West Indies cricket March 8, 2007

Men of the people

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is amazed at how approachable the average West Indian cricketer is

Half-brothers Fidel Edwards and Pedro Collins with their mum outside their home in Boscobelle, Barbados © Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

Most islands in the West Indies require you to shell out a departure tax, a fee of around US $30, usually paid after checking in for your flight. Waiting in a queue at St Kitts airport, at the end of the third India v West Indies Test in 2006, I had the grand fortune of being sandwiched between Clive Lloyd and Gordon Greenidge, as colossal a pair as any in cricket legend. For a brief while, I felt like Sir Viv Richards, another giant who was usually slotted between these two in the West Indian batting line-up of the late 1970s.

I observed Lloyd arguing with the lady at the counter, explaining why he had to pay a reduced tax (I assumed that citizens of the Caribbean islands had to pay less). What was totally unexpected, though, was to see the lady, a stout and serious official, countering Lloyd point for point - "Mr Lloyd, the rules have changed", "Mr Lloyd, we cannot make exceptions" - and not relenting till she had received the exact amount. The bickering went on for close to 10 minutes, and unlike what usually occurred on the cricket field, Lloyd was forced to give in. Imagine Kapil Dev in a similar situation at Delhi airport, or Imran Khan at Lahore. They would never have been in the same queue as the rest, let alone need to argue with airport staff. In January this year, an assistant sub-inspector in Jharkhand was transferred for fining Mahendra Singh Dhoni for having used tinted glass in his car windows. So it was a shock to see Clive Hubert Lloyd - double World Cup-winning captain, brutally effective batsman, archetypal ambassador, et al - debating without much avail. The incident summed up West Indians' attitudes towards their cricketers: respect, but no devotion. It was a trait noticeable through the two-month tour.

In terms of cricketing greats per square mile, it's difficult to look beyond the Caribbean islands. As of April 2006, Barbados, just 166 square miles in area, had produced 86 international cricketers; Nevis, a speck in comparison (36 square miles), has managed five. Arithmetic tells you that you're likely to run into an international cricketer at every street corner, yet West Indian cricketers can walk the roads without being mobbed or being approached for autographs, and sometimes - this is the staggering part - without even being noticed.

As a consequence, West Indian sportsmen are probably among the most approachable in the world. In Antigua, Richie Richardson, one of the most destructive batsmen to have come out of this region, not only readily obliged when I requested a chat, but also made sure he gave me a ride to my pre-match press conference afterwards. Greenidge, arguably the greatest opener in history, couldn't speak on record since he was - and is - a national selector, but he invited a couple of us to his palatial house in Barbados, turning what would otherwise have been a routine evening into an unforgettable one. Even Asafa Powell, the fastest man on the planet, spared a good half-hour after an evening practice session.

"The reason for the absence of stardom may be rooted in the defining characteristic of the West Indian appreciation of cricket - the game is always placed ahead of the individual, and fans revel in the nuances of the sport rather than the aura of the sportsman"

Winston Benjamin, a fast bowler who played 21 Tests and 85 one-dayers in the 1980s and nineties, not only volunteered to take me on a guided tour of Antigua, but also introduced me to his best friend (his pony, Princess) and spoke about the finer aspects of colt breeding. "Winston has no work these days," he said, referring to himself in the third person, "so I might as well show you around this beautiful country."

The approachability extends to the general public as well. Taxi drivers stationed outside Cuddyz, Courtney Walsh's restobar in Kingston, will tell you his itinerary: "He gone for the Twenty20 thing; will return on Mother's Day."

At the end of the first Test, a seasoned spectator berated Ramnaresh Sarwan outside the Antigua Recreation Ground - "Never take your hand off your handle, and I mean never." - and got a reaction that was apologetic.

At St Lucia several cricketers hopped out of their hotel to grab a drink at a local bar, and socialised freely. Brian Lara was among them, and he spent time with a group of fans, discussing cricket, World Cup soccer, and local cuisine. Ever spotted Sachin Tendulkar at Café Mondegar in Mumbai? Ever imagined such a prospect?

It's not uncommon to hear of former West Indian cricketers who've fallen on hard times. Devoid of celebrity status, and with unemployment soaring, some turn frustrated and wasteful, and lose their way - to such an extent that it's impossible to find their whereabouts. One of them, Patrick Patterson, that brute of a fast bowler from the eighties, is untraceable in Jamaica. His friends refer to him as someone "who's mentally unstable after losing all his money".

Unlike in India, the cricket coverage in the media is fairly rudimentary. Former cricketers don't swarm television studios, and it's only the occasional appearance on radio or in print that keeps them in the public eye. The current lot must occasionally feel like nobodies. An incident from the last day of my stay was a case in point.

As the Indian players were being mobbed for interviews and photo-shoots the day after their tense win in the final Test at Kingston, Pedro Collins walked into the team hotel and tried to locate his bat manufacturer, going completely unmolested as he did so. And while Rahul Dravid and Co. were hassled by Indian fans for autographs, Ian Bradshaw and Denesh Ramdin - one of the stars of the previous day - went almost unnoticed as they shopped in the New Kingston area.

The reason for this absence of stardom may be rooted in the defining characteristic of the West Indian appreciation of cricket - the game is always placed ahead of the individual, and fans revel in the nuances of the sport rather than the aura of the sportsman. Nowhere in the world will you find a more passionate set of supporters who're so distanced from the players. And it is possibly this detached outlook that makes them more evolved as fans than most.

Nishi Narayanan is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo