Professor of sport and cultural studies at the University of Central Lancashire, John Hughson, in an essay on Sport, Nation and Empire suggested that while France and Germany took a direct approach to imposing their customs and values on their territories, Britain preferred the “velvet glove of cultural imperialism”. Sport, and in particular cricket, was seen as assisting in meshing the colonies together. Cricket brought about a cultural loyalty and created harmony between colonizer and colonized. And though the colonized outnumbered the colonizer, the former knew their place and allowed themselves to be led by the British or their manifestations on the islands.
But change was inevitable in the status quo and in the early twentieth century as West Indians sought to extricate themselves from their socially depressed and oppressed state, black cricketers representing the islands and perpetually led by persons not of their pigmentation also agitated for change. The advent of the likes of Learie Constantine and George Headley gave even greater credence to the idea that if cricket could be the avenue to show sporting excellence and blacks were the best cricketers in the islands then the leadership should reflect this African reality. Constantine argued that West Indies cricket mirrored the racial inequality that was symbolic of British rule in the Caribbean. He was making that plea in the 1920s. Others such as the literary luminary CLR James also made a case for righting that wrong but the status quo only changed in 1960.
Sir Frank Worrell became the first elected black West Indies captain and he has been followed by captains that have represented the majority Afro and Indo majority of the Caribbean islands. Selection to the team is no longer decided by one’s association with island plantocracy or connections in Britain. Indeed, the importance of the game to the psyche of Afro and Indo-West Indians, especially as it relates to our colonial heritage, is such that there is perhaps no greater satisfaction than the defeat of England; the Empire striking back, if you will.
West Indian performances and attitudes to England have often soared above the ordinary. Defiance has sometimes reached open hostility. Vivian Richards and Michael Holding’s ferocity in 1976 to ensure that Tony Greig and his team paid for suggesting that West Indies would be made to grovel; Richards’ dressing down of Daily Express journalist James Lawton in the press box in 1990 for what he deemed unfair reporting. West Indies cricket history is replete with many examples of the Empire striking back.
Fast bowling has been the weapon by which West Indies have achieved most of their greatest moments. At the height of the team’s successes in the 1980s and 1990s England led the campaign to change the rules to stymie that strength. The powerbrokers finally settled on limiting bouncers per overs and introducing 90-overs per day quotas. The West Indies pace attack was vilified as “terrorists” by the British media.
Over the years England tried to introduce elements of “terrorism” into their ranks by the use of the likes of West Indians Norman Cowans, Philip DeFreitas, Gladstone Small, Devon Malcolm, Joey Benjamin, David Lawrence, Dean Headley, Alex Tudor, et al. But whether the expectations were too high or these ‘arrivants’ were held to a greater degree of performance than others, many often seemed to be quickly in, and quickly out of the England set-up. Of course, many of them would have spent their infancy in England and perhaps their motivation might not have been similar to what spurred the likes of Gilchrist, Holding, Marshall and Roberts and those other flannelled warriors of the apocalypse.
But today we live in a new age. African history, Caribbean history and West Indies Cricket history seemingly mean little to most of the modern generation. The economic face of the region has changed significantly. The innate desire that would have led a Gordon Greenidge to turn his back on England and return to the region of his birth, for others have now been palpably touched by that velvet glove.
This modern age, impacted as it has been by technology, globalization, and the diminishing importance of history and culture to many, is perhaps best exemplified by a 22-year-old who spent his formative years in the Caribbean but now proudly speaks of not only throwing in his lot with England, but is willing to wait four years to do so. And he repeats the sentiment at every given opportunity as if at an audition at Buckingham Palace.
But Mr Jofra Archer is not alone. This is an era where there will be many Jofra Archers. The voices of Constantine, CLR James, Worrell, and Richards have long echoed into nothingness for this present generation. But to modify James’ famous quote: “What do we know of cricket, who only cricket knows?”