Windies of Change? (Sports Illustrated India)

Original draft of article published in Sports Illustrated India, December 2009 issue

One of the earliest stories about cricket that I remember lapping up wide-eyed is one who’s telling I can recall vividly to this day. New Year’s Day, Calcutta, 1967 and the second Test of the series against the West Indies was underway. Eden Gardens had been bursting at the seams, but in an ominous way. Fuelled by the greed of authorities who had oversold tickets to the tune of 20,000, it was a cauldron of spectator discomfort, distress and danger. And on the second day of the Test, it gave. A full scale riot ensued, with ill-tempered crowds rampaging onto the playing field, battling it out with the police. The terrified West Indian players fled amidst the tear gas in all directions, with some of them making it out of the stadium and running for their lives down the side-streets of Calcutta. But what one player did amidst all this mayhem was remarkable. Conrad Hunte, the classy West Indian opening batsman did not straight line it to the safety of the dressing room or the streets. Risking potential physical harm from the rampaging mob, he had the gumption to run over to the flag poles, shinny up and retrieve the two national flags flapping in the breeze.

That evocative image of Sir Conrad Hunte putting his life at risk to ensure that the symbol and insignia that his proud team played under was not desecrated has endured. The maroon flag with the jaunty beach palm tree and stumps, that the collection of island nations from the Caribbean play under has been the official flag of the West Indies team. To the rest of the cricketing world, that very team has been an eloquent, powerful and dominating presence for the majority of the twentieth century. But that flag has not been fluttering proudly in recent times. For that matter, it hasn’t been apparent if it even is at full mast of late.

The warmth, excitement and feelings of affection that Darren Ganga’s Trinidad and Tobago team evoked during the recently concluded Champion’s League in India cannot be taken lightly. The period leading up the competition had provided stark evidence that the state of cricket in the Caribbean had sunk to a low that seemed to question what the flag even meant. Starting with the series at home against Bangladesh and followed by the prestigious ICC Champions Trophy competition in South Africa, we were presented the ignominious sight of a hastily assembled second string team representing the West Indies in international competition. Knowing the anguish and sadness this abominable image created in outsiders like me, I can only imagine what followers of West Indian cricket back in the Caribbean must have endured. The dysfunctional and fractured relationship between the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) had reached a poisonous impasse that had resulted in Chris Gayle and his team watching from the sidelines as Paul Reiffer walked out for the toss sporting the palm tree and stumps on his chest. Similar deadlocks between the WICB and the WIPA had been rife in West Indies cricket during this decade, but it now had reached a nadir. This October in India, Ganga and his team offered reassurance to the fans back home and worldwide that all hope was not necessarily lost in matters pertaining to Caribbean cricket. That vaunted spirit was there and was willing and given an opportunity to breathe, a revival was certainly possible, they appeared to say to us.

The recently concluded truce between the WICB and the WIPA who shook hands and agreed to end their deadlock just in time for the West Indies’ tour of Australia cannot be construed as a breakthrough. Those in the know have indicated that a stern ultimatum from the ICC had more to do with the expediency of this agreement than an epiphany of conscience on the part of either party. This is a setup mired in mistrust and mismanagement that promises to provide us with a re-enactment of the recent bout of grandstanding in the near future. Established in the early 1920s to manage cricket in the Caribbean, the WICB in the last two decades has been an organization wracked in equal measures by ineptitude, infighting, indifference and above all an inability to recognize and reconcile the greater common good of cricket in the islands over short term victories. The WIPA, formulated in 1973 to represent and protect the rights of the players, has not done themselves too many favors either in the manner in which they have gone about achieving their stated goals.

Dr. Julian Hunte, the President of the WICB, a career politician from St Lucia, has served as the President of the United Nations General Assembly. While this equips him adequately to deal with the political shenanigans stemming from the geopolitics of the islands, his association is sadly stocked with only lawyers and bureaucrats better versed in the broad arts of the negotiation table than in nurturing the lifeline of a sport. His adversary, Dinanath Ramnarine, the President of the WIPA, was a promising leg-spinner who never quite established himself on the international stage. He had his share of brushes with the board, selectors and his teammates during his playing days and carries more than a few bags of chips on his shoulder when it comes to dealings with the WICB. Ramnarine has represented his players strongly and rightly so in their dealings with the WICB which has had a tendency of being high-handed and indifferent when it came to the rights of the players, especially in matters pertaining to monetary and sponsorship issues. But he cannot shake off lightly the accusations of a proclivity for opportunistic demands at critical junctures of each incarnation of contract negotiations.

Darren Ganga brought to the forefront another aspect which has been a sad bystander as this sordid drama has been enacted over the years: leadership. His articulate and forthright views expressed eloquently at each post-match ceremony and interview were a revelation. Coupled with the proactive and innovative captaincy he provided to his team, who clearly looked up to their captain, this was a salient aspect of the their performance that shone. And the world took notice. Leadership in times of strife mandates a gravitas, equanimity and willingness to sacrifice in the interests of the greater common good. And for years, it has been sadly evident that the lacunae in leadership, both on the side of the authorities and the players in the West Indian cricket structure have grown to the size of craters.

The rich traditions borne by the likes of Leary Constantine, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Garfield Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards and even Brian Lara during his turbulent times have been eroded. On the administration side, the appalling lack of individuals with knowledge and a stake in the legacies and traditions of the game has severely undermined the management of the sport. What would a Clive Lloyd, an epitome of firmness, dignity and also a deep thinker of the game, have provided given an extended chance to stamp his vision on Caribbean cricket? We can only ponder the possibilities. Just the same way every single cricket fan watching Darren Ganga lead his squad imagined the possibilities of a captain like him in charge of the West Indies team. Chris Gayle would have certainly observed this reaction too and should take note. It is a fine line between laid back coolness and nonchalant indifference. A captain going out of his way to express his apathy about the potential death of Test cricket and also his very disinterest in the captaincy while still being charge does damage his credibility in the eyes of everyone, most importantly his own players. Ganga appeared to offer an alternative and is it any surprise that this was a topic of fervent discussion in the media and the internet this October?

The picture of cohesiveness that the Trinidad and Tobago team presented amidst their flair and fighting spirit will certainly lend credence to those who are proponents of the islands of the Caribbean going it alone in the future as cricketing entities. But caution has to be in order when even considering this. It is not just the burden of history; a history so entrenched in the hearts and minds of the cricketing world that could work against this. Economic and demographic realities need to be at the forefront of this decision more than anything else. A collection of small countries wracked by economic turmoil and battered further by the recent downturns in the global recession cannot be asked to sustain parallel cricket establishments overnight. After suffering years of decaying infrastructure and erosion of cricket at local grass-root levels, the urgency is further intensified at this juncture for them to pool their collective resources and get the game back on a sure footing across the region.

But the burden of history is not something that can be brushed off either. Enduring imagery of sport relies on context. Context over extended periods of time is what entrenches memories and sustains fans’ investment in following the fluctuating fortunes of teams. And the maroon colors and flag of the West Indies have provided a potent image and a commanding presence in our cricketing psyche and culture. To generations of cricket lovers, the West Indies team has been just as integral to their cricket following as the very team they support. Unless you were born in the mid 90s, in which case you would not have had a chance to experience and live the thrill and anticipation of watching your own national team face up to the might, flair, charisma and aggression of the West Indies eleven. I grew up on a steady diet of dramatic and awe-filled stories of West Indies teams related by a generation for whom a sequence of three Ws did not refer to the internet but Worrell, Walcott and Weekes. And I cut my cricket watching teeth in the most dramatic of manners in a match which had portents which I didn’t recognize at the time but have relished ever since.

Bangalore, 1974, and feverish has to be the word used to describe my disposition for I was headed to the first ever international cricket match I ever watched live. The memories are fuzzy but the atmosphere was electric as I walked through the throngs into the brand new KSCA stadium holding onto my father’s hand to the first Test match against Clive Lloyd’s West Indies team. The scores are not important here. The images are all that matter and have endured. When Andy Roberts marked out his run-up almost at the boundary ropes, I could only gawk at my father with my jaw scraping the floor of the freshly minted stadium. Alvin Kallicharan’s artistry during his century and Lloyd himself massacring the Indian bowling; with a six off B.S Chandrashekhar sailing straight at us over deep third man’s head. And there was the matter of two debutants for the West Indies in the match. One Gordon Greenidge, bludgeoned his way to 200 runs in the match including a century. And the other…a certain Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, had quite an unobtrusive entry into international cricket not doing much of note other than a stupendous reflex catch at silly mid-on. Superman was still adjusting his cape during that match but following that, proceeded to grasp my cricket brain in a vice grip for the better part of two decades, a grip which hasn’t loosened a bit to this day.

Millions like me, not to mention the desperate people of the islands, have endured the agony of watching what has been happening in West Indies cricket while trapped in our own vice grips. Hope is all that sustains us. Hope that the sport will set itself upright back on the tracks in the Caribbean. A hope that sanity and seriousness will prevail and all parties involved will internalize what is really at stake here. Overnight miracles aren’t certainly what anyone expects, but only a clear indication that they are all willing to rise above their inured habits and behaviors and work in co-operation. There is abundant talent in the players of the teams from the islands on view that can and should be nurtured with sustained view of the future. And the players should walk out, heads held high under that fluttering flag and not forget even for an instant the rich legacies and traditions they are now responsible for upholding.

As Trinidad and Tobago took on New South Wales in the final of the Champions League, the streets back home emptied out as people flocked around television sets like moths. The board and the players should take note and heart from this and resolve to nourish this and not squander it away.The responsibility is solely theirs.

Surely, they don’t expect an Alan Stanford to do it for them?

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