Rudyard Kipling dubbed cricketers “flannelled fools”. I take my hat off to the man for his restraint. I have called them worse, much worse in my time.
While I never honestly expect to be faced with the choice between hacking off my own arm with a dull bread knife and sitting through an entire test match, I would not advise any would-be gamblers to put money on the outcome. It would be a close-run thing.
Cricket has always been a presence in my life. My dad is from Guyana – the country that has produced great West Indies players such as Sir Clive Lloyd and Shivnarine Chanderpaul – and has an obsession with the game that borders on the pathological.
Childhood summer holidays were spent vainly battling sleep as the ‘action’ from the latest-test match unfolded on the TV before my weary eyes, before being dragged down to the local nets to spend an hour cowering, bat-in-hand, as my old man sent one delivery after another fizzing towards me.
But this was nothing compared to the harrowing ordeal of having to watch his village team play on a Saturday. It was here that my hatred for the game was truly forged. I could not reconcile my dad’s evangelical zeal with the spectacle tortuously unfolding before me. This turgid, incomprehensible non-sport could drag on for hours and still end in a draw.
To him, this was the sport of kings, an art form. But, to my (admittedly untrained) eye, it looked suspiciously like a dozen or so paunchy, red-faced men standing still for a long time, while women in floral skirts burst sporadically and inexplicably into applause.
It wasn’t just the mechanics of the game that turned me off. It was the sheer uptight, dreary Englishness of it. Where is the passion, where is the joy in this infuriatingly polite little ‘game’?
“Boy,” says Dad, “heathen! One day I’m taking you to Georgetown so you can see my boys in action …Pass the bread knife… You’ll never understand cricket – our cricket – until you’ve sat in the Bourda Cricket Ground Stadium in Georgetown with a sandwich and a case of Red Stripe watching Lara, watching Ricardo Powell….”
“Are you in love with that Ricardo Powell then?”
“…watching Ricardo Powell cutting and driving…giving the crowd a reason to party!”
Party? For me, the words ‘cricket’ and ‘party’ don’t belong within one hundred yards of one another. This is not cricket as I know it. My cricket is the John Major model of church fetes, village greens, and tiny, flaccid, triangular sandwiches. It’s not just the fact that it is the most effective natural sedative known to man.
It’s the stuffy, neurotic, backwards-looking Middle-Englandness, of it all. Sad little jowly white men sipping tea and reminiscing about the good old days of law and order and The Empire. Spare me.
“That’s my cricket. Cos that’s what it is, Dad, like it or not. It’s a colonial relic: ‘the gentlemen’s game’! All that bull about ‘sportsmanship’, ‘dash’, ‘grace under pressure’. All the things that the English have allowed themselves to believe define their national character for hundreds of years in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
This is all stuff they dreamt up in the nineteenth century, while they were buying and selling and brutalising black Africans in the West Indies, and we are still celebrating it today?! Isn’t that kind of perverse?”
“Son, you don’t understand….”
“But I do! In 1838 when the slaves were emancipated, cricket was exported to the colonies to reinforce English values and reaffirm the social order. The game you love so much started life in the West Indies as an agent of social control and oppression, a way of reinforcing the social and racial hierarchies the Empire was built on, now that black people were ‘free’.
An English game, based on English values; on the lie of the moral superiority and self-control of ‘the gentleman’. It was only ever a way of keeping the darkies at an ideological arm’s length, Dad. And not only do we adopt it, but we are also still playing it today? Talk about dancing to the white man’s tune….”
“Some history lesson, boy. Impressed, very impressed. Seems like you know a whole lot better than we ever did. Of course, what the newly ‘free’ blacks should have done was down tools and gone on strike, eh? Or go on one of your marches? Or signed one of your petitions…?”
“So, white men imported cricket and everything it meant to them, and we started to play it. To you, that makes us self-hating niggers? Fine, but what else did we know? It’s hundreds of years on, ‘Black and Proud’ and all that, and we are still coming to terms with ourselves. You can’t just shed centuries of humiliation and oppression like it’s an old coat. Black West Indians had to re-discover who they were.”
“By playing at being the coloniser?”
“No. We played their game, it’s true. Cricket clubs started to form throughout the region, each one drawing a membership based on specific racial characteristics, separate clubs for whites, blacks and ‘coloureds’ (that’s you son).”
“But now we had the means to compare ourselves with the colonisers… and to compete with them. But we made the game ours. Here, take this book: Beyond a Boundary, by C.L.R. James. The finest book on cricket and West Indian culture ever written. Look, just a few pages in, he talks about ‘the cut’.
This was ours, one difficult stroke where the batsman strikes across the underside of the ball so that it angles off into the vacant space behind him. “It wasn’t just difficult – it was deliberately difficult. There is no practical purpose at all, father, but to show absolute, defiant mastery of the game and a refusal to play it safe.
“We took their game, and we made it ours. They didn’t even give us test status until 1928. Yet, we went on to produce some of the best cricketers ever to play the game, the team of the late 70s and 80s that anyone who knows the game has to admit is the greatest ever.
And we did it on our terms, son. West Indian cricket isn’t about tea and polite applause and being a damn ‘gentleman’! It’s colour, it’s life, it’s freedom. It’s a party! We conquered the world playing a style of cricket that put the whole region on the map: cricket with style, cricket with flair and power. And we won.”
“Ok, ok. You won. So…um…what happened?”
“Watch that tongue, heathen! So this isn’t the best Windies team ever, I grant you. But things are changing back home. Some people are worried that cricket won’t be the game of the people forever.
Satellite TV is beaming football and basketball into people’s houses. The world is changing; opening up cricket isn’t the young West Indian boy’s most likely way out of a life of hardship anymore.
“But there’s too much history…as Sir Clive Lloyd said: ‘Cricket is the glue that keeps us together’. It won’t die. It’s too strong. “A successful team, a new set of heroes, and cricket will be back again, front and centre where it should be.”
“Aagh! I give in….”
I give in ‘cos I know he’s right. I will never appreciate the sport, but even I can’t deny the magic, the hold it has over so many West Indian men and women. I can see it in my dad’s eyes as he watches his heroes thousands of miles away on Sky Sports. All over the country, all over the world, there are thousands, millions more like him, for whom this sport is their link with home. It is their home.
I still wouldn’t put money on my lasting an entire test match if the dull bread knife option were open to me. Still, if I am honest with myself, my dad’s years of hectoring and badgering have paid off in a way. For what it means to him, for what it means to where we are from, I can never really hate cricket. In fact, I’m prepared to love it. But from a distance.
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