Political cricket

Cricket has always been a game with political meanings. The 2009 BBC documentary Empire of Cricket explicitly chronicled its development in India, Australia and the West Indies as part of larger narratives of postcolonial self-determination. Within the Caribbean, CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary – still considered by many to be the best book yet written on the game – and analyses by Hilary Beckles, Gordon Rohlehr, Michael Manley and many others have consistently stressed the game’s cultural and political resonance throughout the region. Anyone who remembers the all-conquering West Indian teams of the 1980s will not have to read a single page to grasp this point. When Viv Richards swaggered out to the crease, unhelmeted, gum-chewing, taking guard with the air of a man about to do something terrible, his bravado became ours. When the pace quartets tore into England and Australia, their triumphs were ours. In the 1980s, the Windies were a world-beating franchise and all of us walked a little taller for belonging to it.

Those days are now gone. Instead we have accumulated a string of humiliating defeats and busy ourselves decoding intrigues between the West Indies Cricket Board and the Players’ Association, debating whether senior players have been dismissed or merely set aside, or pondering remedies for the lack of self-belief in our new, young and inexperienced squad. All of this has its place, as does Caricom’s recent decision to ask a prime-ministerial subcommittee to intervene in the latest crisis, but there is also a larger context which suggests that West Indian cricket may not be as easily fixed as many of us would like to believe. In fact the closer one looks at the various crises which cricketing countries have dealt with over the years, the more they seem to stem from wider political and cultural problems than from the undeniable lapses in management and players’ professionalism which are usually blamed.

An eloquent example of how local politics can shape the modern game was recently given by Kumar Sangakkara in the MCC`s annual Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture. West Indians should take note that it was at the pinnacle of their success, the 1996 World Cup victory over Australia, that Sangakkara detected a moment of transition in which the administrative body,  Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) went “from a volunteer-led organisation run by well-meaning men of integrity into a multimillion-dollar organisation that has been in turmoil ever since.” Sangakkara’s denunciation of the “partisan cronies” who went on to ruin Sri Lankan cricket drew a standing ovation from his MCC audience, but it would have been well-received anywhere. For the story of what tends to go wrong with cricket in Asia – corruption, cronyism, infighting, mismanagement, match-fixing – is, with a few honourable exceptions, what tends to go wrong elsewhere.

In a comment published by ESPNcricinfo, Peter Roebuck dryly observes that “If the ICC is serious about tackling corruption and stopping political interference in cricketing matters, it could start by sending a working party to Sri Lanka with the task of setting up sustainable democratic institutions.” As evidence Roebuck then points out that “Sanath Jayasuriya’s selection for the limited-overs matches in England confirmed that politicians are involved in team operations. It had been a move long resisted by the team elders on the grounds that he was past his prime.” Roebuck’s point is well made. How many other countries can confidently claim that their recent cricketing woes have nothing to do with a lack of transparency and a wider failure of democratic institutions? Is the Caribbean any different?

The less reported part of Sangakkara’s speech, on the power of cricket to heal ethnic rivalries and create a sense of national identity, is equally important for West Indians. One of the most moving remarks in the hour-long lecture was the observation that “the conduct and performance of the team will have even greater importance as we enter a period of reconciliation and recovery [after the end of a long and brutal civil war]… Cricket can and should remain a guiding force for good within society, providing entertainment and fun, but also an example of how we should approach our lives.”

West Indian cricket can certainly be improved by administrative reforms, but its problems cannot be solved that way. Institutions are only as good as the culture that sustains them. It is idle for us to demand better mentoring and management, more transparency, and greater professionalism when these qualities are often strikingly absent in the social and political environments which shape the game of cricket in this region and will, ultimately, determine its future.

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