November 4, 2014

Dear West Indies cricket

A letter from a fan who grew up idolising the great Caribbean sides of the '80s

Remember the titans: Malcolm Marshall bats one-handed at Headingley in 1984 © PA Photos

I am writing to you with concern regarding the recent withdrawal of your players from the cricket pitch. From what I read in the media, captain Dwayne Bravo announced to the board that "the players have taken a decision to withdraw their services from the remainder of the tour of India".

From what I infer this means an argument about money. And money not going in the right pockets, I presume. Well, although I understand that where money is involved there will inevitably be problems, and that where sports administrators and athletes converge, there will be chaos, anger, stupidity and greed. I don't understand how it could come to this.

Cricket as we know it will soon cease to exist. Although this change is inevitable, as all sports must evolve, and then thrive or die - we'd still be watching men in top hats roll balls between two sticks guarded by other men in top hats using curved bats if it didn't - I can't help but be particularly worried and upset by this Windies walkout.

I should first admit that boards of control, and their many acronyms, hold little of my attention. Part of the reason I rarely follow administration shenanigans is that I do understand how powerless I am as a fan to have my views heard. If players struggle to negotiate pay deals, and schedules that do not break bones and grind joints into dust, then what chance does the punter have in influencing the game he or she loves?

What I do have an interest in is West Indies cricket. On the pitch.

I was too young for Botham's heroics in the 1981 Ashes, and not until a rain break in the West Indies 1984 tour of England, when I watched those much repeated Headingley highlights on television, did I understand that England could be good at cricket.

That 1984 series was a 5-0 whitewash for Clive Lloyd and his all-conquering troop of cricketing gods - that really was how a ten-year-old cricket-mad kid saw this team of Invincibles. And I wasn't the only one. All the very English (and very pale) boys I played cricket with in the park or on the school playground wanted to be West Indies. I imagined I was Viv Richards, Joel Garner or Malcolm Marshall. When we played the Test Match board game on our kitchen tables, rolling that silver ball-bearing down a plastic gully attached to a plastic bowler, the fantasy matches were usually played out between West Indies and a Rest of the World XI.

It was Caribbean cricket that made me want to give up football and carry a set of stumps to school every day, and then try and hit that tennis ball over the school roof rather than dead-bat it with a forward defensive. It was the fast bowling menace of a four-pronged pace attack that bounced and bruised hapless batsmen into submission that compelled me to keep watching England's slaughter - and then want to be a fast bowler too.

My generation grew up with the mighty Windies roaming the world, and winning. And how we preferred that to Australia dominating

While watching that golden footage of BBC cricket in the '80s, when a whole nation could sit in thrall to a Test match (rather than a select few being robbed on pay-per-view and lambasted by advertising between overs), I read my first adult book about cricket: Another Bloody Tour by Frances Edmonds, wife of England spinner Phil. I can't remember much about it, but I do remember being engrossed, and that having sunburn wasn't so bad when I could read about West Indies hammering England in the Caribbean.

And then there was that press conference with Mike Gatting, after Marshall had broken his nose, and the reporter asked where the ball had actually hit him. That was West Indies cricket - dangerous and exciting, inspiring.

My generation grew up with the mighty Windies roaming the world, and winning. And how we preferred that to Australia dominating. In fact, what other national team has had a documentary made about them that lit up the big screen? The draw of that fabled West Indies era was such that Fire in Babylon premièred in cinemas, not on video, DVD or television.

Think about that, a film about a cricket team at the cinema.

Now, I do understand that IPL riches and player power are in many ways a very good thing, especially if you're the player picking up the cheque. Progress even, considering the days of gentlemen and players, one gate to the wicket for the working-class serfs, and one gate - opened by the genuflecting groundsman - for the toffs. But I also admire Viv "My bat was my sword" Richards for not taking that blank cheque when he was offered games in apartheid South Africa.

The player interviews in Fire in Babylon, as much as the action - that Michael Holding glide to the crease - give me goosebumps. Cricketers with passion and force, on and off the pitch. Yet part of the film's success, I fear, is in its nostalgia for a time lost and never to be repeated.

For now, I hear that "talks" in the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in Kingston are "progressing", and that contracts are slowly being renegotiated. But while men sit around tables in an air-conditioned lobby talking paper and numbers, and the BCCI mail letters demanding millions in compensation, the players idle, and the fans watch highlights from the 1980s.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award. @nicholas_hogg

Comments