London: When England defeated West Indies in the summer of 2000 the English public were so keen to see them play that the groundstaff at The Oval had to lock 5,000 people out of the ground on the last day of the Test. There were just not enough seats to go round.
West Indies have not won a Test in England since. And while play was winding down in the first Test last Saturday evening, the groundstaff at Edgbaston had to open the gates to let at least as many fans back out of the ground.
The game was not over but it was late, people wanted to catch the bus or beat the rush and, besides, the cricket was hardly worth stopping to watch. The only thing left to see was England dot the i’s and cross the t in fait accompli.
Ten years ago a film crew went to Barbados. They were working on a documentary about West Indian cricket, famous now, Fire in Babylon. They wanted an extra to shoot some action scenes, a bowler, someone who looked the part. One of their interviewees, the Calypso singer Mighty Gabby, knew just whom they should use. The boy of a good friend of his, a 15-year-old kid called Jason Holder.
They shot Holder at sunset on Silver Sands beach, shirt off, staring down the camera lens. Then they cut the footage with clips of Ian Bishop bowling to Robin Smith and used it for the film’s opening sequence: Holder, on camera, the living epitome of the West Indies’ proud history, the embodiment of the team and the culture it grew out of.
Holder never even knew that they were shooting a movie. He assumed it was an advert for the tourist board or something. It was only years later that the West Indies team physio told him the footage was actually used in the film.
“It was over-awing,” Holder said the last time he was asked about it. “Being compared with great fast bowlers of the past and to see what they went through was a reality check.”
The comparisons are not so flattering any more. Just last weekend one of those great fast bowlers, Curtly Ambrose, wrote in the Daily Mail that Holder’s team were “embarrassing” and “pathetic”, that they were not interested in learning about the “heritage” of the team.
Holder is 10 years older now but still seems far too young for the job he has taken on. When West Indies won their first Test in England, at Lord’s in 1950, Lord Beginner wrote them the Victory Calypso. He had been in the crowd and he and his friend Lord Kitchener composed the song on the spot while they led the supporters in jig from Lord’s to Piccadilly Circus.
When the West Indies beat England in 1976, Prince Far I was inspired to record and release his Tribute to Michael Holding’s “heavy, heavy bowling”. And when Brian Lara tore English cricket apart in 1994 and 1995, the author Jean Binta Breeze wrote him a poem, Song For Lara: “Is a young generation Comin dung sweet Nat in awe of Wisden Nat studying defeat A fresh clean page From an islan of dreams A bat in hand Burstin at de seams.”
What will they write for this West Indies team? A lament, perhaps, for the decline and the dwindling away of the culture that sustained it.
“The Swiss have been making the best watches for 500 years,” the Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles said recently. “They are determined for the next 1,000 years to always be making the best watches — because their communities are committed to maintaining the excellence they have achieved.”
This year the West Indies Cricket Board rebranded itself and its team. From now on, it announced, the WICB would be known as Cricket West Indies and the West Indian teams as the Windies. What they really needed was an exorcism to get rid of all those ghostly memories of how good they used to be, back when English grounds were filled with British-West Indians come to cheer them on.
Donald Trump was at Edgbaston. So was the Queen. And Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. There were at least a dozen priests and as many Mexican bandits and even more Dutch footballers. There cannot have been a fancy dress shop anywhere in the Midlands with an outfit left to spare — unless they happened to stock West Indian cricket kit. The only colour you did not see in the stands was maroon.
Their supporters seem to have long since given up on the team. There are no definite numbers to compare but it was apparent how many more Jamaicans came to the London Stadium on the nights Elaine Thompson and Usain Bolt were running at the World Athletics Championships. Holder did not linger long in his press conference at Edgbaston last Saturday.
He seemed almost shell-shocked; he spoke softly and stared a lot at the table just in front of him. There are 11 players in a team but in that moment, as he tried to explain what had gone wrong, what he intended to do about it, he looked very lonely indeed.
“Cricket has always been more than a game in Trinidad,” wrote VS Naipaul. “Cricket was the only activity which permitted a man to grow to his full stature, and to be measured against international standards. Alone on a field, beyond obscuring intrigue, the cricketer’s true worth could be seen by all.”
Holder and his players had been horribly exposed. guardian.co.uk (c)