Michael Henderson

Whispering death

What happened to Britain’s West Indian cricket fans?

Whispering death
Bridgetown, BARBADOS: Cricket fans reach out to touch West Indies Captain Brian Lara while he does a lap of honour following the game against England in the Super-Eight ICC World Cup cricket match at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown Barbados 21 April 20
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It is midsummer, and England are playing the West Indies at cricket. The teams have completed a three-Test series, which England won 2-0, and they are now playing five matches of 50 overs a side, a form of the game that suits the big-hitting Caribbean batsmen. You would have thought that West Indian supporters would be flocking to the ground, yet they are staying away in their thousands.

At Lord’s, Trent Bridge and Edgbaston, which staged the Test matches, the West Indian supporters could have arrived on a decent-sized bus. Returning to Lord’s last week, for a one-day game against Middlesex, played in excellent weather, you could count the black faces on the fingers of four hands. Sadly, West Indians born in this country have given up on the game that meant so much to their parents and grandparents.

There was a time when you couldn’t keep them away. V.S. Naipaul, attending the Lord’s Test of 1963, wrote a wonderful essay inspired by eavesdropping on the conversations of the West Indian supporters. In 1975, when West Indies won the World Cup final there, hundreds of their followers ran on to the outfield before the game was over, and it took minutes of confusion before the match could run its natural course.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when West Indies were cocks of the walk, English grounds were full of their supporters. They knew their cricket, too. These were not simply big-event attenders. They liked to engage you in the history and folklore of the game, and would relish good banter. In short, they were good folk to spend a day with.

Alas, those days have gone, never to return. For a younger generation brought up in our cities football is their game of choice. For these people, Ashley Cole and Danny Welbeck are recognisable figures. Marlon Samuels, the current West Indies captain, and Chris Gayle, the biggest of the big-hitting batsmen, mean nothing at all. So far as black Britain is concerned, cricket is a boring game played by white people and Asians.

And there’s the rub. It is one of the quirks of post-war history that while black Britons have been encouraged (not least by guilty white liberals) to ‘embrace’ their heritage, in matters of sport they have become plus anglais que l’anglais. In Manchester and Birmingham, Afro-Caribbean people no longer look forward to the visit of the latest touring team from their grandparents’ islands. But they can tell you everything about Manchester United’s latest signing, or where the Villa have gone wrong.

Mention Sir Vivian Richards and Michael Holding, two of the greats, who did more to raise black consciousness than any number of race relations advisers, and you will get blank looks. That ignorance is truly sad, for those men, and a dozen more before them, gave people of Caribbean ancestry so much for so long. Sixty years, in fact, from Learie Constantine’s emergence in the 1930s to Brian Lara in the 1990s. Constantine, born in Trinidad, played club cricket in the Lancashire League, where he swiftly became a local, then a national figure. In time he became his country’s High Commissioner in London, then Sir Learie, and eventually Baron Constantine, the first black member of the House of Lords. Frank Worrell, the first black man to captain West Indies, was also knighted. Both men were granted memorial services in Westminster Abbey. If the word had not become so debased we might call them heroes.

After Constantine and Worrell came a generation of stars: Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott and Garfield Sobers (all knighted), Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd, Richards of course, and the superb fast bowlers, led by Holding, Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall. These fabled men belong among the greats of the great. They did more than win cricket matches. They gave a patchwork of British colonies in the Caribbean a sense of identity and pride.

Few people did more to remind Caribbean people of their inheritance than C.L.R. James, who is usually referred to as a Marxist historian, though he was so much more interesting than that limited description implies. James followed Constantine from Trinidad to Lancashire where, helped by Neville Cardus, the famous writer on cricket and music for the Manchester Guardian, he took his first steps as a scribe. Eventually he taught at Harvard, and wrote many books, among them Beyond A Boundary, which relates cricket to the world outside in a way that no other book on sport ever has.

Who were James’s heroes? Wordsworth and Shelley, Keats and Byron. The romantic poets, English through and through. Today’s generation, mired in ignorance, could do with a reminder of true black culture, reflected through the filter of cricket. It is never too late.