Great Britain’s legacy of colonization left conquest and pillage in its wake, but it also yielded another indelible mark. The Brits introduced a sport that has become the world’s second-most popular after soccer. Like baseball is to “Americana,” cricket is not only the most beloved sport in the English-speaking Caribbean, it is entrenched in the culture and embodies the struggle for self-determination and the triumph of a region that commandeered a game invented by its colonial masters and turned the tables on them.
Other nations that experienced British influence – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Pakistan — would eventually make their marks in cricket, but it was the West Indies who dominated world cricket in the late 1970’s and 80’s, and though today the team is a shadow of the once-juggernaut squad, cricket remains unchallenged as the top sport of the English-speaking Caribbean.
The West Indies team played its first Test match in 1928 (though “Test” sounds like an exhibition, it is actually the highest form of cricket) with George Headley of Jamaica and Learie Constantine of Trinidad the early stars. The team had to overcome its own internal struggles, as selection of the players in the early days was often based on social status, and most of the early captains of the West Indies team were white despite the Caribbean population being predominantly black.
“Cricket, Lovely Cricket” – the unofficial slogan of West Indies cricket — was a line from the calypso song “Victory Test Match” by Trinidad’s Lord Beginner that was penned following the West Indies team’s improbable victory against England in 1950 – a landmark win at Lord’s that warmed the hearts of Caribbean transplants in Britain and reverberated back to the homeland. The win not only served as a source of pride but it helped dispel the notion that the islanders were inferior.
Cricket has been celebrated by other calypso singers besides Lord Beginner. The Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Chalkdust, Short Shirt and David Rudder, among others, have paid tribute to the Caribbean’s No. 1 sport – with Rudder’s “Rally Round the West Indies” becoming the team’s unofficial anthem. Trinidad storyteller Paul Keens-Douglas also paid tribute to cricket with his famous “Tanty at the Oval” recording, a fictitious tale with a real backdrop: a regional cricket match in 1975 between Combined Islands and Trinidad at the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain. The amusing story details the antics of the aging but spry Tanty Merle as the match reached a tense climax. Caribbean authors such as C.L.R. James (Trinidad), Sir Hilary Beckles (Barbados) and Tim Hector (Antigua) have also regaled readers over the years with their historical accounts of the game.
In recent years the game has evolved, and in the mid-2000s, American businessman Allen Stanford introduced a 20/20 format tournament that gained a legion of new fans. The shorter version was a welcome change for many who disdained the protracted five-day format of Test cricket, which can be monotonous. The 20/20 format continued even after Stanford’s incarceration for shady business dealings, and in 2013 a new league pitting Caribbean nations – the CPL (Caribbean Premier League) – made its debut to rousing TV ratings and filled stadiums. The CPL, a 20/20 event that features colorful team names such as the Tallawahs (Jamaica), Amazon Warriors (Guyana) and Zouks (St. Lucia), have returned for the 2014 tournament, which began July 11 and runs through Aug. 16. Matches will be played in Guyana, St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad, Jamaica and Antigua, with the final rounds and championship match in St. Kitts.
For tourists to the Caribbean, it will not be uncommon to see children playing cricket in alleys, on the beach and even in streets, using makeshift bats and wickets (the real equipment can be quite costly). At one time, just about every boy growing up in the English-speaking Caribbean dreamed of playing cricket, and if they failed, they lived vicariously through the many cricket heroes over the years. Garfield Sobers, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul are just a handful of the West Indies cricket legends who have gained worldwide acclaim.
Sure, the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica (1998) and Soca Warriors of Trinidad (2006) forged a place for soccer in the region with appearances in the World Cup, and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt leads a growing faction of track and field stars, but cricket remains an intrinsic part of the Caribbean lifestyle. The introduction of cable to the Caribbean in 1980s exposed young boys to American basketball during the Michael Jordan era, and some spurned cricket and went after the riches of the NBA. This, along with the rise of track and field and soccer, robbed West Indies cricket of some natural athleticism and is one component that has led to a subsequent dropoff of cricket talent. But cricket remains cemented as the region’s top sporting pastime.
Top photo: West Indies Cricket Team: 2012 T20 World Champions.