Growing up in a Guyanese London family for whom West Indies cricket was both an escape and a source of pride, watching the side’s resurgence against England in Barbados reveals some simple truths
Inside the Worrell, Weekes and Walcott stand at Barbados’s Kensington Oval, the small clusters of West Indian fans braced themselves as Kemar Roach, the 30-year-old right-arm fast bowler, ran in to deliver.
England were 48-5, already leagues behind on the second day of the first Test, in a series the cricket commentariat had unanimously believed was theirs to win. Then, there were no West Indian flags in sight. The ground was covered in crosses of St George, flown by the 9,000 travelling England fans who vastly outnumbered local supporters.
But 75-year-old Rodney Carter, a lifelong follower of West Indian cricket, was sitting in row 17, the same spot he has placed himself in for every match here for more than five decades. He clutched his walking cane and red water flask, praying for another wicket.
And Roach delivered, pulling out a bouncer, leaving England’s Moeen Ali flapping at the ball, spooning it high into the air and into the hands of a fielder on the boundary.
Carter, a retired security guard, rose to his feet. “They wrote us off, they wrote us off,” he shouted, his voice carrying among the silence of the English spectators. “But we always had a chance.” He would be proved entirely right.
The West Indies would go on to bowl England out for just 77 runs, with Roach taking five wickets. The following day West Indies captain Jason Holder would score a near-perfect double century, paving the way for an extraordinary victory. Yesterday in Antigua, the West Indies thrashed England again, winning the second Test by 10 wickets to regain the Wisden Trophy that had remained in English hands for almost a decade. Their performances, filled with both grit and flamboyance, have been hailed as a throwback to the golden age of West Indies cricket when touring international sides would be routinely humiliated here.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to see something like that,” Carter said, returning slowly to his seat as Ali cantered back to the pavilion.
Before this series the team and its supporters had been written off by many. On the eve of the winter’s three-match Test series, with all its history of bitter rivalry and symbolic interplay with empire and racial politics looming, the former England captain turned commentator Geoffrey Boycott dismissed the West Indies side as a group of “very ordinary, average cricketers”. The comments followed a crushing Test series loss to Bangladesh at the end of last year, plunging the team to eighth in the world Test rankings (only 10 teams appear on the list).
“Over time,” Boycott wrote in the Telegraph, “the West Indies fans have become too disappointed and disillusioned with their team. It is too hard for many to watch them struggle after the way they once dominated the world.”
I had travelled to the Oval, the heart of West Indian cricket, to see for myself. To try to understand whether the history behind this contest had resonance here any more. Whether Test cricket meant that much to many people. And if not, then why not?
West Indian Test cricket had a formative role in my childhood. I had grown up idolising a world-class team from the region, built on the successes of a previous generation that had pioneered the art of aggressive fast bowling and brutal craft with the bat to become perhaps the best group of 11 players in the history of the game.
A signed bat from former captain Brian Lara took pride of place in my bedroom, next to a poster of the fast bowler Curtly Ambrose. My grandfather’s oversized woollen West Indies playing jumper, which drooped off my body when I played in the summers, hung in a closet. My great-grandmother, who grew up poor on the sugar plantations of rural Guyana, had knitted it for him when he was a child, and it passed down through the generations after.
I would sometimes spend weekends at my grandfather’s home in north London watching the team play on TV. I dozed off sporadically as he told me about his days playing with friends by the plantation, punctuated with celebrations each time the team took a wicket or Lara “licked one” to the boundary.Advertisement
For my grandfather, Oliver Judaman, OJ to us, the West Indies team of the 1980s, with its world famous quartet of fast bowlers that struck fear into English sides for years, was a line into a world he’d left behind after migrating to the UK in the Windrush era.
An Indo-Caribbean descendant of indentured labourers, he came to England to escape volatile post-independence politics only to be met with virulent racism in London. The success of West Indies cricket was for him, like many others of his generation, both an escape and a source of pride. He named his only son after the Guyanese Test batsman Rohan Kanhai. He sat for days by the boundary rope when the West Indies toured England. In his later years he would travel to watch the team play, in India and then at home against England in 1997, when the West Indies won the series 3-1.
For me, in the late 1990s, it was an education in heritage and identity. With mementos from his travels abroad in my bag, I would be cheered on by him from the sidelines when I played club and school cricket. He was proud, dreaming I’d one day become a serious fast bowler. (His ambition for me far exceeded my talents.)
OJ died in 2006 when I was 21, shortly after West Indian Test cricket fell from grace. My interest in the team went with him – and I was far from the only one to feel that way.
During that first Test at the Kensington Oval – a ground which once drew thousands when England toured here – the crowds were dwindling. When I asked people around Barbados why they no longer showed up, the responses varied: “We don’t have a team any more.” “I prefer the shorter games.” “I divorced my husband and it just reminds me of him.”
But, in the members’ area directly behind the wicket, the spirit of this unique sporting culture lived on among both the old-timers and optimistic youth. Here, almost hidden away, West Indian supporters gathered in small enclaves. Some chattered, dissecting the game ball by ball. Others watched on, listening to radio commentary through earphones, hypnotised by the play on field.
Most of what kept OJ passionate about the team decades ago – deep pride and a belief in the renewal of youth – is still what drives people today, although there is no discussion of geopolitics and relations between England and its former colonies.
Edwin Haynes, 62, had been a member since he was 14. A retired maths teacher at the Combermere School outside Bridgetown, he burst with pride when he explained that three of the West Indies’ starting line-up, the 26-year-old batsmen Kraigg Braithwaite and Roston Chase and wicketkeeper Shane Dowrich, 27, were former students of his. “They all came up in a rich tradition of cricket at our school,” he said as Braithwaite smashed a four on the first day of the first match. “And you could tell they were special.”
He hoped his 15-year-old son Christian, a fast bowler, might follow one day. “I would like us to continue that tradition of beating England. And on our day we can beat anybody.”
Michael Alleyne, a 57-year-old businessman, had been coming for 50 years. “Cricket has bonded us and kept us all together,” he said. “When we grew up it was pretty much all we had, and it presented an opportunity to improve your life.” He too hopes his 13-year-old son Miles will turn professional one day. “If he does then I can retire.”
And Rodney Carter, the former security guard who had leapt to his feet on the second day, told me it was his daughter Charlene, a former professional, who kept him going when his interest ebbed. “I just loved watching her bat. She was exquisite,” he said. “I see every game here now. It connects me to something bigger.”
Despite the West Indies’ dominance in these first two matches, there is a recognition, among the deeper cricket thinkers at least, that making comparisons to the previous generations of greats does little to help now.
“When we had the great players in the 70s, the Caribbean was a totally different place,” said Reds Perreira the acclaimed Guyanese cricket commentator who has followed the team around the world for almost 50 years. “People didn’t have the options they have now: track and field, volleyball, basketball, all with scholarships to the US. Whereas nine out of 10 boys wanted to play cricket then, that’s probably come down to about five now.”
Perreira, too, sees significant hope in the new era of players. He points out that despite recent controversies with the region’s cricket board, including pay disputes and accusations of endemic mismanagement, the West Indies now contracts 120 players around the region – the highest in its history – expanding the talent pool and paying fairer wages.
“I think these things go in phases just like in other sports. Look at the Brazilian football team that in peak times produced players so frequently, just like the West Indies did for cricket. These things have their highs and their lows.”By the fourth day of the first match, when a West Indies victory seemed certain and organisers dropped the price of tickets for locals, the stands began to swell. Children chanted Holder’s name. A saxophonist played the region’s anthem, Rally Round the West Indies. The rum flowed and people began a friendly taunting of the English players: “Come on boys, give us a real Brexit.”
Boycott’s words would be re-read on radio call-ins with some callers demanding he apologise. Johnny Grave, chief executive of Cricket West Indies, would later label them disrespectful.
OJ would have loved it. As I sat there in the Kensington Oval I thought of him each time an English wicket fell. I wondered where in the ground he would have sat. How he’d have felt about the newly built stands that replaced the old tin-roofed stadium back in 2006. How he might have celebrated. With minutes to go in Barbados, before the West Indies beat England by 381 runs with a day to spare, the country’s newly elected prime minister, Mia Mottley, appeared among the crowds – posing for selfies and signing autographs. “There is nothing like victory for the West Indies at Kensington,” Mottley told me. “I remember as a small child coming to this ground and seeing the West Indies at their height.
“I was here the morning, the first day of the Test match [in 1981] when Michael Holding got Geoff Boycott out on the fifth ball. And this is carrying me back to a previous time. We hope it’s not a one-off, but will portend well for the future and inspire other young West Indian boys and girls that we can once again be world champions.”