Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Interview | with Colin Babb | What Cricket did in the Caribbean Islands!

Colin Babb is a British-born Caribbean writer. He is the author of two books, 1973 & Me and They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun. Colin Babb talked to me on 24th February, 2022. We talked on topics under the broad umbrella of West Indian cricket culture. This blog is the transcript of the one hour long Zoom video conference we had.

CB- Colin Babb
GK- Gokul Krishnan

I was writing on the role of humour and carnival traditions in the Caribbean islands in imagining ‘West Indies’ (reminding that West Indies is not a nation, but a group of nations). This imagination exists in the context of cricket, in that space and time.

CB: The history of carnival in Caribbean culture is of course very important. But, what modern West Indian cricket has tried to change is the idea that carnival, happiness and celebration is the way that we play our cricket. It is not just that, and it has changed since 60s. The idea that many people outside the Caribbean had of Caribbean cricket was that it was played with joy, flair, jolly, fun; but what Sir Frank Worrell, the first black captain did was, he slowly began to change this. He made the team focus its cricketing mentality on determination, rigor, and emphasised on team work. And also, he ensured, where ever you come from, any island, you should be one unit. The spirit of joy and exuberance is all important in West Indian psyche, but he wanted to adopt a muscular approach to cricket. He wanted to move away from the musical tradition, calypso tradition, to a different style. It was not just about being rhythmical and enjoyable to watch. The idea of calypso and being musical is part of Caribbean cricket, but moving away from that made the new era of West Indian cricket.

CB: Basically, the West Indies was originally a collection of territories which were colonised by the British. If you look across the globe, what was the British empire? It was parts of Africa, America, India, Australia, New Zealand etc. What do they all have in common? They all play cricket. Cricket was a part of the colonial sporting expansion. But in the Caribbean, it was kind of different. The Caribbean nations don’t play separately as different teams, but as a single team. For example, Barbados and Trinidad cannot be individual teams playing test cricket. So they all have to be part of a colonial collective team. It has continued to the present day. That’s what makes the West Indies quite unusual. It has its strengths, but there are also negatives.

Negative side is, when a team is picked, you will have disagreements. Like, too many Barbadians in the team, not enough Trinidadians. Not many Antiguans. And it goes on and goes on and goes on. Always has been that way. It is more prevalent when the team is losing. You don’t hear it as much when the team is winning.

GK: It is hard for me to imagine a possibility of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka playing together as a single team. Like you mentioned, many disagreements would start the moment they play together. Such a team is almost impossible to exist in international cricket.

CB: I’ll tell you one thing. I used to work with an Indian guy at the BBC and he came up with an interesting comparison. He said that the comparison he has in India to West Indies, is that there are different states in India. And there are different social stratification systems, that of caste and class. A century ago, people belonging to lower strata of this socially constructed system, would not have been picked. That is the only comparison that I can make. In South Asia, you cannot imagine the nations coming together to create a single South Asian team. The comparison with West Indies is, you have a country, India, with so many different cultures, languages, religions; that some people from one particular group would say their players are not being picked. So that is the comparison!

GK: It is fascinating that, even when there are so many differences between people of different islands in West Indies, they start to vanish when a cricket game is being played. At the end of the day, when you are in for the match, you are a West Indian.

CB: Yes! But… But… Still there are arguments, on who to be picked. Example, when there was a time, some years ago, when the team went to Barbados to play a test match, one Barbadian player wasn't picked and some Barbadians refused to go to the match before the match. These things still happen.

Also, let’s look at the racial aspects of it. In the Caribbean, I think about 30% of the entire population has heritage from India. Many people outside the Caribbean have absolutely no idea of this. What people need to know of course is, what the British did in 1800s, when slavery was abolished, they went to other part of the empire to recruit workers on indentured labour schemes. Vast majority came from India, then China, then Portugal and a few from Africa. But a vast majority came from India and they mainly went to Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.. Some went to Granada and so on.

Therefore, since the 1840s, we had populations in the Caribbean whose roots are from India. Example, Alvin Kallicharan, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul etc. This is not just a Caribbean phenomenon. South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Figi; they also have huge Indian population, brought over by the British.

In Caribbean, different races come together to form a team, not just different islands. European heritage Indian heritage, African heritage, and even mixed heritage. So there have been many arguments, about the racial make-up of the team.

In Guyana, there was situations when the Indian team came to play, not recently, but in 60s. Some of the population of Indian heritage supported India. These people have been in the Caribbean since 1800s. The reason was that some of them felt alienated. Their aspirations economically and politically were not being fulfilled.

GK: Two things come to my mind. One is the Gavaskar Calypso, written to celebrate Gavaskar. No Indian in my knowledge has written a song for him, but the West Indians did. The second thing is, I remember reading from Fire in Babylon, Vivian Richards running into trouble when he dedicated a victory to the African population. This triggered the Indian population in West Indies.

CB: This racial tension rises and falls. It was worse in the 60s and 70s.

GK: I would like to know from you, what happens during a cricket match. All these tensions being kept apart! The moment of victory.

CB: We have to talk about the difference between the crowd in West Indies and England. If you go to a match in Guyana, most of the crowd would be Guyanese. If you go to Trinidad, most of the crowd would be the Trinidadians. In England, the crowd is very different. There are people from different parts of Caribbean coming to England to live, during 60s and 70s. And it was in England, they met people from other islands for the first time. You could say, in England, the community-feeling of being West Indian was much stronger. We had the same reality. We bonded together. The crowd in England moved together. Going to Old Trafford, to Lords! It includes the Indian Guyanese, the Indian Trinidadians, they felt more connected to the team. The migration made the differences.

I would argue it might be the same with Indian people. People from North and South of India would probably have never met each other in India, but they come together in England. They find a bond somehow! Through cricket!

CB: A lot of it was related to the fast bowling. The West Indies introduced a game plan with four fast bowlers. It wasn’t about bowling alone. It was also about aggressive batting. No nonsense!

Four fast bowlers were relentless. Batsmen were relentless too. How many West Indian batsmen can you name from that period who went out to block and occupy the crease. None of them! It was all about scoring runs very quickly, in an aggressive style, and in a stylish way. Apart from a very few, they were free flowing. The reason why Clive Llyod bought in four fast bowlers, from the research I have done, is because of what happened in Australia in 1975-76, where they got beaten in Australia. Lillee and Thomson in particular, were bowling in a very intimidatory way. Bouncers and short pitches! West Indies got beaten! They decided not to take it anymore. Instead of two, they went with four fast bowlers since.

We didn’t use spinners. One reason is we didn’t have many good spinners in Caribbean at that time.

GK: I am reminded of something Krishnamachari Srikkanth said. West Indies did not have spinners. Their spinner was Richards. After the spell of four fast bowling giants, comes Viv Richards. The batsman would be relieved! And out of this excitement, he would step out of the crease and try to attack Richards. This will eventually get the batsman caught out!

CB: It’s a tactic! The interesting thing is, they did not have high class test spinner since Gibbs! Cricket is changing in India too. India had a very strong spin department. Now, it's more of balanced! Mix of fast and spin! If someone had said to me when I was growing up that India would produce world class fast bowlers, I wouldn’t have believed! Now India has some fantastic fast bowlers, like Bumrah!

GK: West Indian players like Viv Richards got an air of swag around him! The bubble gum on mouth! Very stylish! Not just Richards, Marshall, Gayle, Bravo! Why do you think the West Indian players carry that peculiar style and character!

CB: Yeh! Its like a smiling attitude! But a killer attitude!

CB: I personally think the West Indies should be more aggressive, like they were under Llyod! I think, maybe our cricket now is a bit timid! It never used to be! But it is a little bit. Personally, I don’t see Chris Gayle as a complete West Indian cricketer, because he hasn’t scored enough runs in test cricket. A lot of runs in T20 and one-day, but not test cricket, although he did get a triple hundred in a test against Sri Lanka.    

The West Indies supporters have always responded to a player who has style and swag. It is something you would see in players like Richards! Some players might have historically played with a smile on their face! Maybe they wanted to say, behind the smile, they are more aggressive, and winner attitude!

CB: In a way, you might say to yourself, can this continue? Can an international team operate with various nation-states coming together? Nation-states with their own flags, parliaments, cultures, foreign relations! Can we continue this longer, to another 10-15 years!

It’s been suggested already! When different islands play each other, that’s when you get the real passion of the crowd.

GK: There has been a decline in the glory of the West Indian team since 1990s! Have the tables turned?

CB: I think of the way test matches are being conducted! That should change. There should be two divisions! One group should be India, Australia, England and New Zealand, may be South Africa too. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan in another group. There is no point in Bangladesh going to Australia, or West Indies going to Australia! Split it! Then later, allow promotions and relegations of teams from one group to other based on their performances. That is the only fair way!

West Indies went to India recently to play a series! What is the point!

GK: I agree! I think the West Indian team in T20 is still great.

CB: In T20 the West Indian team can compete! But in test, they have lost the touch.

There is a funny story. I remember, in 1983, I was working in a shop in London. It was the final of the World Cup match between West Indies and India. There was French lady at the shop who had no interest in cricket what so ever. In those days, there were no mobile phones, no computers! I had no idea about the World Cup score. So, I asked her, if she can go upstairs to the TV session of the shop. They were playing the game, on some 30 televisions! She went upstairs and came back to say, “Oh! India beat the West Indies!” I couldn’t believe! What? We lost the World Cup final to India!

We thought we could just turn up and beat them. That’s what we used to think. Now it is the opposite. If the West Indies beat India now, I would be so surprised. I would be collapsing on the floor. How things have changed over the years.

GK: When we speak about the commonalities between different Caribbean islands, we have cricket and music! What else?

CB: Cricket! Music to a point! In other games, the countries play as different teams! Each island represents itself.

There is CARICOM, regional gathering of countries. Since 1973. Then there is the University of West Indies. There are campuses in some of the islands.

Also, they all speak English. The accents are very different. If you have Jamaican in the room with a Barbadian, I can tell who is from where!

GK: From the stories, poems, songs from the Caribbean, I’ve read, I can spot humour as a major trope. Why do you think this is so?

CB: Oh! Difficult question! Through the music and calypsos, cricket has always been celebrated. Through folklores, through songs! Through the cultural carnival! There was one song about Garry Sobers! If you go to YouTube, you will find many. With more success, comes more joy. With more joy, comes more celebration!

Colin Babb's Website: http://colinbabbauthor.com/

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