Jolly well played

Cricket World Cup is over, and in the wake of criticism of the restrictions on Caribbean fans, Garry Steckles wonders why it went wrong

Sri Lankan cricket fans cheer for their team as they challenge Australia during the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2007. Photograph by Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

The way cricket fans around the world watch the game has changed, dramatically, over the past six decades.

It’s a change that can be traced back to London and to a few dozen West Indian fans. The date was June 29, 1950, to be exact, and the occasion was the West Indies’ first Test match victory over the powerful England team. The unfancied Caribbean cricketers, inspired by the legendary “Spin Twins”, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, had just thrashed England, and ecstatic West Indian supporters danced around the hallowed turf of the Lord’s ground, led by the great calypsonian Lord Kitchener, who had emigrated to England in 1948 at the onset of a massive influx of people from the Caribbean.

Until that historic day, cricket had a well-deserved reputation for being staid, and spectators were expected to behave accordingly. A little subdued applause and the occasional “jolly well played, old chap” was the acceptable level of exuberance at even the biggest of matches. That all changed at Lord’s.

Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner noted that the Caribbean fans had been “gathering strength and originality in their applause”, adding that an impromptu steelband had emerged, “beating out time on dustbin lids”, and “one enthusiast scraped away on a cheese grater with a carving knife”. After the triumphant parade around Lord’s, the West Indies fans took the party to Piccadilly Circus, the heart of London. Cricket would never be quite the same.

In the decades to come, the game’s stodgy image became more and more a relic of its colonial past, and fans started to go to the ground to actually enjoy themselves.

And nowhere did supporters throw themselves into this new way of watching cricket with more enthusiasm than in the West Indies.

The changing times in the stands happened to coincide with a long succession of world-conquering West Indian teams, led by legends like Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards. There was plenty for uninhibited Caribbean fans to celebrate—and celebrate they did. Matches at the traditional venues, Sabina Park, Queen’s Park Oval, Kensington Oval and Bourda, were soon being played in a carnival atmosphere, particularly when the West Indies were winning—which in those days they usually were. In the early eighties, Antigua’s Recreation Ground joined the party, and the new venue took it to another level, with the innovation of music being played whenever there was a pause of more than a minute or two in the action on the field. Today, music, dancing and a few cold ones are as much a part of Caribbean cricket culture as the sport itself.

All of which was ignored when cricket’s highest-profile tournament, the World Cup, came to the Caribbean in March and April of this year. Instead, a raft of prohibitive restrictions on just about every aspect of watching the World Cup games. The result was to further alienate fans already dismayed by ticket prices they felt were out of reach for many people in the region.

The fans’ collective response was emphatic and dramatic: they stayed away by the truckload. Just about all the matches in the opening rounds of the competition—played in Jamaica, Trinidad, St Lucia and St Kitts—were so sparsely attended that thousands of free tickets were distributed to schoolchildren to make some of the grounds look fuller. At one of the venues, fans who had coughed up US$90 for their tickets months before the game found themselves sitting next to people who’d just been given a free ticket when they’d bought EC$20 worth of cell phone time.
The depth of the fans’ discontent became fully apparent when the West Indies squared off against world champions Australia in the opening match of the crucial second stage of the competition. The venue was the spanking new Sir Vivian Richards stadium in cricket-crazy Antigua, where the old Recreation Ground—which had been deemed not up to World Cup standards—had been routinely packed and partying for decades whenever the West Indies played, even for matches against so-so teams with not much at stake. The Australia match was one of the most important in the history of Caribbean cricket, and the event was deemed to be of such significance that the government of Antigua declared a public holiday. Almost unimaginably, the stands were barely half-full. The fans had spoken, and hundreds of millions of cricket followers around the world were receiving their message loud and clear as the TV cameras showed thousands and thousands of embarrassingly empty seats.

Something was clearly very wrong, and it didn’t take long for the international cricket media to pinpoint the culprit.

Scyld Berry, in England’s influential Sunday Telegraph, was downright scathing. “Hospitals in Britain should seriously consider asking the organisers of the World Cup to take control because they are world-class experts in creating sanitised, indeed sterile, environments … Nobody involved in the decision-making had any wish to engage or entertain the people who have long been the world’s most passionate and informed followers of cricket…The organisers could not have got it more wrong if they had tried.”

Stephen Brenkley in The Independent was almost as cutting: “The impression is that you are not at a carnival but a G8 summit,” he snorted.

Veteran Caribbean cricket writer Tony Becca was also unamused by the lack of people and excitement at the grounds: “When we bid for the World Cup in 1997 we sold it as a Caribbean-style event, which is what this is not,” he lamented in an interview with the BBC.

Fans I talked to in St Kitts, the island I call home and which hosted Australia, South Africa, Scotland and the Netherlands in the opening round of the competition, were incensed. One asked whether the ICC didn’t know the region was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade while the tournament was going on. “What makes them think they can tell us we can’t listen to music and dance and bring a few drinks into the ground?”

I asked calypsonian and cricket aficionado David Rudder what he thought of it all.

”The vibe is not quite the same, eh,” responded the man whose “Rally Round the West Indies” is the official anthem of Caribbean cricket, and whose inspirational rendition of his “High Mas” was the unquestioned highlight of the World Cup’s excellent opening ceremonies in Jamaica. Added Rudder: “I’ve seen about four of the matches, and even though Sabina was buzzing I felt that the real test would have been Antigua, but between the hapless Windies, the sterilisation and the high prices I thought that the original ‘West Indian energy’ got diluted. Perhaps they didn’t take enough time to understand us.”

An excellent point, diplomatically put.

Let me be somewhat less circumspect: I believe the organisers got exactly what they deserved. They thought they could ride roughshod over the people and the culture of the Caribbean, and they couldn’t have been more wrong.

The cricket czars did make some concessions as the tournament progressed and the fans continued to stay away, but it was too little and too late. By the time the rules were relaxed off the field, the West Indies were in dire—as in fatal—trouble on it, and the region’s collective enthusiasm for the World Cup could hardly have been at a lower ebb.

Advertiser makes an out

I can’t help wondering if anybody watching the World Cup on TV found one of the frequently shown ads as annoying as I did. The ad invited fans to win prizes by answering various cricket questions. One of the questions was which of the following three bowlers had surpassed Kapil Dev’s record number of Test match wickets in 2001: Dennis Lillee, Courtney Walsh or Malcolm Marshall. The Aussie paceman Lillee retired in 1984, which was bad enough. What I found particularly distasteful, though, was that Malcolm Marshall, the great Barbadian fast bowler, died in 1999, and I can only imagine how hurtful it must have been for any of his family and friends who happened to see the ad. The correct answer, of course, was Courtney Walsh—at least it would have been if they’d got the year right. He surpassed Dev’s haul in 2000, not 2001.