August 8, 2012

This one's for Jamaica

The people of that nation have been radical and creative, and now through Bolt and Blake and Gayle and Samuels, they are enjoying plenty of enviable success

While Kevin Pietersen was spellbinding us and amusing himself on Saturday, a middle-aged couple came to view our flat (the children are getting too old to share a bedroom and we've run out of Wisden space). When the male half saw what was distracting me, instead of expressing amazement/disgust that it wasn't all that rowing and shooting and pedalling, he asked how things had gone since Ian Bell's dotty waft. As I wittered on about the wonders he'd missed, he doubtless realised he was on a sound pitch: this vendor was bound to take a decent slice off the asking price, if only to keep the place in the right sort of hands.

Shortly before another disdainful leg-side flick took The Artist Known With Fitful Fondness As KP to his 7000th Test run in record time, the Barmy Army's boogie-woogie bugle boy tooted the "Match of the Day" theme. Down south they may have been feasting on runners, sailors and asymmetric bar swingers, but anyone with an ounce of discernment knew the most compelling contest was going on oop north.

The audacity with which Pietersen whipped Dale Steyn through wide long-on to go from 112 to 116 will live with me always, almost as long as the six over long-off two balls later, as bodacious a blow as any by Vivi at his kingliest. Not because I'm an Englishman and Pietersen plays/played for England (are those dressing-room leaks karma for backstabbing Peter Moores?), but because he was playing the century's finest bowler fuelled by a mindset no peer bar Chris Gayle would even contemplate. Now that's my kinda sport. Ditto Marlon Samuels at Sabina, outstaring and outsmarting New Zealand's ablest seam attack in yonks.

Understandably livid as so many are that the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy series has been compressed into a paltry three chapters, the England and Wales Cricket Board got it right. Even if the MCC hadn't been so eager to be associated with all this unabashed Britishness by volunteering to host the archery*, competing with the Olympics would still have been akin to criticising Vladmir Putin or the BCCI: doomed to failure and promising a lengthy stretch out of the public eye, even tweeting range.

Strictly between you, me and Big Brother Twitter, a confession is due: despite my hometown being the centre of the universe, despite the relative efficiency and spick-and-spanness of everything (including the loos at Gatwick Airport), despite my partner's sisters telling me they've never got such a kick out of sport and despite my unyielding admiration for the competitors, volunteers and transport workers, I watched not a single lap, round, bout or set during the first week of London 2012.

While needing no excuse whatsoever to prioritise events in Leeds and Kingston, it took much cunning and no little resourcefulness to avoid the wall-to-wall TV coverage of contests that strike this refusenik as either free of dramatic/sensory appeal or merely lacking balls. It helps, of course, when resistance is reinforced by obscene cost, excessive nationalism, invasive security, non-stop-till-you-drop media overkill and repressive rules, not only about what competitors wear or say but what spectators drink. I was being interviewed by BBC Radio Sussex on Monday, taking ultra-care not to undercut the presenter's breathless enthusiasm, when successive phone-inners had the brazen chutzpah to express much the same misgivings. I owe this mea culpa to them.

The boycott ended on Sunday, as it was always destined to do. Just as it would be curmudgeonly to scorn the class-crossing, pecker-hoisting, we-ness of these Games, how could I possibly begrudge expending ten seconds on the men's 100 metres final? Here, after all, was a contest that not only promised something breath-stealing but an affirmation of what Samuels had been reminding Sabina's meagre but noisy faithful. When Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake thundered home on the eve of the 50th anniversary of independence, amplifying the message sent by Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce's gold in the women's 100m, being Jamaican had never meant more.

In the land of reggae, cricket life has never been sweeter. Jamaica have taken the last five regional four-day titles, and eight of the last 13. Heading the Caribbean's all-time Test scalp chart is Kingston's Courtney; West Indies' key batsmen are now Gayle and Samuels

Jamaicans have long been a Caribbean breed apart, as unafraid of the reckless as of the radical. Marcus Garvey, declared no less an authority than Martin Luther King Jr, was "the first man, on a mass scale, to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny". Formed in 1943, the Jamaica Labour Party joined the newly founded People's National Party in what the future prime minister Michael Manley would characterise with some justification as a "plural democracy… copied in virtually every other territory now comprising the group from which the West Indies cricket team is drawn".

Besides those who gave the planet ska, dub and that rocksteady beat, other notable members of the diaspora include Colin Powell, the first African-American US secretary of state, the NBA star Patrick Ewing, some of England's better fast bowlers, and a host of eminent British footballers, boxers and Olympic medallists. Nothing makes a white public schoolboy feel hipper than to mutter some patois and be mistaken for a Jamaican. Nevertheless, given that George Headley was born to a Bajan father in Panama and spent his formative years in Cuba, it was not until Michael Holding purred his way to stump-thumping fame that Jamaica could legitimately boast of having sired a cricketing colossus.

Half a century ago, West Indies' senior batsmen Frank Worrell, Conrad Hunte and Garry Sobers, were Bajan; likewise those unnerving new-ballers Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. In 1963, the lone Jamaican to figure in the victorious series in England was the opener Easton McMorris, maker of 36 in four knocks. No Jamaican tallied 4000 Test runs in the 20th century, nor 140 wickets until the 1980s. Nearly two decades elapsed between Jamaica landing their first Shell Shield and their next win in the competition, by then called the Red Stripe Cup.

How the wheel turns. Bajans dominate the current Under-19 World Cup squad (which contains just two Jamaicans); Kemar Roach is bearing the torch passed on by Hall, Griffith, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall with nous and nobility; yet more than a decade has passed since Sherwin Campbell became the ninth, last and least celebrated batsman from the land of the three Ws to acquire 2500 Test runs.

In the land of reggae, cricket life has never been sweeter. Jamaica have taken the last five regional four-day titles, and eight of the last 13. Heading the Caribbean's all-time Test scalp chart is Kingston's Courtney; West Indies' key batsmen are now Gayle and Samuels. Of the five Jamaicans nominated as the region's all-time fabbest in 2004, only Headley (see earlier disclaimer) did not add lustre to the Lloyd-Richards Empire. Obliged to wait until 1994 to hail West Indies' first Jamaican-born black captain, the ascent of Walsh and Gayle means that two of the region's ten most frequent captains are Jamaicans. Of all the players who have commanded Caribbean-wide affection - and some Bajans, don't forget, have yet to forgive the saintly Worrell for relocating to Jamaica - has any received or warranted more than the sometimes cruel but mostly courtly Courtney?

REGIONAL RIVALRY HAS ALWAYS made Caribbean cricket the most strenuous to run, even in the high times. Amid some of the all-time lows, Pat Rousseau, the Jamaican lawyer who chaired the WICB from 1996 to 2001, was accused of serving nation rather than region.

Decades earlier, when the board had urged governments to nourish the game through a development fund, only Jamaica had responded. Yet when the Red Stripe Bowl opened for business in 1997, Sir Hilary Beckles attested: "The only messages about the Caribbean going on the television screen were calls for Jamaicans to return home for Jamaica's World Cup football clash against Mexico." A Trinidadian journalist, Eddy Odingi, noticed this too, concluding: "It seems to me [they] are using West Indies cricket to promote Jamaica and prop up the Jamaican economy, and, in the interim, doing a much better job of destroying West Indies cricket than any cricketing world power."

Rousseau recently asserted that the WICB had dropped the ball over T20. Investment in a regional tournament, he contended, would offer a financial carrot and enhance loyalty. Instead, the policy has been to "badger and harass". That the recipient of most of the badgering happened to be a fellow Jamaican may or may not have been purely coincidental, but it doesn't seem too big a stretch to interpret Gayle's commitment to doing it his way as a symbol of the Jamaican way. While many still dream of regional unity, Jamaicans appear to have been the first to realise that, so long as the bickering persisted, they might as well look after No. 1. Even so, the first to threaten to go it alone in cricketing terms were Trinidadians and Tobagans.

"We became much more creative when we stopped being a colony - we developed our own music that was descended from slavery," Neville Garrick, Bob Marley's close friend and trusty artistic director, recently recalled. "We were fighting to put Jamaica on the map, as a people who could do it for themselves."

Garvey and Marley; Mikey and Courtney; Usain and Yohan; Chris and Marlon: fighters one and all. "This is for Jamaica," proclaimed Marlon after the Kiwis were downed: as divisive as it may have sounded, you couldn't blame him.

And if you think I can resist giving the final word to His Bobness, dream on:

"Rastaman vibration, yeah! Positive!
That's what we got to give!"

13:55:37 GMT, August 14, 2012: Removed mention of this being the first year since 1980 when the final Test of the English summer was being played at Lord's. The last Test of the 2010 Pakistan series was also played at Lord's

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