Just a couple of months ago, a group of individuals called the Sir Frank Worrell Memorial Committee, held an event in Trinidad, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Frank Worrell becoming the first long-term black captain of the West Indies cricket team. It is reported that the keynote presentation was made by the former England captain, Mike Brearley, and that he spoke eloquently and thoughtfully about prejudice and self-realisation. He also spoke about the contribution of CLR James, Learie Constantine and Frank Worrell to shattering stereotypes of racial inferiority and projecting West Indies cricket onto the world stage with panache, skill and a self-liberating intellect, the “muscular learning” of which Guyanese historian Clem Seecharan has written.
It is hard to know what the audience thought of Mr Brearley’s speech, but on reading it, one is struck by his emphasis on the intellect as an essential component of the West Indian game and, indeed, of the West Indian character. But this approach should not surprise, given that Mr Brearley is himself a psychoanalyst and one of the most acclaimed of captains as a tactician, thinker and manager of egos. What does jar, however, is the almost despairing sense that this talk of intellect and identity is perhaps applicable only to a bygone era, so low have the fortunes of West Indies cricket sunk and so dysfunctional does the regional integration movement appear.
It transpires that the other feature speaker on the commemorative programme was the Trinidadian cricket historian and writer, Vaneisa Baksh, who, in setting the scene for Mr Brearley, spoke of the coming of age of West Indies cricket under its first black captain. She also provided a stark counterpoint to the exceptional and inspirational period of West Indian empowerment, when she delivered the following aside:
“I’d like to make a personal observation here. I believe that in Test cricket, West Indies is a spent force. Its atrophy has come at an even faster rate than international cricket is wilting. We can argue that before that tied Test in Australia in the 1960-61 series, Test cricket was in the doldrums, and that Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud restored it as an exciting spectacle. Limited overs cricket was not competing for public affection, and there is no point in denying that Twenty20 has become the game of our time. It fits today’s culture and West Indian cricketers are well suited for it, and with the right guidance, can find some resurrection here. Test cricket requires strategy, technique, discipline and long periods of focus; the difference with Twenty20 is that it asks for short intense bursts of concentration – and how often have we lamented that our cricketers can only hold it together for a few overs? We can channel this Test flaw into a Twenty20 strength I think. I am not saying this is all we need. We have to appreciate that excellence comes with a strong foundation of hard work and discipline, and the kind of character epitomised by Worrell.”
And she concludes that we would do well to revisit the Frank Worrell story for “West Indies cricket today suffers from weakness of character.”
It is difficult to know from a reading of Ms Baksh’s paper how her words were received or what nuances might have been communicated by her verbal tones or expressions, but when taken at face value, hers is a damning indictment of the current state of West Indies cricket and, by extension, the contemporary West Indian temperament. Her observation goes beyond the boundary. It also appears that her statement would have stood in unintended but ironic contrast to Mr Brearley’s subsequent allusions to the condescending and repugnant paternalism of colonialism and slavery whose frame of reference only allowed non-whites, cricketers included, to be viewed as children. Indeed, much of this attitude would also explain the stereotyping in the past of West Indian cricketers as calypso cricketers, men who played with almost childlike enjoyment, but who, ultimately, lacked the maturity, intellect and steel to beat the more “civilised” – read “white” – Test playing nations.
Well, Frank Worrell proved that West Indians could play with flair, skill and intelligence and the heirs to his legacy, such as Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, took the West Indian game to higher levels, stamping their superiority with a ruthless application of their God-given talents and still with a profound and infectious sense of joy.
Now, whether you blame the West Indies Cricket Board or the players themselves, West Indies cricket is in the doldrums. The team – dare we say “our” team, with all the controversy surrounding the omission of Messrs Sarwan, Ramdin and Taylor? – is in Sri Lanka and is on for a hiding to nothing. We will soon see whether Darren Sammy has what it takes to be a leader. But do the players have the skills to compete with the Sri Lankans who play the way we once played? Doubtful. More importantly, can they, will they prove Ms Baksh wrong in so far as character is concerned?