Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: Sixty years on the back foot - Clyde Walcott

The Caribbean has produced several of the greatest batsmen of all time. However, many of these players seem to rail against faceless figures of authority. Currently, talisman Chris Gayle swats boundaries at whim – more often for lucrative T20 sides than for the West Indies. The chain which leads back through the likes of Brian Lara and Sir Vivian Richards – who was rather partisanly profiled in the acclaimed documentary Fire in Babylon – to George Headley.

Sixty years on the back foot
Courtesy: amazon.com
The second (or third, or fourth depending on how you look at it) of these superstars was Sir Clyde Walcott, a forerunner of devastating West Indian batsmanry and later president of the International Cricket Council. His autobiography, Sixty years on the back foot, was published at the conclusion of his ICC tenure in 1997.

His memoir is lightweight – entire tours are glossed over, especially those in which the West Indies struggled – and Walcott writes with the style of a man who finishes lengthy believable anecdotes with “Can you believe it?”. However, the parallels between West Indian cricket in 1952 and in 2012 are too plain to ignore.

Along with Sir Everton Weeks and Sir Frank Worrell, Walcott was one of the famed “Three Ws”, three Bajan players raised within a mile of each other and who helped West Indian cricket attain relevance in the 1950s. The significance of the three friends and their relationship is underscored throughout Walcott's writings as he attempts to characterise Caribbean cricket through their free-hitting exploits.

He does this for a simple reason: Walcott unquestionably thought that West Indian cricket, when played hard but for fun, is superior to any other. (Ed: he may be right) Time and again, his tacit disdain the orthodoxy inherent in 1950s English cricket is obvious; simultaneously he rejoices in the laid-back joie de vivre that formerly typified West Indian cricket.

Although Fire in Babylon incorrectly suggested that calypso cricket was provided only a team of loveable freewheelers (ie. losers), you can't escape the feeling while Walcott revelled in victories, he wouldn't countenance sacrificing style to achieve more success. His transition from money-chasing maverick pro to WICB ambassador adds another intriguing dynamic. However, like most politicians, his autobiography is an exercise in using many words to avoid saying much at all.

Although Walcott's memoir hearkens to different times, where pacemen were named Esmond Kentish and Foffie Edwards, there are still familiar cricket themes. Race relations, though downplayed, provided undercurrents of discontent. The same could be said for matters of money, as cricketers were still strictly classified as “professional” or “amateur”. That Worrell, Weekes and Walcott were forced to choose between making a living playing English league cricket rather than representing the West Indies provides a fifty-year prophecy of the WICB's current struggles with player free-agency.

The same issues have plagued West Indian cricket now for sixty years. The islands' success from 1975 to 1995 and more widespread cricketing professionalism only masked the difficulties of West Indian players and administrators. That the situation is unchanged over so long, coupled with difficult economic factors leaves the reader feeling that this situation is now intractable in West Indian cricket and the game is so much the poorer.

However disappointing the state of West Indian cricket, it's perhaps more disappointing that such an eminent figure in the game stuck true to his political, rather than returning to his maverick roots and challenging major failings in Caribbean cricket politics. Marbles.

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