Large-hearted, red-blooded, Caribbean
Let it be said first up. The Bowling Was Superfine is a gem. So purely cut, it sends light sparkling off in a hundred, different directions.
Cricket's handsome body of literature and writing has, by and large, been most self-assured of its place. It stands snootily removed from the humbler dirt-under-nails genre called cricket reporting, and both sets of purveyors try to maintain a good distance from each other.
The editors of this book speak eloquently of the intertwining of West Indian cricket and West Indian literature. They maintain that the vocabulary contained in the anthology will neither be Wisdenesque nor Jamaica Gleaner-ish. Yet in its all-embracing range of geography and environment, thought and detail, dialect and patois, Superfine blurs every manner of boundary. CLR James would approve.
This is a sweeping, large-hearted, red-blooded collection of Caribbean poetry, fiction, drama and essays with cricket at the centre. It encompasses many voices, even that of a protesting Caribbean immigrant schoolboy in British-Jamaican poet Benjamin Zephaniah's "How's Dat":
Teacher tell me
I am good at cricket
I tell Teacher I am not,
Teacher tell me
We love cricket,
I tell teacher
I want Trigonometry
In Superfine, there is much of the cultural, historical, the serious and more. In it is the celebration of Kanhai, "driving sorrow to the boundary", and the anguish of defeat. Earl Lovelace asks in "Like When Somebody Dead": "What does losing mean to the West Indies? What does losing mean to us? What do we feel is lost in the process of losing a Test match? The British used to say that losing a Test match was like losing a battleship. What is the equivalent to us?"
In the London Metropolitan University's 2005 Frank Worrell Memorial Lecture, which acts as the book's prologue, writer (and co-editor here) Ian McDonald says, "There is a hunger in the souls of West Indians for this great game which needs to be satisfied and is part of our yearning for a more fulfilled life." This book has such generous helpings of soul that the urge to empty the bank and jump on a plane to take in and talk cricket in the Caribbean becomes dangerously irresistible.
Jamaican writer and educator John Figueroa lacerates the cultural stereotyping of West Indian cricketers and says that the greatest contribution of the West Indies "to the great game, again especially to English cricket, is the one started in 1950: that of showing to people ever so sure of themselves, and of their right to win, that the mighty can fall - even in their own territory". Figueroa wrote this in 1991, with some anger, as the sustained hostility against the West Indian fast bowling quartet turned into whingeing of tedious proportions.
Turn a page and there's insight, turn another and astonishment awaits. Amidst academic dissections of Caribbean cricket, full of talk of cultural context and historical burdens, without warning arrives a character called Bungy, courtesy Guyanese-Canadian scientist-writer Raywat Deonandan, who turns a Demerara Cup final into a contest between "king rice" and "slave sugar". Montserrat school principal and poet Ann Marie-Dewar recounts a local hero's greatest day in "Cricket (A-We Jim)".
"What a carry-on a Sturge Park
How de crowd stomp an roar!
Fo combine play Guyana
An a-we Jim tap de score."
In "Test Match High Mass (at Bourda Green, Georgetown, Guyana)" Grace Nichols imagines:
If Jesus was pressed into playing
a game, I'm sure it would be cricket
and he - the wicketkeeper
bearing open-palmed witness
behind the trinity of stumps
Watching his white clad disciples
work the green fields -
tracking the errant red soul
of a ball - arcing gloriously
across the turf of uncertainty
The bulk of the writing is post-1950s, and has as its subject, among other things, the glory days of West Indian cricket and the expat Caribbean experience. Yet this anthology is not a static recounting of a past and the existential dilemmas it caused those who left home; it is a reflection of the strength and vitality of the common thread of West Indian-ness. The game remains a vital, organic part of West Indian life, even if the region's team are not world beaters anymore. Who knows what West Indies' recent victory in the World Twenty20 and the progress of the women's team will kick off amongst a new generation of writers, poets and scholars. Even Usain Bolt grew up playing cricket.
The anthology concludes with its earliest offering: Plum Warner's 1897 recounting of "Cricket in the West Indies". It leaves us where everything started. What precedes Warner's account in the book are decades, eras, players, and the voices of many. Those voices resonate, be it Bungy or the sombre, ageing cricketer in Barbadian Carl Jackson's story, "The Professional". Lying in wait among the pages are the big daddies of Caribbean cricket and Caribbean writing - James, Learie Constantine, VS Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Hilary Beckles et al.
The title of this anthology comes from the famous "Victory Calypso, Lord's 1950" composed by Egbert Moore, better known as Lord Beginner. It is the only calypso lyric in the book; co-editor Stewart Brown acknowledges in his editorial that trying to include (only as texts) the vast number of calypso, reggae, soca and other songs relating to West Indian cricket, would not be doing them justice. While we wait for a box CD set to be released, Brown and McDonald's collection must be feasted on.
The Bowling Was Superfine: West Indian Writing and West Indian Cricket
Edited by Stewart Brown and Ian McDonald
Peepal Tree, 2012
370 pages, £21.99
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo