The sad decline of West Indies cricket

There was a good documentary on last week about the West Indies tour of England in 1976. The tour was notable in part because before it started the South-African born captain of England, Tony Greig, said in an interview

“These guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make them grovel.”

The West Indians, not surprisingly, took offence at his phrasing—it doesn’t sound any better for being in a South African accent, either—which gave the series had a bit of an edge to it. Here’s some frankly scary film of Michael Holding bowling to Brian Close. I know most of the people who read this blog probably aren’t really interested in cricket, but if you’re ever going to watch a cricket video, make it this one:

It was also the great heatwave summer in the UK, and a time of distinct racial tension in England anyway, including a riot at the Notting Hill Carnival. They had some great footage filmed in Brixton that year by a young black amateur filmmaker to compliment the film of the cricket and all the talking heads.

It gave me a kind of sweet and sour fake nostalgia. Fake I don’t remember 1976; I was a toddler, and presumably spent most of the summer being uncomfortable because of the heat and making sure my mother knew about it. But there’s nothing like a bit of 1970s sports footage to create a sense of instant retro.

Sweet and sour because, as a documentary about race relations in the UK, it was possible to look at it and feel we’ve come a long way in the right direction. These days no one worries that the Notting Hill Carnival is going to develop into a full blown race riot. But as a documentary about West Indian cricket, it made a sad contrast with the West Indies team currently playing in England.

That team in 1976 thrashed England, with particularly spectacular performances from Holding and Viv Richards; but it was just the start of a period when the West Indies completely dominated world cricket. After Greig’s ‘grovel’ comment, it was 13 years and 19 matches before England managed to beat the West Indies again. And that wasn’t because England were rubbish. Between 1976 and 1996, the West Indies played 39 Test series against all opposition; they won 26, drew 10 and lost just 3.

For a whole generation of people, including me, the West Indies was synonymous with cricket. They were the best and most exciting team in the world. They seemed to have an endless supply of terrifying fast bowlers; towering men whose bowling had a real physical threat to it. Their batsmen were pretty special too. Here’s a little compilation of the great Viv Richards playing against England:

The West Indies team in England this summer produced some good individual performances, but England won the series comfortably without needing to be ruthless or brilliant to do it. It’s not just that they don’t live up to the great teams of the late 70s and 80s; they are really quite bad. Their situation has become so desperate that it’s not even much fun beating them any more. The West Indians on the commentary team, including Sir Viv himself, were simmering with frustration at having to watch it.

It’s not just the falling standards of West Indies cricket that stood out, though. The crowds have changed as well. In the film of the matches in 1976, the crowd is full of black faces—the West Indian population of England turning out in force to support their team. It’s most striking at the Oval, only a couple of miles from Brixton. You can see it in this film of Michael Holding (again), notably in the pitch invasion when he takes Greig’s wicket. Notice, as well, how the heatwave has bleached the grass:

That kind of local support isn’t there any more when the Windies tour in England. And whereas at one stage there were plenty of British West Indians coming up through county cricket and indeed playing for England, apparently they too have largely disappeared. I guess this is a sign of increasing integration; cricket isn’t the most fashionable of sports, and if all the young men from West Indian backgrounds are more interested in playing football, it only puts them in line with their contemporaries. But it does make cricket matches between England and the West Indies just that bit less interesting.

Meanwhile, there are now a lot of players from Asian backgrounds playing county cricket and starting to come through to play for England. And when England play Pakistan in Manchester, the children and grandchildren of Pakistani immigrants come out in numbers, blowing horns and waving flags in support of Pakistan. I guess it’ll be a sign of that their position in Britain has been normalised when they lose interest in cricket. Perhaps the next generation of potential fans will be bored stiff by their fathers’ misty-eyed reminiscences about watching Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Yousuf, and just want to play for Manchester United.

8 Comments

  1. 22 June 2007 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    The problem is far bigger than just Britain, Harry — even at home, it’s being felt, and the hosting of World Cup Cricket may have dealt a death knell to West Indian cricket.

    Now don’t take my word for it. I’m only attached to cricket out of politeness; Bahamians don’t play it, even though it’s the national sport. It’s not part of our cultural landscape and our worldview like it is in the rest of the West Indies, and so I can only speak as a Caribbean person and somebody who meets regularly with people from countries that do play cricket (we’re more of a softball and basketball and sailing nation up here). But there is a feeling of real discomfort with the place of cricket in the twenty-first century West Indies that may be connected in some way to the dominance of North America and North American values and preferences throughout the world, but especially throughout the Caribbean basin. We abandoned cricket two generations ago, round about the time we found it was easier for Bahamian men to get scholarships on their baseball and basketball skills than for them to advance through the playing of professional cricket. Perhaps the same is happening today further south.

    But I could be wrong; cricket’s a foreign language to me. It’s prettier than baseball, and I respect what people like James have to say about it, but.

    Cheers.

  2. Harry
    23 June 2007 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    The World Cup seems to have been a disaster on every level. It should have been a fantastic opportunity for cricket: what could be tempting for a cricket fan than combining the tournament with a trip to the Caribbean? In the event the tournament was badly structured—it took far too long, and there were too many matches without much riding on them—and all the half empty stadiums suggest that either they were wildly overambitious in building all those big new venues or the ticket prices were too high, or both.

    Some of the criticisms are easier with hindsight, but I think what sums up just how badly they didn’t get it was the control-freakery that led to a ban on people bringing conches and other musical instruments into the grounds. How clueless do you have to be to run a cricket tournament in the Caribbean and not understand that all the spectators are going to want a Caribbean flavour? The whole image of West Indian cricket (beach cricket, calypso cricket, a carnival atmosphere) may be superficial and a wee bit patronising—Clive Lloyd said that one motivation before the ’76 tour was to prove that they were capable of much more than just calypso cricket—but it’s marketing gold. Some things were outside their control; it was unlucky that India and Pakistan were knocked out early, and the fiasco surrounding the death of Bob Woolmer wasn’t their fault. But if they’d concentrated on trying to make it the most fun, most atmospheric World Cup ever, a lot would have been forgiven.

    Instead, they managed to devalue the whole idea of the World Cup and piss away some of the deep reservoir of affection for West Indian cricket around the world. I think it’s unfortunate that the whole mess will be associated in people’s minds with the West Indies, because I’m sure a lot of it was the fault of the ICC rather than anyone associated with the administration of West Indies cricket. Although the administration of West Indies cricket does seem to be politics-ridden and shambolic, so who knows.

    Having said all that, it might be a mistake to over-emphasise the place of the World Cup in the state of WI cricket. A really successful tournament, particularly with the Windies doing well, might have given cricket a boost there, but they were rubbish before the World Cup happened.

    I’m sure competition from other sports is part of the answer. Not just North American sport: soccer as well. And cricket is an awkward sport to sell in some ways; a game which takes several days to play is inconvenient both of television and for spectators. The fact that popularity of cricket probably peaked in the days before widespread televised sport may not be a coincidence.

    Thinking positively, this may just be one of those cyclical things. In 1999, England was bottom of the international rankings and the ineptness of the team was a national joke. But 2005 was the best year for English cricket for over 20 years. It might take some reorganisation and a bit of luck, but who knows. Something, or some combination of things, can still spark a revival. The worst thing would be for the West Indies to start believing that their current poor form is a historical inevitability.

  3. 23 June 2007 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    A lot of the disaster was the fault of the ICC, for sure — too many regulations (such as price-setting, bans on water & musical instruments etc) that were difficult to deliver in the regional, as opposed to a single-country setting, and disastrous to market. Quite a bit of it had to do with the unwieldy nature of administering the entire West Indian region, with no truly united voice in the negotiations with ICC, and with individual governments going off on their own tangents, each one trying to out-do the other. There was even a moment when our government, in a fit of utter absurdity, began a bid for hosting some of the matches — in a country that doesn’t have even one regulation cricket pitch and most of whose citizens wouldn’t know cricket from capoeira! But sense asserted itself and we passed in the end.

    “The worst thing would be for the West Indies to start believing that their current poor form is a historical inevitability.”

    True. I prefer to think that it’s cyclical myself — if only because the marketability of cricket is something that can be fixed.

  4. Andy Merry
    20 December 2007 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Hi,

    Great report! I was wondering what the documentary was that you speak of at the start… looking into the area myself and would love to watch it!

    Thanks

    Andy

  5. Harry
    20 December 2007 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    It was a BBC documentary in the Nation on Film series.

  6. 13 August 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    As a cricket fan unfrotunately I have to agree. This is a problem that may have to do with the West Indies not taking cricket as seriously as in the past. The prestige of cricket seems to have gotten lost somewhere in the last decade. As someone who has lived in the west indies I have to say that this is sadly rather noticeable.

    I agree that the ICC was largly at fault for what happened this year but I have heard first hand reports that it wasn’t well supported locally either further proving my point.

  7. Dan
    21 October 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone know where I can get a copy of the BBC documentary on the 1976 tour. I can see it mentioned on the BBC site but can’t find any way of buying, renting or otherwise seeing it.

  8. Harry
    22 October 2010 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    No, sorry.

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