No Fire in Babylon. Sobers in Tears as the Fire Fizzles Out of Windies Cricket

gideon_haighGideon Haigh in the Weekend Australian, 12 December 2015,  where the title reads “Fire in Babylon fades as West Indies face a new reality”

fireThey all play basketball now. Or football. Or T20. Sad isn’t it? They should set up some academies. They should pick some kids and get Viv in to talk to them. Yeah, wasn’t he great? Did you see that film? Cool huh? For a long time, it seems, people have been having the same sort of conversations about cricket in the West Indies, ending for the last five years with a reference to Stevan Riley’s colourful 2010 documentary Fire in Babylon about the team in their 1980s pomp. The film has served as an entertaining distraction from a direction of cricket in the Caribbean that can now be obscure to nobody — certainly not those who’ve watched proceedings at Bellerive Oval these past two days.

A meeting of the West Indies Cricket Board tonight will address a recommendation by Caricom (the Caribbean Community and Common Market) for its immediate dissolution. How long before the same measure is advocated for the team?

In the past 12 years, opponents have scored 43 per cent more runs per wicket than the West Indies. West Indies’ away record in that time has been one win against 37 defeats. A year ago they did not even get that far, players walking out of a tour of India before the three Tests were played in a contractual dispute with the WICB, leaving behind a damages bill of tens of millions.

The West Indies used to be ­baaaaaaad. Now they’re simply bad. And in international cricket, bad easily gets worse, there being no equalising mechanisms, such as draft picks, salary caps or a transfer market, to arrest a subsidence.

On the contrary. In June, the International Cricket Council held its annual conference formalising measures to channel more money to the Board of Control for Cricket in India, Cricket Australia and the England and Wales Cricket Board — in Barbados. From time to time it is said that cricket needs a strong West Indies. Cricket sure has a funny way of showing it.

The fact is that the West Indies have always been vulnerable. They draw on a population of less than six million, on nations with a gross domestic product one-twelfth the size of Australia’s, one-eightieth 80th the size of India’s. Its political, economic and geographic fragmentation leave little basis for consensus organisation and only a tiny group of pan-­Caribbean corporate enterprises as potential sponsors; its time zone is little help in broadcasting into India. All that’s happening now is that these abiding disadvantages are biting. It’s amazing really they were staved off so long.

The rise of Caribbean cricket began in the 1950s, after the West Indies first won in England, and players began following the pre-war trail blazed by Learie Constantine and George Headley to league clubs in the north of England. Over the next decade or so, every West Indian player of note basically subsidised his playing Test cricket by playing as a league professional: Worrell, Weekes, Walcott, Gilchrist, Hall, Griffith, Sobers, Smith, Ramadhin, Valentine, Butcher, Lloyd, Kanhai.

They were cricket equivalent of remittance workers. They also learnt to handle pressure — the pressure of being the man expected to win games each week, of knowing that their performances would determine the generosity of the spectators’ benefactions. As Worrell said in his autobiography: “The league professional has a tremendous burden to shoulder and it is a good thing for any cricketer who aspires to international fame to learn how to shoulder tremendous burdens.’’

When England’s counties abolished their residential qualification for foreign cricketers in 1968, West Indians became prized recruits. In the next 25 years, 45 West Indian players appeared in county cricket, almost half of these playing more than a 100 first-class matches.

Again the experience of regular competition in unfamiliar conditions amid high expectations enhanced standards. “It instilled tremendous confidence in me,’’ wrote Viv Richards, actually recruited by Somerset before he had played Test cricket, in his autobiography. “Slowly I became a better cricketer.’’

The third finishing school of West Indian cricketers, briefer but more intense and lucrative, was Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, in which 18 players participated, including the backbone of their great side for the next ­decade-and-a-half: not only the captains Lloyd and Richards, but their irrepressible opening partnership of Greenidge and Haynes, and the pace phalanx of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft.


So Fire in Babylon’s appealing tale of a cricket pride rooted in racial awakening is really only part of the story. What you had, really, was a very talented and superbly athletic generation of cricketers hungrily making the best of growing professional opportunities. Into the bargain there was the resistless spread of the one-day international, to which their brand of cricket was well-suited.

The rewards, however, spread neither deeply nor widely. That’s why governance and infrastructure remained in a state of arrested development. That’s why West Indian cricketers signed up eagerly to play rebel tours in South Africa, despite the iniquities of apartheid. That’s why as that lauded generation retired and other teams improved, West Indies began very clearly to falter.

What’s completed that process has been the collapse of the monopsony basis of international cricket, where national boards enjoyed unchallenged precedence as employers. Ten years ago, West Indies’ top players were snagged in a rare Caribbean corporate battle involving rival telcos. The WICB had done a sponsorship deal with Digicel. The leading players had been signed up as individuals by Digicel’s rival Cable & Wireless. When the WICB left them out, those players had no choice but to accept the lie of the land.

No wonder, then, that West Indian players were first in line when the Indian Premier League hove into view. Previous generations had always tended to earn their money elsewhere. The rewards were now so discrepant that there was hardly a choice to make. On top of that their cricket’s biggest benefactor, Allen Stanford, turned out to be a crook.

What’s paradoxically surprising is how predictable the past five years have been. After all, West Indian cricket had been a miracle so long, had found a way of accomplishing so much with so little. But the little appears to have run out. Now, to borrow a line about the West Indies from the Caribbean’s Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, “there is too much nothing here”.


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