The Guyana Prize for Literature in collaboration with the Department of Culture in the Ministry of Education staged a “Festival of Guyanese Literature” a week ago. It was in reality a feast of Caribbean literature. Over a five-day period, there was a series of important literary events: the Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture delivered by Chairman of the Jury Mark McWatt; the Guyana Prize Awards Ceremony; “The Laureates”: Readings by the Guyana Prize Winners; and the Martin Carter Lecture delivered by Chairman of the Jury for the Caribbean Prize Stewart Brown.
The Stewart Brown lecture provides a focus for the following discussion. It was titled, ‘The Bowling was Superfine: West Indian Writers and West Indian Cricket.’ That happens to be a very topical subject considering the present plight of West Indian cricket – its fall from grace, its colossal collapse after a golden age of glory, and its many controversies. But it was also a source of interest because cricket is always considered a favourite topic around the Caribbean and will always be entertaining. Perhaps more important than that is the sociology of cricket in the West Indies – its significance as “more than a game,” its deep-rooted place in politics, economics and culture as well as literature. The Brown lecture highlighted the treatment given to the game in West Indian Literature.
Brown and Ian McDonald edited an anthology of writing by a long list and wide range of writers on the subject of cricket titled The Bowling Was Superfine: West Indian Writers and West Indian Cricket, published by Peepal Tree in the UK, which Brown used as the core of his lecture. The several pieces in the book addressed cricket and what it is to the West Indies as expressed by its writers. These writers included honorary West Indians such as Brown himself, who has had a long association with the West Indies in different capacities. He is Reader in Caribbean Literature in the Centre of West African Studies at the University of Birmingham as well as an artist and critic who edited several collections of West Indian writing including the poetry volume Caribbean New Voices, and studies of Walcott, Brathwaite and Carter.
An interesting irony is that Stewart Brown is an Englishman, a cricketer who first came to the Caribbean as a cricket coach. He was sent on an assignment to Jamaica, where he also taught in school, and taught the finer arts of the game in the period immediately before the momentous rise to world championship of the West Indies who dominated test cricket from 1976 to 1995. It was hinted at the lecture that there might just have been some connection between Brown’s coaching and the phenomenal rise of the game in the West Indies.
More seriously, it was a lecture with an interesting difference as the lecturer involved the Guyana Prize personnel – from prize winners to judges to the Prize Administration in the presentation which was illustrated by several readings. These included distinguished West Indian writers such as Edward Baugh, David Dabydeen, Barbara Jenkins, Mark McWatt and Jane Bryce in addition to co-editor of the anthology McDonald and poetry prize winner Maggie Harris whose work was not included in the collection.
The lecture, as indeed the published book, sounded a firm reminder of the famous CLR James statement, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” From Fire In Babylon to The Bowling Was Superfine it has been well established that cricket in the West Indies is much “more than a game.”
James, the great Trinidadian writer, philosopher, and intellectual, who was also a cricketer, produced the first prominent and most acclaimed work on the sociology of cricket in the Caribbean, Beyond A Boundary. It discusses the colonial and the post-colonial significance, the elements of class, colour and status which have been associated with cricket. It is an affirmed post-colonial work.
However, VS Naipaul, who many critics will see as an ideological opposite to James and his ilk, identified the sport that the Caribbean inherited from its colonial history as “more than a game” in his (infamous) work The Middle Passage (1962).
“Cricket has always been more than a game in Trinidad. In a society which demanded no skills and offered no rewards to merit, cricket was the only activity which permitted a man to grow to his full stature and to be measured against international standards. . . The cricketer was our only hero figure.”
That piece quoted by Brown identifies the mastery of the sport in the society. It is a truth that the game is deep-rooted as a culture, as a means of social mobility and as a weapon, although Naipaul’s brand of pessimistic irony places less emphasis on the post-colonial weaponry. To his treatment of heroism, he could have added economics – a source of income.
The social and economic mobility that it offers are treated elsewhere in the literature. Although the situation has changed a little bit today with the ascendancy of track and field athletics, cricket remains one of the very few opportunities for West Indian sportsmen to earn a living. The history includes the exploits of many West Indians in English County Cricket, the Lancashire and other Leagues in England. The present is outstanding in the opportunities in Twenty-20 limited overs cricket which has actually created a number of millionaires among West Indian cricketers. Perhaps the ‘anti-postcolonial’ point is that today, to most of the players, it is only a means of earning an income – a fact that has contributed to the serious decline in the game in the Caribbean. It is a very welcome development that it allows Caribbean sportsmen to earn serious money, but the prevailing approach by too many players is that that is all it is, which is not the stuff of which champions are made.
In their study of West Indian writers on cricket, Brown and McDonald might have given more emphasis to the dramatists. Trinidadian playwright Errol John addressed the issue in one of the outstanding plays of the Backyard Theatre, Moon On A Rainbow Shawl (1957). John’s approach is as ironic as Naipaul’s; he reduces the society to a small one of limited extremes. His dramatic situation is deterministic, if not pessimistic. Charley, Trinidad’s best fast bowler, meets a tragic end in the play because the colonial system failed him, discriminated against him as a cricketer and destroyed his career and along with it, his heroism, but more important – his earnings. At the same time a young, more privileged QRC boy is on the rise as a talented batsman. The post-colonialism in the work deals with Charley’s courage to stand up for dignity, but the determinism suggests that there were no prospects for the unprivileged.
Those wider dimensions of the West Indian game related to its colonial history have often resurfaced. At the time when South Africa had just been readmitted to international cricket in the post-Apartheid era, they beat the West Indies in a World Cup One Day match and Captain Richie Richardson remarked that it was no big deal, it was “just a game.” He was pilloried by all. It was not just a game; how could the West Indies allow themselves to lose to a member of ‘Babylon’ such as South Africa who oppressed black people? A cricket match was a weapon that should serve the purpose of justified revenge; it was a matter of pride, dignity and identity similar to the stance taken by Charley in Moon On A Rainbow Shawl.
When South Africa made their first post-Apartheid tour of the West Indies, they engaged the hosts in Barbados in a match that showed two sides of the way the game looms large in a social and political context. There was insularity, nationalism and local pride because several Barbadians boycotted the match in protest over the non-selection of local fast bowler Andy Cummins from the final XI. But at the same time the dramatic victory over the visitors spearheaded by the heroics of Jimmy Adams and Ambrose was hailed as more than victory in a match. It was a triumph over former oppressors – it was the empire writing back, hitting back with the cricket bat over Apartheid, colonialism and history.
A poem by Eddie Baugh included in his prize-winning collection Black Sand, titled “A View from the George Headley Stand, Sabina” is reminiscent of all the social dimensions of the game as well as the way West Indian cricket imposed itself upon the world game. Going to a test match is not just looking at a match, it is a large social occasion – more than a spectator sport, but one of participation, identity and self-expression, it is a party: from a “curry goat” game on a public holiday to a serious test match.
This was emphasised when crowd attendances at World Cup matches in the Caribbean in 2007 were disappointing. It was discovered that in the interest of security several things were banned and the restrictions prevented the spectators from bringing several customary props into the stands. During the World Cup they could not turn the games into fetes as they were used to do. Much of the social occasion, the spirit and the rhythm of West Indian cricket had been removed. Not surprisingly, this was reversed in the World Championships Twenty-20 hosted in the West Indies a few years later when the series’ publicity campaign slogan was “Bring It” – a message that fans could bring most of the things previously banned into the ground this time. It is noticeable that this same party spirit is a norm now in limited overs one day games in many other countries, including the dancing chorus girls.
It would be very useful to continue a study of cricket in West Indian writing by looking at several other works – those included and those not included in the Brown/McDonald anthology.
Among them would be:
* Novels: A Morning At the Office by Edgar Mittelholzer and The Game at Kassaku by Churaumani Bissoondyal;
* Calypsos: “Cricket Lovely Cricket” by Lord Kitchener, “Ah Water Lily” by Kitchener, “Cricket in the Jungle” by Dave Martins and “Brian Lara” by the Mighty Sparrow;
* Drama: John’s Moon On A Rainbow Shawl in addition to The Last Carnival, by Derek Walcott, No Rain No Play by Stanley French and a Jamaica Pantomime Howzatt! By Barbara Gloudon.