January 16, 2009

Calypso's decline echoes woes of first-class cricket

First-class cricket is really out of step with the pace of modern life, yet it survives

A fan pays homage to Brian Lara © Trinidad & Tobago Express

If The Mighty Duke's attitude towards soca was right on the ball, then this is one time when we shouldn't mind looking forward to some "Calypso Cricket" this weekend at the Queen's Park Oval.

In an interview we had with him six weeks ago, Kelvin Pope, like so many senior practitioners of the art form have done over the years, lamented the demise of calypso as entertainment, social commentary and historical chronicle at one and the same time.

This veteran bard (I'm waiting for us in the media to work out exactly how old he was when he passed away on Wednesday) wasn't exactly bashing the soca artistes, far from it. Indeed, the man who earned the princely sum of $1000 in 1968, when he claimed the first of four consecutive Calypso titles expressed delight that the current crop of entertainers was making so much money from their energetic exploits.

But revenue-earning potential aside, Duke questioned the ability of modern fare, especially the "jam and wine" variety that dominates the airwaves, to stand the test of time, given it is designed primarily to generate excitement and nothing else.

In contrast, the ailing entertainer opined, classic calypso, especially those penned by the performers themselves, have endured through the years because of their lyrical substance and context.

During the replaying of that interview yesterday morning, it was his comment about not being able to recall the 2008 Road March winning selection that really caught my attention, for it seemed to almost exactly mirror the attitude of so many brought up on first-class cricket towards the shorter forms of the game.

Test yourself. Without wasting time thinking about it, what cricketing moment at the Queen's Park Oval comes immediately to your mind? In my case, it's always Brian Lara executing the perfect cover drive through a packed off-side field to the bowling of Ottis Gibson in a regional first-class match between Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados in 1992. As usual for matches of this nature, the ground was almost empty but for the diehards, as it will be over the next four days when Daren Ganga leads the home side against defending champions Jamaica.

For some reason, though, and again it probably has everything to do with being weaned on a game played in whites and over successive days instead of a few hours in coloured clothing, that moment stands out, not merely for its pleasing aesthetics, but also because it was in the midst of a contest of some substance, a duel of arch-rivals on the opening day of four. In essence, it is cricket's version of Duke's appreciation of calypso, offering something that will endure long after the actual moment has passed, even if the appetite these days is for the fast food of one-day internationals and Twenty20 matches.

No matter how intriguing this weekend's contest is, no matter how brilliant some of the individual performances are, this match will struggle for an audience in the same way that calypso tents, even before the arrival of these increasingly stringent economic times, are labouring in an environment where lyrical artistry and a powerful message hardly seem to resonate anymore with an audience preoccupied instead with following the leader, leader, leader.

Still, for the few remaining ageing camels in our midst, a regional first-class cricket match, devoid of the gravitas of a Test, is like a serene and welcome oasis in the midst of a desert of noise, anger and haste.

For the few remaining ageing camels in our midst, a regional first-class cricket match, devoid of the gravitas of a Test, is like a serene and welcome oasis in the midst of a desert of noise, anger and haste

It is a time to take time, to appreciate whether new Jamaican spin sensation Gavin Wallace is really as impressive as his 8 for 20 against the Leewards last Sunday in St Kitts suggests that he is, or determine if the excitement being generated around Darren Bravo after his 97 in Barbados is really justified.

Such assessments are usually conducted against the backdrop of years of cricket-watching at this famous venue and placing the performances that are now unfolding in an historical context.

Like those contented camels chewing on their cud after a very long, cool drink at the oasis, it is also a time for just hanging around and reminiscing, of debating where in the batting order you would place The Mighty Duke in a "Greatest Calypsonians XI" or guessing when next the Patrick Manning administration will be forced to announce a further climb-down from budgetary projections.

First-class cricket is really out of step with the pace of modern life and has struggled for decades to draw an audience. Yet it not only survives, but enough people who will never set foot in the Oval at least want to know the score before turning their attention to more pressing matters.

It is somehow comforting that it is still played, although I'm not so sure if there would be any great clamour, especially in a society as indifferent as ours, should commercial and practical considerations determine it to be no longer sustainable.

As West Indians, we have never referred to our own game as "Calypso Cricket", given its smiling, happy flannelled fools connotations and suggestions that our brand of play is only about excitement and excitability.

Yet it is a measure of how times have changed that an established musical genre now dismissed by the "in" crowd as old school and pedantic can now be comfortably associated with Caribbean first-class cricket because of similarities in substance, content and context as was practised in the glory days of the late Kelvin Pope.

Fazeer Mohammed is a writer and broadcaster in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad