Fans of the Jamaica and Guyana teams at the final

National pride: fans of the Jamaica and Guyana teams at the 2013 CPL final

© Getty Images
7

Essay

Identity games

The CPL's effect on West Indianness has been deeper than anyone imagined

Vaneisa Baksh |

My father called me up late one Saturday morning to ask if I was watching the IPL match that was coming live from India. It was not on my radar. I was running errands, and I had taken to catching the repeats at night on account of my day job. He was disappointed because the game had been so exciting, he just wanted to share his experience with someone.

Daddy has been tuning in to T20 cricket since the Caribbean Premier League started three years ago. After he had turned away in disgust from West Indies Test cricket, he'd never really paid attention to the shorter forms of the game, not even in his retirement; but then he was never as much a cricket fan as my brothers and I were.

When the CPL came along in 2013 it drew me in, and as my surviving brother was not within reach, when a match excited me, I would phone my father just to share the experience. He would not have been watching, so I would tell him what station he could find it on, and eventually it collared him too. He now loves T20 cricket - more than Tests - and when the West Indies teams won the 2016 World T20 in April, he was the first person I called. To be honest, I never thought I would describe my father as a cricket fan. My mother for sure, but he had always seemed a take-it-or leave-it kind of spectator. T20 cricket changed that.

When the triumvirate of West Indian teams brought home world titles this year, they scuttled the talk of islands going it alone

T20 cricket has changed many things.

For about 12 years I worked as a freelancer, setting my own time and pace. Instinctively I avoided scheduling meetings or presentations when cricket was on. My work rhythm moved to a West Indian cricket beat, as I later realised.

"I write on cricket, I have to watch it," I'd say with a kind of smug pleasure. As we entered the 21st century and the slide of West Indies Test cricket seemed unstoppable, it became painful to watch. One by one, then two by more, people averted their eyes. Diehard supporters ignored it; cricket lovers switched sides; the fashionable followers pulled out football jerseys. I couldn't bear to watch it, but I did.

"I write on cricket, I have to watch it," I'd say glumly.

The West Indies men's team was being beaten in every possible humiliating permutation: by nine wickets; by an innings; within two or three days; by rain. The disputes between the West Indies Cricket Board and the West Indies Players' Association fronted more headlines than match results did. West Indies were no longer a drawcard; touring teams trickled through.

A tale of two formats: hardly an empty seat at the Kensington Oval (top) for a CPL game; hardly any takers for seats during a Test match at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua

A tale of two formats: hardly an empty seat at the Kensington Oval (top) for a CPL game; hardly any takers for seats during a Test match at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua © Getty Images, AFP

The stands began to feel ashamed, trying to hide their nakedness as spectators dribbled through the turnstiles - a far cry from the jostling throngs they were accustomed to. Once, a man had taken a stepladder into the Queen's Park Oval and sold its rungs as seats for a few cents (it was a very long time ago) because of the huge crowds. Now, food vendors don't think it's worth their time to cook just to feed a family of four. The last time I went to a Test match, against New Zealand at the Queen's Park Oval in 2014, it was a public holiday. West Indies had a convincing lead. Yet no more than 200 people were there, including security - and entry was free.

All through the West Indian chain, cricket grounds remained empty during Tests - not even mad dogs and Englishmen turned up. The performance of the team was criticised for many reasons: poor fielding, batting and bowling as a result of inadequate training and fitness levels; indifference to outcomes; lack of team spirit; focus on bling or monetary rewards over performance levels; dysfunctional relationships within the management structure, dysfunctional relationships between players, dysfunctional relationships between management and players. It was all dysfunctional and the disappointments festered into bitterness.

Mash up the West Indies and let each territory go it alone as an individual team became the talk up and down the chain. Nearly 30 years ago, when David Rudder sang "Rally Round the West Indies", it had so embraced the spirit of West Indian community that it was officially adopted as the anthem for this band of nations. Instead of banding together in rough times, people were walking off into their separate sunsets.

Why was I still watching Test cricket? I was hardly writing about it.

The CPL organisers may have modelled their strategies after Allen Stanford's. Cricket Played Louder is one of the CPL billboard slogans in Trinidad

Some years before the CPL, Allen Stanford, the loud, brash Texan now serving a 110-year prison sentence in the US, opened up the T20 frontier for the Caribbean from his base in Antigua. In October 2005, he announced his plan for a T20 tournament and drew the entire region into his pocket. He spent money lavishly, on cricketing infrastructure, player development, team preparation, and US$2.75 million for a promotional and marketing campaign. The CPL's organisers may have modelled their strategies after Stanford's, given the similarities in their approach. Cricket Played Louder is one of the CPL billboard slogans in Trinidad.

Stanford touched a soft spot when he took on 14 cricket legends as his ambassadors, especially because they had never been particularly venerated by the WICB. In drawing on the experience of former West Indies players as mentors and coaches the CPL too showed respect and appreciation for them; at every match, no matter how deep the party mood, their presence was a visible reminder of the magnificent heritage of West Indies cricket.

There were other similarities. Territorial rivalries were mostly good-natured, tempered by high spirits, pleasant weather and parties galore, so that by the time the finals came around, groups of spectators from all over the region had already made at least one appearance at the Stanford Cricket Ground - just as would happen with the CPL and inter-territorial travel.

Turn it up to ten: the CPL is billed as the biggest party in cricket

Turn it up to ten: the CPL is billed as the biggest party in cricket © LatinContent/Getty Images

Stanford's tournament was as significant to West Indies cricket as Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket had been at the end of the '70s. Stanford offered cash incentives, but insisted on fitness and training, penalising players financially for tardiness at sessions, as Packer had done.

The T20 culture has injected a higher standard of fitness and training globally, so that modern players are visibly stronger and fitter than players of the past, with a lot more than a heavy bat or a mystery ball in their arsenal. Sloppy, lethargic fielding had become the bane of West Indian cricket, and now the players are right up there with the best. In 2012, West Indies won the World T20. The players felt the financial benefits across the world. They had made theirs the team to watch in T20 cricket.

The first CPL tournament was held the next year, and though it started off very slowly in terms of attendance, it soon gathered momentum.

Can you imagine the impact of being in close proximity to the knights Viv, Curtly and Andy, and Courtney, Gordon and Desmond? It must invoke some pride in being West Indian

I have followed the tournament with great curiosity since its inception, and it struck me that only something that has managed to penetrate right to the core could have caused so many changes in such a short time. It has only been four years, and the CPL has come to be acclaimed internationally as the biggest party in the sport. Its blend of fabulous locations and exciting cricket combine to provide the perfect tourist package. (Those two elements had been an integral part of West Indies cricket once upon a time.)

The six inaugural teams reflected the global nature of franchise cricket. The teams wore national names, but their composition was primarily West Indian, with some international players in the mix. By the end of the 2015 tournament, Bajans were ready to make Kieron Pollard of Trinidad a citizen because they thought his captaincy was excellent. Yet in the beginning, when Pollard was named captain of Barbados Tridents, it had caused a ruckus. It was unfair to Trinis to have their T20 star poached and it was an affront to Bajans to have a Trini foisted on them. There were protests against Pollard's selection, and a former minister of social transformation in Barbados said: "I feel it is fundamentally and psychologically wrong. It affects the psyche of some Barbadians."

That was in 2013, and if you understand how deeply entrenched and complicated the issues of identity and belonging are to West Indians with their transplanted pasts, if you have only skimmed CLR James' Beyond a Boundary, you will grasp what a monumental shift has been wrought in those three short years. The excitement came from the T20 format and presentation, but bonding between the cricketers and bonding between the spectators came from accepting the nature of franchise teams.

Polly for Prez: when Trinidadian Kieron Pollard was named Barbados captain, people protested, but they eventually came to accept him as one of their own

Polly for Prez: when Trinidadian Kieron Pollard was named Barbados captain, people protested, but they eventually came to accept him as one of their own © Caribbean Premier League

On paper it should have been easier for West Indians to accept the idea of different nationalities playing under one banner - that is the whole premise on which the notion of a West Indies was founded - but it had been complicated by the fear that sides were benefiting from the services of top players not from their region, and that team loyalty would not run deep enough.

For the 2015 edition, the 16-member squad of Trinidad & Tobago Red Steel (now Trinbago Knight Riders) featured seven Trinis and three Bajans. Complicating matters, one of the 16, William Perkins, was born in Barbados but had played first-class cricket for Trinidad and Tobago. Where would he be counted? Of Barbados Tridents' 16, five were Trinis and six were Bajans. How did one pitch support? Nationalistic grounds didn't hold water.

People have learned to move past nationalities and are more prepared to focus on good cricket - technique, athleticism, strategies and talent. I think the root of the improvement in standards could be traced to the parallels with what players of a former time have often identified as being a key factor to developing their cricket: playing county cricket in England, with exposure to a variety of techniques, and significantly, to different cultures. They could observe lifestyles that were alien, learn approaches to fitness and training that were disciplined and rigorous, absorb knowledge from team-mates. This mixture of players and cultures has been one of the clear benefits of franchise cricket.

As we entered the 21st century and the slide of West Indies Test cricket seemed unstoppable, it became painful to watch. One by one, then two by more, people averted their eyes

Last year's CPL featured 69 players from the region, giving them the chance to make an impression, and letting spectators see who has been waiting in the wings. The widespread coverage and the ability to share spaces with international cricket stars have helped build the confidence of the younger players. Among those stars have been icons of another era. Can you imagine the impact of being in close proximity to the knights Viv, Curtly and Andy, and Courtney, Gordon and Desmond? It must invoke some pride in being West Indian.

But what does it mean to be West Indian?

That is the question curled up inside every inquiry about identity from this region's offspring. CLR James asked it in 1962: "Is there a West Indian personality? Is there a West Indian nation? What is it? What does it lack? What does it have?" The calypsonian Black Stalin touched on it in 1978 in his song "Caribbean Unity": No set ah money, could form a unity / First of all a people need their identity.

In 2015, Professor Gerard Hutchinson, a Trinidadian psychiatrist, suggested that even the title "West Indies" may now be outdated with the growing penchant for describing the region as "the Caribbean".

"Names and labels are important, especially in this age of branding, and the concept of the West Indies throws up many unresolved dilemmas," he wrote. "The duality of names may be contributing to an implicit identity crisis."

Athleticism over parochialism: fans in the West Indies are now prepared to focus on good cricket, regardless of where those who provide it come from

Athleticism over parochialism: fans in the West Indies are now prepared to focus on good cricket, regardless of where those who provide it come from © LatinContent/Getty Images

When the triumvirate of West Indian teams - the Under-19s, women's and men's T20 - brought home world titles this year, they scuttled the talk of islands going it alone. Even the most cynical could not ignore the palpable feeling of pride and bonhomie among West Indians as they went about their daily business. People talked about nothing else for days. I heard more than one person say they had to start back watching cricket. The euphoria has been contaminated by the toxicity between the WICB and the players, but this time public disgust was not directed towards the players but the WICB.

The big discussions have been about whether the WICB could rightfully continue to represent West Indies cricket. The regional governmental grouping, CARICOM, has been challenging that notion, throwing its support behind the latest two reports on the structure and governance of the game (the Patterson Report and the CARICOM Cricket Review Panel).

Not surprisingly, while the majority of supporters have no confidence in the current WICB, many are wary of a politician-led overthrow. The abiding question is essentially how to find an efficient and equitable way to set up a governing body for this nebulous entity known as West Indies cricket.

Traditionally the label has been West Indian, but now, in this time of individualism, when the name of the game is the Caribbean Premier League, when the talk of going it alone as separate nations has only subsided but lurks under the surface waiting for the next crisis to erupt, it remains to be seen whether there is a way forward for the people who see themselves as West Indian, or whether we have become a group of islands arbitrarily floating, without anchor, in the Caribbean Sea.

Vaneisa Baksh is a writer based in Trinidad and the editor of UWI Today

 

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  • POSTED BY cricfan74559094 on | July 30, 2016, 23:47 GMT

    Mr Hutchinson might not be old enough to understand the significant difference, let me break it down. The terms Caribbean and West Indies have very different meanings and implications. West Indies is about Colonization especially with the British and of the smaller islands - that is relevant to Cricket's history throughout the smaller islands and even Guyana which is not Caribbean but a British Colony. Caribbean is more of an Americanized term - that implies simple and leisure living and vacation. It not only encompasses the ordinary British colonies but, the other islands and even the mainland like parts of Mexico and is exposed to the Caribbean sea. Those terms are not interchangeable.

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | July 26, 2016, 15:41 GMT

    Excellent article. There is ONE thing I want to see MORE and hope they could do this for 2017. Promote each nation more. If we are in Guyana, let the Ministry of Tourism identify 10 places or a list of places that will be promoted for their FOUR (4) matches and during the interval or spend 3 minutes after coin toss and pitch report to talk about THAT nation. This encourages the countries to want to put more financially because there really isn't anything MUCH to showcase each nation. Yes there is but not enough.

  • POSTED BY Thomas Cherian on | July 4, 2016, 12:35 GMT

    All of us who loved the West Indies or Caribbean have an interest and a stake to see them to do well and thrive. Without windies flavor the world of cricket will loss its spirit...

  • POSTED BY Andrew Briscoe on | July 4, 2016, 7:55 GMT

    I have attended 3 of the 5 CPL tournaments so far, 2013, 2014 and 2015, in each of Barbados, St Kitts and Trinidad (this year I have just moved from NYC to London and started a new job, so had to pass with much regret). Each trip was longer than the last, and on each occasion the group of mates who came with me swelled. I grew up in awe off the Windies, but never got to see them in their pomp (the 1998 tour to South Africa, my homeland, was devastating). I'm not going to try equate the CPL to the glory years of yonder year, as that would be silly. But the opportunity to watch cricket in the Caribbean in packed stadiums to the sounds of beating drums, the smells of a Bake and Shark or Fried Flying Fish, with a Cold Carib or Rum Punch, is something every cricket fan should aim to do. And the CPL provides a wonderful opportunity to do so. Long may it continue to be the biggest party in sport, and hopefully further re-ignite interest in the game in the region.

  • POSTED BY joel on | July 3, 2016, 15:41 GMT

    I think it's high time the governments of the West Indian countries form a Caricom-regulated board to replace the WICB. It should be financially self sufficient and report to a Caricom Council, independent of individual governmental influences.

  • POSTED BY Vicky on | July 3, 2016, 14:10 GMT

    Nicely captured Vaneisa. Transition from West Indianism to Individualism is is perhaps transient in nature and may well prove to be a force of integration for being proud to be a West India yet again.

  • POSTED BY Muhammad on | July 3, 2016, 10:10 GMT

    Have always been fascinated with how complicated the issue of identity can be in post colonial countries. The west Indian Islands serving as a perfect example of individuality and collectiveness growing and waning at different times in accordance with historical context. And how amazing it is that these ebbs and flows have so often spread from cricketing achievement or lack thereof.