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.