I leave Kingston at dawn on March 25, a hugely important day in the nation’s history. Exactly 200 years earlier, the British parliament in London had passed a law abolishing slave trade in the empire. Those who have watched Amistad and read books on the slavers will perhaps be aware that over 20 million were transported from Africa to the Americas, often in harrowing conditions. Though it would be another three decades before the slaves in Jamaica were granted their freedom, it’s nevertheless a red-letter day for a small island that gave the world icons of black consciousness like Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.
On one of the four flights that I take to get to Guyana, the in-flight magazine has an interesting article on Olaudah Equiano, the first “slave novelist”. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings was published in London in 1789, and was for two centuries regarded as one of the definitive works on the slave trade. It traced Olaudah’s life from his birth in Nigeria to his transformation as an English gentleman, via the Caribbean, Virginia and even participation in the Seven Years War.
Though of a fantastical nature, it was an iconic work, and it was only less than a decade ago that its veracity was doubted. Professor Vincent Carretta published a book that picked out anomalies in Olaudah’s writing before attempting to establish that he was born in Carolina and had never been to Africa. It generated heated debate, but perhaps it’s best to regard The Interesting Narrative as a fictionalised account of a world that was horribly wrong.
Barbados, where I touch down midway through my journey, may be little more than a big city, but has produced more great cricketers than regions ten times its size. A banner that welcomes you to the airport has the faces of the three Ws – Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott – and Garfield Sobers, and the new-look Kensington Oval is visible even from the air as you’re about to land.
For more than half a century, it was a veritable Colisseum where West Indies never lost, a venue whose history, tradition and atmosphere appeared to intimidate visiting teams. Even as recently as 1999, it was the venue for Brian Lara’s magnificent 153 not out, the defining innings of his career which humbled Steve Waugh’s Australians in an unforgettable Test.
By contrast, the Bourda in Guyana produced few memorable Test matches, with most being remembered for placid pitches and tropical rain. When you touch down at Cheddi Jagan Airport though, you’re quickly reminded that this is a country that has contributed immeasurably to the fabric of West Indies cricket despite being the geographical odd-man-out. Rohan Kanhai, who matched Sobers stroke for stroke in his pomp, smiles down at you from a poster that urges people to protect children from AIDS, and alongside is a banner of a man who led West Indies to its greatest cricketing conquests.
With so much focus on the players of Indian origin that Guyana has produced – Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan are cornerstones of the current set-up – it’s easy to forget that Clive Hubert Lloyd was born in these parts, as was Lance Gibbs, the world’s highest wicket-taker till Dennis Lillee breezed past at the MCG just over a quarter century ago.
Inside the arrivals area, you glimpse a poster of Alvin Kallicharan, another West Indian great whose legacy was soured by his decision to tour South Africa with the likes of Lawrence Rowe in the early 1980s. A brilliant strokeful left-hander who played 66 Tests, Kallicharan is best remembered in India for leading an enfeebled team in 1978-79. West Indies lost 2-0 despite Kallicharan himself scoring over 500 runs, but the likes of Malcolm Denzil Marshall would have their retribution in the years to come.
It’s nearly midnight by the time we step outside. The road to Georgetown is a narrow one, and reminds me of the north of Kerala. Even the vegetation appears to be the same, except that there are fewer huge swaying palms by the side of the road. You still get a sense of a very green country, and the little houses by the side of the road are certainly prettier than some of the concrete eyesores that have disfigured Kerala’s scenery in recent times.
There’s even the odd timber mill as you approach Georgetown – again reminiscent of Malabar – and the streets start to look a little seedier as you near the docks. This isn’t a prosperous place – one US dollar will get you 200 of its Guyanese equivalents – but the Indian influence appears to be everywhere, from the billboards and hoardings to the re-runs of Ramayan on TV. A pity then that India’s cricketers couldn’t be bothered to make it this far.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo