The Development of West Indies Cricket October 4, 2008

Caribbean context

A perceptive, prescient look at West Indies cricket and its decline

More searching than former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley's A History of West Indies Cricket - Manley is the friend to whose memory these volumes are dedicated - sport's least likely dynasty found the ideal chronicler in the Professor of History and Pro Vice Chancellor (Student Affairs) at the University of the West Indies.

Beckles is an academic whose works range from studies of slavery to a history of Barbados. And yes, there is probably rather too much deployment of the word "paradigm" here for most tastes, but don't let that put you off. Written at the turn of a new millennium, embedded in socio-economic context, loaded with perspective and prescience, this is a labour of love: the love of a proud but gravely worried parent.

To reclaim the glories of the 1970s and 1980s, Beckles argues, the youth of the Caribbean must first reclaim the islands' history, the better to understand why the game is so integral - perhaps too integral: he advocates a "normalisation of cricket culture" - to regional identity. This is an exemplary place to start. If you want to know why George and Learie were so important, what inspired Frank, Clive and Viv, how life became strife for Brian, and why board and players are still united only by mutual mistrust, look no further.

The most fascinating chapter is an entirely fictional debate on postcolonial West Indies cricket between Manley and CLR James, originally published in magazine form. "We embraced cricket and asked it to serve our need for advancement," Beckles imagined James asserting. To which Manley "responds": "I oftentimes asked myself whether we have asked too much of cricket, and whether it is time for us to let it go free to find a level and place outside of our extraordinary social expectation." One suspects Beckles leans towards the latter view.

"The 'third rising' in West Indies cricket is the mandate of their generation," Beckles writes wistfully of his young sons. Volume 2, The Age of Globalisation, is a blueprint and also a prayer - that the past can be built upon, learned from and atoned for; that a fragile and parlous present can evolve into a worthwhile future; that renewed and fruitful togetherness on the field, above all, can inspire the rancorous Caribbean nations to follow suit. The message is even more relevant now than when it was originally sent.

From the book (Vol. 2)
The skipper had never been on a West Indies team that played so poorly, and he could not contain his opinion. "If we had played to our potential," he said, "we would have beaten them convincingly. It hurts real, real bad; this is the weakest Australian side we have played against. We just allowed them to outplay us," he concluded.

The stillness and fears that held West Indians together at Sabina Park were overshadowed by dozens of carnivalised Australians who had flown in for the "show down". Aussie flags monopolised the sky over a ground now covered in festivities. Somewhere in the background, over on the Mound, the sound of Bob Marley could faintly be heard - "Don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing's gonna be all right." Mark Taylor described the Wednesday as the greatest day of his life, but it was filled with ashes for West Indians. Michael [Manley] had asked, "Hilary, do you understand what this all means? Do you realise that the players have lost direction and a sense of purpose?" The nation, he said, was on trial, and not doing very well. Something has to be done, we agreed, and the solutions lie beyond the boundary.

The Development of West Indies Cricket Vols 1&2
by Hilary McD. Beckles

The University of West Indies Press, 1999

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton