When Darren Sammy, with adoring Eden Garden fans cheering his team as if it was their own, spoke of the injustices of their Board and how they stitched a team together against all odds, he had instantly forged a bond with all those who see the West Indies as a symbol of something much greater than a mere sporting team.
Was his protest justified or was it a reaction of the players who know they have the bargaining power today to hold their board to ransom and get their demands met? The same speech, had it been given by Sir Frank Worrell, the first Black West Indian captain in the sixties, would have meant something very different, as the context would have been Colonialism and White supremacy.
In the times of a commercial revolution being led by the T20 format, Sammy and his West Indian teammates probably don’t realise what the legacy of their cricket is and why they connect so well with audiences worldwide. Their Board may have much to answer for about the way they have handled pay disputes and rebellion of players, but were Sammy and his men right in using the occasion to strike back and seek public sympathy in this fight?
Each time the West Indies does well on the cricket field, memories of its great and historic legacy that has enriched the game, flood the mind. From the invincible to almost nobodies, West Indies cricket history has seen the best and the worst of times. Its past is linked with its colonial history and how its cricket team and a host of exceptional players expressed themselves on the world stage to challenge the White supremacy.
The decline of the West Indies as a cricket superpower coincided with economic liberalisation in India, with the television revolution leading to the country’s rise as an economic powerhouse of the sport. Flush with money that became the envy of the rest of the cricketing world, India led the revolution to dismantle the colonial hierarchy in the administration of the game. Riches have flowed into the game in India ever since, benefiting the players immensely, and today the earnings of the Indian players match or even better the earnings of top international professionals in any sport.
The benefits of this economic revolution that helped the players and Boards of other cricket-playing nations as well, left the West Indies players almost untouched. It had fallen so low in the pecking order that the once-torchbearers of the game, sought by every country to boost viewership, were now being shunned by most Test-playing nations.
The world bemoaned the decline, and how it missed the imposing presence of players who had entertained them with their staggering talent that defied cricketing logic. From Worrell to Gary Sobers, from Clive Lloyd to Viv Richards and Brian Lara, these were players whose individual and collective talent surpasses everything and anything the world has seen.
Its battery of fast bowlers, each different from the other, be it in physique or variety, intimidated the best of batsmen. West Indies became synonymous with supremacy and the world fell in love with a team that expressed itself with joy and abandon. No team played the sport as fearlessly, inventing, innovating, even taking liberties with the grammar of the sport without destroying its core.
Why and how a cricketing tradition started being talked of in the past tense and why the Caribbean islands (the West Indian team is formed from various nations inhabiting the region) stopped producing talent that had awed and thrilled the world, has been a subject of various researches.
When the West Indian writer CLR James traced its cricketing history to its larger existence and said: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know’, he was trying to make the world understand what it meant to be a cricketer in the West Indies in its cultural and Colonial context.
What needs to be understood today, when the West Indians have emerged as the torch-bearers of another cricketing revolution, is that those cultural and colonial contexts do not exist any more. The T20 revolution is being led by pure commerce, where the sport has been truncated from five days to a total of 40 overs, in which the players have been given the license to thrill and, some would say, to kill the sport of most of its subtle skills.
Unable to make any headway in the longer version of the game, the West Indian players -- athletic, powerful and bristling with brute strength -- used the Indian Premier League to showcase their talent for this shorter format. Chris Gayle became the symbol of this sport, where the longer and higher you hit, the greater becomes your bargaining power.
Today, many of these West Indies cricketers, including Gayle, prefer not to play for their country as it pays them a pittance in comparison to what they make from selling their skills in the mushrooming T20 leagues across cricket-playing nations.
Their pay disputes and fights with their Board may have some justification, leading to many of them not playing for their country, but they also know that lucrative T20 contracts are awaiting them in these leagues and hence they do not care.
The same West Indian player, who once was a symbol of how colonialism is being fought on the cricket field, is now becoming a tool in the hands of those who would want T20 cricket to take over the traditional form of the game. From a freedom fighter to a modern-day mercenary, the West Indies cricketer has traversed such a long journey.
Times change and so does the context.