Last week I walked around the Sir Vivian Richards cricket ground in Antigua. Adrift in no-man’s-land, the stadium stands halfway between St John’s and its airport. The earth is scrubby and arid, parched of life. Forget cities and street cricket, the ground is entombed in a scorched car park.
It can hold more than 10,000 spectators, a ninth of Antigua’s population. No wonder it felt empty. If Lord’s proportions followed the same logic it would have six million seats. There are two types of good stadium: characterful and atmospheric or slick and efficient. Antigua’s is neither.
Writing this makes me feel guilty, as I have been sharing a commentary box with my boyhood hero, Viv Richards. The person and the ground are apt metaphors for West Indies cricket past and present. The man: king of his community, bristling with muscular pride, a layer of laid-back cool scarcely covering the fierce desire and assertive self-confidence beneath. The place: out of kilter, unanchored, short of meaning, slightly lost. The stadium was funded by China before the 2007 World Cup. China gifted Antigua a white elephant; what Antigua gave China is less clear.
In the 1960s Colin Cowdrey used to send his spare kit to club cricketers in the West Indies. He reasoned that if equipment and opportunity could catch up with the region’s talent and passion, then West Indies cricket would fly. An underdeveloped economy is frustrating, of course, but it is still tinged with hope. In some respects now, West Indies cricket is overdeveloped: there is more space than demand. The purpose-built cricket grounds have echoes of the “ghost” estates outside Dublin, abandoned building projects from Ireland’s pre-crash property Ponzi schemes.
After the players walked out of a recent tour, the West Indies board owes its Indian equivalent about £27m. It is trying to “pay back” the money with promises of future fixtures. The board is in effect insolvent. Players’ salaries have been slashed. There is a huge question mark over whether cricket in the West Indies is a going concern. Could it happen that West Indies cricket might soon be closed for business?
Before we explain the decline, how can we account for the dizzying ascent? It is a magical story, that a tiny archipelago came to dominate a world sport. Constitutionally, the West Indies has no central administration or federal affiliation – apart, that is, from a university and its cricket team. Far from being directed by the state, cricket stood partly in place of the state. “The clash of race, caste and class did not retard but stimulated West Indian cricket,” concluded C L R James, chronicler of West Indian cricket’s formative decades. “Social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket.”
The West Indies entered cricket’s soul. In the 1960s, it exuded calypso joie de vivre. Technique, by recasting necessity as freedom, always creates the illusion of effortlessness. West Indian cricketers stretched that illusion to the limit. Garry Sobers, the greatest of all, embodied the languid athleticism of the team he led.
After they were humiliated by Australia in 1975-76, Clive Lloyd instilled steel alongside self-expression. The carefree entertainers became a fearsome machine. From the early 1980s to the 1990s, the West Indies never lost a Test series, a 15-year unbeaten streak unequalled in international sport.
Richards, who refused a vast cash offer to play against apartheid South Africa, became a worldwide hero – not quite Muhammad Ali, but the closest cricket has come to a global icon of black emancipation. (Richards, incidentally, met Ali by chance in Pakistan when the boxer was representing the Islamic League. The two champions, as Richards explained to me this past week, passed in a lift. Ali’s opening gambit: “Man, you look like Smokin’ Joe Frazier!”)
The top tier rested on the strength of the local game. Inter-island rivalry, like the city-state one-upmanship of the Italian Renaissance, created a hub of competitive brilliance. Barbados alone (national population: 290,000) would have beaten most international teams. In 1984 the West Indies bowling attack was Daniel, Small, Marshall and Garner. Simultaneously, the “rebel” West Indies attack consisted of Clarke, Stephenson, Alleyne and Moseley. All eight of these superb fast bowlers were from Barbados. (One controversial school of thought holds that Barbados, given its location as the most easterly island, benefited from an exceptional pool of genetic talent: slave traders there could select the strongest Africans.)
And now? Reports of cricket’s disappearance are overstated. Radio phone-ins still crackle to the sound of cricketing debate. But Caribbean cricket has been hit by a double dose of globalisation. The first blow chipped away at the fan base. Cricket must now compete with football and American sports. The second blow cost it talent. The lure of the Indian Premier League has led its pre-eminent stars to abandon playing for the West Indies. Where Richards was an icon of inspired defiance, today Chris Gayle plays the Bollywood fame game.
The dream that the team is about to turn a corner lives on. In Antigua, the 23-year-old Jason Holder made a fine maiden hundred that suggested sterling leadership as well as raw talent. The quest to rekindle West Indian cricket continues to generate special reports and blueprints for the future. Alas, I am sceptical that any of them will work.
We should tell the tale in full, however, not just the bleak Act III. This has been a remarkable love story. The great West Indies sides played cricket that was cool, terrifying and beautiful all at once. And cricket, once merely the white man’s game, became the pride of the islands.
Sport can’t do much more than that.