The whole world worries about the decline of West Indies cricket July 1, 2007

Appreciating the legacy

Tony Cozier

Brian Lara will be honoured in a function at London on Monday night © Getty Images
If evidence was needed that the genuine concern for the depressed state of West Indies cricket extends far beyond the Caribbean, it is to be presently found in the heart of London.

Last Wednesday night, two Nobel Prize laureates, a knighted musical lyricist and a famed storyteller declared their long-lasting devotion to its special legacy, bemoaned its decline and yearned for its revival.

Such adoration was confirmed two nights earlier by a host of outstanding past players at a separate function paying homage to Sir Garfield Sobers, the allrounder who, more than any other, typifies its unique qualities.

Such an occasion is to be repeated on Monday night when Brian Lara, the most recent in the long lineage of great West Indian batsmen, is similarly honoured. No doubt the current plight that lingered throughout Lara's career, in spite of his phenomenal list of records, will also interest those in attendance. Some of Lara's contemporaries such as Shane Warne, Sachin Tendulkar, Courtney Walsh and Michael Vaughan are expected to attend.

The Sobers's event, attended by more than 700 guests and which your columnist was privileged to host, was put on by cricket's renowned charity organisation, the Lord's Taverners.

It featured video highlights of the phenomenal left-hander's long career, from his Test debut at the age of 17, through to his unbeaten 150 in the final Test at Lord's in 1973.

Sir Everton Weekes, specially brought over for the occasion, and Trevor Bailey, both now 82, reminisced on stage about Sobers's debut Test when the England allrounder Bailey was his first wicket.

Ted Dexter and Tom Graveney, two of England's finest batsmen when Sobers was at his peak with bat and ball, followed, with Clive Lloyd, whose debut Test innings was in a matchwinning partnership with the incomparable left-hander, and Sir Michael Stoute, the Barbadian who has been England's leading race horse trainer for several years, filling the lower order.

Stoute, who recalled watching Sobers's first Division One club hundred in Barbados for Police against Wanderers as a boy, could speak with authority on Sobers's love of and interest in horses.

Sobers himself rounded off the evening, to a standing ovation, with his own riveting revelations, but the general conversation was as much on the days of plenty as on the present drought and the necessity to ensure that the present decline is arrested and turned around.

Especially after their difficult summer, when the consensus is that it is the weakest team to tour England since the first in 1928, the repeated theme around the tables was that world cricket needs West Indies to be strong.

Yet there was little gloating or condescension, just the hope that the flickering flame that has illuminated the game for so long would burn brightly again.
Human nature being what it is, those who suffered so repeatedly at the hands of the great players and the great teams of the past might now be expected to chortle in delight at the shabby state of their successors. Yet there was little gloating or condescension, just the hope that the flickering flame that has illuminated the game for so long would burn brightly again.

So it has been wherever the game has taken me in recent times. As Mike Gatting, who endured more from the West Indies than most, put it, football would be similarly the poorer without the brilliance of Brazil at its best. There is a certain comparable flamboyance between the two.

The appropriate venue for Wednesday's affair, also a Lord's Taverners show, and Monday's, is the famous Long Room at the game's spiritual home, Lord's.

It is there that an exhibition marking Lara's phenomenal, and recently ended career, has also been mounted in the museum since the start of the present season to continue through to December.

In reality, it is nothing less than a shrine to Lara, according to Adam Chadwick, the museum's curator, a "celebration of his career" with themed displays that explore different aspects of his life, both in and out of cricket.

The highlights on Wednesday in the Long Room across the walkway were the readings, and their admissions to their cricket fanaticism, of Harold Pinter, the renowned British playwright, and his St Lucian counterpart, Derek Walcott, of Sir Tim Rice, who penned the musical lyrics of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar among a host of others, and Paul Keens-Douglas, the Caribbean's most popular raconteur.

The proceedings were introduced before the gathered 250, in their evening suits and fine dresses, by calypsonian, Tobago Crusoe, with his rendition of Lord Beginner's "Cricket, Lovely Cricket", the theme for the evening.

The virtuosity of the masters of the written and spoken word followed to embellish the glory of West Indies cricket.

Pinter, now a frail 77, read from some of his own work and spoke passionately about the triumphant 1950 West Indies team, of Frank Worrell's grace and the "butchery" of Weekes, seated in the front row a few feet away from him, and Clyde Walcott and of the mystery of Ramadhin and Valentine.

Derek Walcott, who dashed directly from Heathrow Airport after a flight from an engagement in Berlin to be at Lord's, read a piece, based on the recent Test series. He had written it specifically for the occasion.

Using the analogy of a fight between the warriors of the West Indies and the lions for England - who, indeed, play under the crest of three lions - Walcott intoned: "On every field in the islands dust hides the sun. And the bodies fall except Chanderpaul who tires the lions, and if one warrior can do this, where were his band of brothers who once whitened the flag of St George to a bloody cross?"

Victory is sweet; we have known this, but greater than victory, perhaps, is the beauty of defeat, the beauty of the great boxer going down, the killer of bulls gored on the sand, the loss that wears down every innings to zero, nothing is sadder than an unlucky streak, nothing is nobler than an unlucky hero. Our enemies are beautiful, the lions, but we are not weak."

Even while the lingering crisis is compounded by its embarrassing, widely publicised internal disputes of the past few weeks, the longing for the West Indies to return to their former glory is unmistakably sincere.

The excitement that followed their exciting victory in the opening Twenty20 International at the Oval on Thursday was even reflected in the usually unforgiving British press.

"We at last saw West Indies cricket in all its former glory-expansive and, at times, completely unorthodox strokeplay delivered with a style and panache so Caribbean," wrote Paul Newman, cricket correspondent of the Daily Mail.

It was merely a 20-overs an innings knockabout but it was the kind of play that Harold Pinter, Derek Walcott and millions in every corner of cricket's empire have yearned for.

Those who have dragged the game down to its present level, administrators and players alike, would have benefited from being at the Hilton and at Lord's over the past few days. If they had been, they might have fully appreciated the legacy with which they have been entrusted.