Something very unusual and heart-warming happened in the moments following West Indies' win in the World Twenty20 final in Colombo. The players celebrated like no one else I have seen, but across the world, in countries that played cricket and those that merely followed it, there was an outpouring of joy. It does not happen in sport.
Excuses are found, plots are unearthed, there is much loathing on message boards and in chat rooms, and anger is not unknown among fans. But with West Indies there was the kind of joy we see when a much-loved relative returns. It seems everyone wanted to sing a song and shake a leg. Even my mother-in-law was beaming.
There must be a reason. There must be many, in fact. Every team in our little cricket world is both liked and hated. Often this is because of perception, and the world is ruled more by perception than reality, anyway. And so the Aussies are disliked because they are seen to be cocky and because they sledge, England because they seem to look down on opponents, India because they seem to exercise power so visibly, Pakistan because some of their players seem to straddle the divide between what is acceptable and what isn't.
But West Indies don't seem to present us with a reason to dislike them. They don't even have fast bowlers who snarl and aim to knock your head off.
It could just be that in recent years they have threatened no one. They haven't conquered, they haven't trodden on emotions. They have largely lost, and as I learnt early in my career following India, good-natured teams that lose have all the ingredients needed for popularity. West Indies have no history of ruling others or of going to war. Indeed, if anything, they have emerged out of the darkness of colonisation. They have felt segregation. They have been victims of history.
That might explain their extraordinary popularity in India. My generation didn't see the hardships of foreign rule but felt the last after-effects. We felt a bond across continents and oceans towards black people. I became a fan of Basil D'Oliveira's without ever seeing him play. India supported the African National Congress and didn't play South Africa in a rare appearance in the final of the Davis Cup in 1974. And so it was natural that the generation just before mine, and many others of my age, naturally gravitated towards West Indies. Garry Sobers was a big hero, and in later times so were Viv Richards, Malcolm Marshall and Brian Lara. Racism for this generation was about the white man being rude to the coloured. (That the reverse must also fit the definition wasn't always obvious.)
But those born in the eighties shouldn't have to think like that. The world has embraced multi-culturalism (including South Africa, which did so in the early nineties with great gusto). Black players play for England and South Africa, Asians for Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand, a white man played Test cricket for West Indies recently. Frankly this generation shouldn't care too much now for a history that once segregated people. So why does it enjoy watching West Indies just as much?
I have asked people and inevitably they say they are drawn to the joy that seems to accompany West Indies' cricket. They seem to play with a smile (Chris Gayle is a colossal modern icon), there is little bad blood around, they don't sledge, and boy, they draw you into their celebration. I find the third of those particularly interesting: West Indies, everyone says, don't sledge, and that seems to strike a chord among people. They are "nice guys", like Roger Federer is, and it is a sentiment, if indeed universally true, that fills me with a lot of joy and hope.
Sledging is still looked down upon. Isn't that wonderful? I have often been intrigued by how an entire group of people, from different islands and sporting different accents (each more alluring than the other) seems to believe in this way of playing cricket.
Mikey Holding laughed it off when I asked him, saying, "We didn't need to", but I couldn't imagine him or Andy Roberts or Joel Garner sledging. Ian Bishop, a successor, and possessor of a much calmer temperament, said it just wasn't done. West Indies seem to accept what happens on a cricket ground, show their disappointment but rarely anger. Lara walked and expected others to do so. When he said "Take my word", in 2006, it seemed much more acceptable than if a cricketer from another team said it.
And they have had wonderful ambassadors. Clive Lloyd, Holding and Bishop are just three of them, but the Caribbean also gave the world the writings of CLR James and the voice and demeanour of Tony Cozier, a universally liked broadcaster. In more recent times, in India, Daren Ganga brought a team from Trinidad and Tobago that played with such verve and lan that even in a tournament like the Champions League Twenty20, they made many friends.
So it could be the laughter that you see ring out all over the stands in the West Indies (Sunil Gavaskar's description of the crowds there in Sunny Days was probably an aberration) and on cricket grounds all over the world.
And it isn't just a Gayle, a Bravo or a Pollard. In the early days of TWI filming cricket in India we had a sound engineer called Collin Oliverre, whose cheerful accent and laughter always filled the production room.
Or it could be a combination of all these factors and those robust calypsos that capture the ethos of cricket in the islands. I hope West Indies win much more because they seem to bring happiness back to cricket. We have too much sledging, too much rancour, sometimes, and then we see these men making all that seem so small and inconsequential.
Yes, that is why we love them - because they play sport the way all of us would secretly love to.