Man in the middle
Learie Constantine was the first great allrounder in West Indies cricket. Born just over a century ago, he was renowned for his tremendous energy and exuberance. He wanted to bowl every ball, field every shot no matter what his position, and when he batted he wanted to hit everything out of the ground. For him, cricket was entertainment, and the cricketer's first priority was to provide spectators with excitement. Garry Sobers shared this philosophy, but took it to the extreme. As a fielder he was athletic and energetic in the manner of Constantine. He batted and bowled with the art and guile of one who could do anything with the ball. All it seemed to require was that an idea should pop into his head and he could execute it flawlessly. Such was his genius.
Both were true and natural allrounders, a rare breed that now seems to need a controlled environment to develop in. Their talent was powered by extraordinary self-confidence, deep passion for the game, and an intriguing sense of the cricketer as performer. It is from this lineage that 23-year-old Dwayne Bravo has emerged.
Bravo has precocious confidence; at 20, he told an interviewer that he was born to play cricket because "I'm gifted". He nursed his passion for the game from a childhood that was steeped in cricket. He couldn't stop practising strokes, imaginary or real, so that even when he was summoned to dinner, he would dawdle, reaching into the cutlery drawer and pulling out a spoon to continue playing shots with it until food got in the way.
When his trainer of many years, Charles Guillen, advised Bravo to consider the game as theatre and himself as a performing artist taking centre-stage, it became the mental image he invokes before play. Cricket was meant to be an entertaining spectacle and he, Dwayne, would be the star of the show.
When he's on this stage, his conscious mind connects tautly to his subconscious, loading each game with images from his memory bank. Out there, he becomes the actor, playing a part the audience paid good money to see. In that personal slideshow he carries, too, the eyes and expectations of the big little village that made him. "I feel conscious that the whole of Santa Cruz is watching," he says, and it underlines the weight of their investment in him, fortifying his determination to perform at his best.
The proverb that it takes a village to make a man is true in the case of Dwayne James John Bravo, son of Cantaro Village in Santa Cruz, Trinidad. Although his features as a cricketer can be traced to the mien of Constantine and Sobers, they also owe to his small community, which lived off its sporting activities and heroes. "When Brian broke the world record in 1994, everyone wanted to be Brian Charles Lara," says Bravo. "When Ato Boldon [Olympic sprint medallist] did well in athletics, everyone wanted to go into track and field." Bravo was just 11 when Lara took the record, and the idea of this family friend (their fathers worked with each other) being a world-famous cricketer made him realise that his passion for the game could take him to great heights. "I wanted to be like him," he remembers.
Lara encouraged him and advised him on his game, Bravo says, and took an almost avuncular interest in his development. He had begun his training, like Lara, at the Harvard Coaching Clinic, but soon went on to the Queen's Park Cricket Club (QPCC) after Guillen took to him.
Always, he was under the guidance of watchful eyes - Lara in Santa Cruz, and Guillen at the QPCC - but what they mainly provided was a more external stimulus to the cricket lineage that was his birthright. His grandfather Sylvester played for Royal, the village club, and his father, John, for the Invincibles.
His elder brother Lyndon played as well, also representing Harvard, but has since decided that he's had enough of competitive cricket and now considers himself the pioneer of the Bravo brothers, the pace-setter.
Bravo's father's house overlooks the Brian Lara Recreation Ground in Cantaro Village. Not the house, really, but the little shop that fronts it, where any one of half a dozen Bravos can be found manning the counter at different times. It is a large clan, gregarious and good-natured, full of fun and ribbing, the kind of place that nurtures you while ensuring that you never get too big for your boots.
It is hard to keep up with the running stream of chat that fills the small living room glistening with trophies. John, the father, and Lyndon are having a drink. Erline, Bravo's stepmother (whose father, Athelbert Eustache, was Lara's mother Pearl's brother) is fixing dinner, and the smell of roasting bakes adds a warm homeliness to the air. Three of his sisters, Dixie Ann, Precious, and Champagne, hang about shyly.
His younger brother Darren sits pensively. At 17, Darren is an allrounder who has already stirred interest. He takes his cricket very seriously and is a member of the Trinidad and Tobago Under-19 team, and the QPCC. Darren says his goal is to play for the West Indies team. Provocatively, I ask why he would want to aspire to being part of a team who have not performed well for almost all of his life. He looks indignant. Dwayne and Lara inspired him. The team have shown a new ability to perform as a unit under Lara's captaincy. They will rise. Above all else, he wants to play because cricket is his life.
I ask Lyndon who he thinks is the better batsman. Darren is his choice. Later, when I talk to Dwayne at his new home in Maraval, he agrees. A year ago he'd talked to Darren about becoming more focused. When I ask Darren what he thinks is necessary to become a good cricketer, his response is: "Discipline, discipline, discipline."
"I always tell people that one day we will play at the same time for the West Indies," says Dwayne confidently. He is sure that this dream too, like the one he had of playing alongside Lara, will come true.
So what is it like, batting with his childhood hero?
"Amazing. Just to be around him in the dressing room," he says reverentially. "Our relationship is even closer now. Although he is much older, he makes me comfortable."
Bravo thinks the whole team perceives a difference in Lara in his third stint as captain. "He knows he's on his last outing. He's more humble and more open to suggestions, and he is trying to make sure that before he leaves, West Indies cricket is on a better ground. For sure, we became a better team in the shorter version of the game. In the longer version, well, we're seeing signs of improvement."
Bravo doesn't have a preference between Tests and one-dayers - he just loves cricket. Tests are more demanding, of course. "Mentally it drains you," he says. "Two days before the match, you start preparing. You get up at 7am and don't get back to the hotel until about seven at night. On the field you're anxious, thinking about the game. For five days, that can be a bit much." Still, he wants to play every chance he gets. Indeed, he headed off to play a game on the weekend between the second and third Tests against India.
Chevelle Mendoza, Bravo's girlfriend, prepares a meal, as his father hovers in the kitchen, proprietarily supervising the aromatic callaloo soup. We go outdoors by the pool, away from the domestic hubbub made all the merrier by the ebullient presence of his little daughter, Dwaynice.
I ask about his new contract with Kent and he speaks of how it is an opportunity to develop as a professional player, and to get exposure to English conditions and international players and coaches. "Whenever there is a two-month break, West Indian players should try to go for it," he says.
Not that two-month breaks are likely, given the packed schedules followed these days. "The amount of cricket you play is unbelievable," says Bravo, "I think the ICC should look into it. I am not sure the players' associations can do anything about it." Trust him to look at the bright side, though. "The schedule is hectic, yet I think it is an opportunity to better myself. It asks a lot of players, especially back-to-back tours."
Speaking of cricketers' organisations, Bravo's relationship with the West Indies Players' Association (WIPA) is a good one, based on trust, he says. Although he concedes that the WIPA may be a tad more aggressive than necessary, he thinks that it genuinely seeks players' interests.
On the other hand, he thinks that generally the players continue to feel that the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) is "against us". "I think the players are the last priority, when they should be No. 1," he complains, citing instances of shoddy travel arrangements. "I think people need to understand that cricket is first, and they should ask players what they think about things. We need more communication and honesty."
They are forthright words from a young man whose Test debut came just two years ago. Bravo does not seem too apprehensive about commenting on the WICB's poor relations. Surely he cannot have forgotten that his beloved captain may have held world records but was relieved of the captaincy when he clashed with administrators?
It might be the bravado of youth, or Bravo may just be echoing his team, or even his captain's complaint after the St Lucia Test that the selectors were ignoring his request for fast bowlers. Or maybe it is supreme confidence that allows him to speak his mind. Bravo can look at his career thus far and feel he has cemented his place in the team. In two years, he has played in 14 Tests, scoring two centuries and holding an average of 35.72. His all-round performances in the recent ODI series against India can easily be described as match-winning.
He made an immediate impact on his debut tour of England in 2004, where despite a whitewash, he scored 220 runs in the four Tests and topped the wicket-takers' list for West Indies with 16. His first Test century came in his seventh Test. His second came in his next Test, against Australia at Hobart later that year: an intelligent 113 which he followed up with his second five-wicket haul in Tests, at Adelaide. It was in this series that Bravo invited a second, closer look at a player with class and potential.
In typical Bravo style, he had told himself that in Australia he wanted the world to take notice, and that he would stamp his authority against a bowling attack that included Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill. "When I went in to bat there was a lot of pressure," he told an interviewer about the Hobart innings. "West Indies were five wickets down without too many runs. That innings helped because it was made when the team was under pressure. I got mentally tougher."
As we talk, he becomes more languid, his posture that of a relaxed cat. His father comes out and steps up to perch at the edge of the pool, cooing at his delighted granddaughter. Suddenly, with feline speed and stealth, Dwayne darts off, and in one smooth movement grabs his dad's jersey with one firm hand and gives him a push towards the pool. For an instant, the older man totters, then the son pulls him back firmly, guffawing as his father laughingly protests. They hug and it is clear that John knows he was safe in his son's hands.
Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad