would have done much better all alone against the Indians than this entire West Indies team.

Rewind 20 years, and a handful of us were enjoying a drink or two at the Madras Cricket Club with the great man. “People from many different countries…it is remarkable the way the West Indians have dominated cricket with such panache for so long,” I said.

“Pride maan, pride. We played for honour and pride. Perhaps no man might have played for himself alone. It was all about the team and our personal goals were to be the best,” said Sir Garry. “I felt there was a certain nobility to our attitude.”

Descending into destruction

Twenty years on, the West Indies cricketers are in such a fast and scary free-fall that some of us might think that they would dig their own craters so deep that they might need to be exhumed to make way for formal funerals. And the organisers of the four-Test series against India might have already sounded out the undertakers.

Jokes apart, it is blindingly obvious that the bitter squabble between the players and the West Indies Cricket Board has thrown up a Gordian Knot.

But calling a halt to the endless downward spiral is easier said than done in a particular geographical region in the Caribbean Sea that contributes players to the team. To some, the fact that they hung out together and achieved world domination for so long is, in itself, a miracle.

In those lands of sun and surf, cricket is no longer a part of the calypso rhythm of public life. Test matches draw crowds of anywhere between 500 and 1,500 and quite a few of them may be ethnic Indians.

“As far as West Indies cricket is concerned, the seeds of destruction were sown even as bad habits continued in the mid-1980s,” wrote my dear friend Peter Roebuck. “Bad habits set in but they did not matter. West Indies still had great players and they could trounce all comers.”

Commented the late Roebuck, as early as in the 1990s: “West Indies cricket and cricketers must carry the can for their own collapse. It has not been caused by basketball or soccer or even the weakness of administration (not that the officials can escape censure). More than anything else it was the problem with the character of players and culture of the team.”

What the great cricket writer believed was the chief cause of the Windies’s downfall twenty years ago is quite true even today, to a large extent. A few might argue that it is all part of the cycle of the game. But those who have followed West Indies cricket know it is not as simple.

“If the WICB gets a million dollars, the players want 90 per cent of it,” says a former Indian cricket player. To honour an agreement — following the botched tour of India in 2014 — the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) wants the West Indies to compensate for the anticipated loss of over $42m by playing T20s in the United States.

Do the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees have a problem playing at home? Well, they are welcome to Mumbai and we can promise them that they would find more spectators than the Indian and West Indian teams would in Miami!

Lasting solution needed

All right, we do have a problem. But the solution has to be based on ground realities and, more than anything else, prove lasting and meaningful.

The problem may lie beyond cricket, in my humble opinion. It is still very complicated but not unsolvable. Before Chris Gayle held a bat for the first time, the men from the West Indies were not inferior in any way. And they mostly turned out to be superior right from the days of the great Frank Worrell.

They fought for a cause. They were cavalier swordsmen trying to get a message across. Humiliation, hardship, a desperate search for identity and roots…well, these were missionaries who were fighting major issues (racism, the biggest of them), and whose driving force propelled them to the very top.

Independent, free-spirited, gifted as athletes, they offered us immense viewing pleasure. And when this continued through the Lloyd era, featuring the best opening pair the game has known — Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes — and the mightiest of post-War batsmen, Viv Richards, apart from four menacing fast bowlers, the cowardly cried foul.

But then, the Windies’s motive was not to hurt. They were simply trying to win, putting their heavy arsenal to full use. And these were not like Saddam Hussein’s non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction. Cricket’s WMDs did exist and the opponents had to face them.

Where have the pride and honour and nobility that Sir Garry spoke about gone?

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