Time to shed 'Calypso cricketer' tag, again
For as long as I can remember, I've been a fan of West Indies. It started, I think, in 1989, when, as a five-year-old living on the western coast of India, I watched an India-West Indies game, and thought that the West Indians were my own people - from the west of India.
By the 1992 World Cup, I was old enough to have checked an atlas to find the islands that made up the West Indies, but I loved Richie Richardson's hat and Curtly Ambrose's bowling action enough to continue supporting them. Even over India.
While my lasting memory from the Hero Cup was Sachin Tendulkar's over against South Africa, I remember being quite upset when West Indies were mowed down by Anil Kumble in the final. When the 'Padams' series of 1994 happened, in gully cricket, my bat became completely secondary to my batting. A year later, West Indies surrendered a Test series for the first time in my life - to Australia, at home. In 1996, Australia stole a World Cup final berth from under their noses. Then, they lost a Test series 3-2 to Australia, this time away. Something told me that being a West Indies fan would be infinitely tougher that point onward.
Brian Lara remained an obsession. I derived warmth from the sight of the ageing duo of Ambrose and Courtney Walsh continuing to make batsmen tap-dance. It got tougher after their retirements. The tireless Shivnarine Chanderpaul provided much comfort, and occasionally, the others provided some excitement. Overall, though, I consoled myself with sporadic displays of spark, or the rare successful skirmish, the occasional individual brilliance amid a regularly shambolic team performance.
I watched Fire in Babylon recently at Sathyam Cinemas in Chennai. The crowd was of two kinds - youth, who had heard so much about "that West Indies team" and old men who had felt the fire of that team crackling through their radios. It was nostalgia for some, and reflected nostalgia for the others.
Fire in Babylon is a compelling narrative. It has bright, striking and awe-inspiring protagonists who speak with honour and pride about the time when they ruled the world. It sets them among the cultures - as the movie reminds you repeatedly, there is no one West Indian culture - they are so proud of. It sets them amid the politics that so defined their existence (CLR James wrote that, in the West Indies, you had arrived if your company was of a lighter skin-tone than you).
It also tells of the reputation they carried prior to those glory days, that of the entertaining losers. 'Calypso cricketers' was the term, those happy-go-lucky entertainers, who might just pull off something exceptionally brilliant, but just don't do it with the regularity or professionalism of a champion. Those amiable, popular, fun losers…
The term could also be used to describe the West Indies team of today. In Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard, Darren Sammy, Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Bravo and Andre Russell, they have a surprising number of batsmen who can clear the boundary with damaging consistency. In Sunil Narine, they have a freak spinner, whom, despite two years of video analysis, no one seems to have an answer to. All these cricketers, barring Sammy, are among the top-billed in T20 leagues across the world. Still, people would not have been surprised if they had imploded in crucial games at the World Twenty20.
The batch of '76 was humiliated by defeat to Australia. That made them push themselves harder. World Twenty20 aside, the current team has been losing consistently for a decade and a half. Clearly, the humiliation of defeat can't jolt them much anymore. Clive Lloyd's men were pushed into a corner by racism and discrimination. They represented, symbolically, black peoples all over the Commonwealth - no other blacks played international cricket at that point. Sammy's team does not face that pressure.
But the West Indies today have their own set of issues. The players have had innumerable issues with an erratic board. The ensuing rift within the side led to the exile of their best batsman. The coming together of various "dots on the map" into one regional team seems artificial. Perhaps this is the reason why West Indian players find it easier to choose club over international cricket - it is one artificial entity over another, isn't it?
To that extent, the success of the West Indies lies in something similar to what Lloyd's team faced - an assertion of their identity. Of showing that there is more to their game than raw power, but retaining that power, unquestionably their biggest strength, at the centre of their game. Of showing that the common West Indian cricketing identity still means something to them. Of showing that they can play, consistently, effectively, efficiently and yet thrillingly, flamboyantly, instinctively, as one single cricket team. If those guys did it, why can't we?