Friday, 3 February 2012

Barbados - Winning at Cricket in Babylon

Writing this blog gives me an opportunity to research unfamiliar topics.  As I’ve been learning about Barbados, I’m beginning to understand the cultural importance of cricket, not just to this tiny island nation, but to other former British colonies in the West Indies.  It has been interesting to learn how this most English of sports was once dominated by the West Indies, just as the sport is dominated by other ex-British colonies today. 

Cricket is not a sport I grew up with.  Although Ireland has a national cricket team, it’s all very low-key and the game carries an association with England and colonisation that is much more negative than it appears to be in the Caribbean or India/Australia/Pakistan.  Even in England, it seems to be somewhat of an upper-class game and I find it very quaint, when walking in the English countryside, to see the cricket teams in their white flannels whiling away a summer’s afternoon.
Fire in Babylon

Cricket on the beach by Republic of Avalon Radio
As part of my research I watched a fascinating documentary called Fire in Babylon.  The documentary was released (in the UK) in 2011 and, even if you have no real interest in or knowledge of cricket (like me), it’s well worth watching.  The film tracks the history of the West Indian cricket team and explains how they came to dominate Test Cricket (ie. International cricket matches) in the late 70’s and during the 1980’s. 

The movie also explains how winning at cricket has been incredibly symbolic for the ex-British colonies in the West Indies. By becoming a dominant force in world cricket and defeating England on their home turf, the people of the West Indies were able to restore a sense of pride to their culture and competed with their ‘ex-masters’ on an equal footing.
Cricket - a violent game?

Cricket player by Alister667
One thing I hadn’t realised about cricket is how incredibly violent it can be.  Fire in Babylon documents the way the Australian team changed cricket in the 70’s, by introducing ‘fast bowling’, an incredibly dangerous form of bowling that can see batsmen injured or even hospitalised.  The Australians thrashed the West Indies team during the 1960’s, until the West Indies decided to do some fast-bowling of their own and got their revenge, defeating England in 1973 and Australia in 1975. 

The West Indies team has produced some of the world’s most formidable fast bowlers and I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for their opponents to bat against balls that were bowled at up to 95 miles per hour!
The Calypso Cricketers

The documentary also explains the racism faced by the West Indies' cricket team, initially a patronising racism, referring to the West Indies team as the ‘Calypso cricketers’ when they played in Australia in the early 60’s, the racism became more hostile, as the West Indies started defeating the white European and South Asian teams.  All of this was happening at a time when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing in the United States and the Apartheid regime was at the height of its power.

Babylon v the Rastafarian movement

The name of the documentary refers to the Rastafarian term for ‘non-African nations’, ie. Babylon.  Rastafarianism exists all over the Caribbean and espouses a return to African culture and pride.  Its most famous proponent was the Jamaican, Marcus Garvey, but I’m sure Barbados has had its fair share of Rastafarian thinkers. 
West Indian unity through sport

What’s also quite interesting about the West Indies cricket team is that the sport managed to unite the West Indian nations in a way that has never been possible politically.  Political unity was tried out, when West Indies Federation was formed - a short-lived political union that lasted from 1958 to 1962.  When the chance came, the British islands of the Caribbean preferred to choose their own paths and independence. 
Famous Bajan cricketers

George Headley, the 'black' Bradman
Barbados has produced a fair share of the West Indies’ best cricketers.  I watched part of another (Australian-made) TV series, Legends of Cricket, which included a few episodes about famous cricketers of the West Indies. This included Bajan players such as, George Headley, known in Australia as ‘the black Bradman’ (although Bradman is known in the West Indies as ‘the white Headley!).  Also, Sir Frank Worrell, who is considered to be one of the most graceful players in cricket history.  There was also the ‘rock star’ of Test Cricket, Sir Garfield Sobers, who learned to play cricket on the beaches of Saint Michael. 

Something that really struck me about the Australian-made documentary was the deference paid to the West Indies cricketers by the modern Australian (white) sports commentators and cricket-players, who were interviewed for the show.  It’s unusual to see white people talking about their ‘black heroes’ and it would seem that the West Indies cricket team earned the respect of a white audience that might, otherwise, have been incredibly racist and hostile.  
Is West Indian cricket in decline?

I guess I’m beginning to understand how cricket can be a great source of unity for countries located on opposite sides of the world.  True, it’s incredibly exclusive and there is a limit to the number of national teams that can play Test Cricket.  Unlike rugby, the French haven’t really taken up the sport and neither Scotland nor Wales are not represented in Test Cricket, which makes it feel like a very English game.  Still, it is an important part of English culture and a positive link with parts of the world, like Barbados, that share a lot of history with England.
By all accounts, the popularity of cricket is waning in Barbados and other West Indian nations.  Young Bajans, Jamaicans and Trinidadians are looking more and more to the United States and basketball as an opportunity to express themselves through sport.  It would be a shame to see West Indian cricket go into decline, but I guess it's natural for young sportsmen and women to find those opportunities that are most relevant to their generation.  I wonder if cricket in England is facing the same competition from other more 'high-profile' sports such as football (soccer)?

Image credits:

The image of the young boys playing cricket on the beach in Barbados is by flickr member Republic of Avalon Radio aka Jim Fidler who is from Newfoundland in Canada.  You can see more of Jim's images on his photostream.

The image of the cricket player is by flickr member Alister667, aka Ali Jackson.  Again, you can see more images by Ali on his photostream.

The image of George Headley is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain (and therefore copyright free).  You can see more information about this image at its description page on Wikimedia. 
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