The above sentiment, from 1963, might as well have been uttered in 2016. In fact, it has. The denigration of West Indian cricket's penchant to infuse residual African norms and uniquely island flamboyancy into the definitive imperial British 'gentleman's game'- all the while performing exceptionally- is as old and enduring as the game itself, in spite of an incredible cricketing legacy to show for all their 'indiscipline.'
This past weekend, West Indies lifted the Cricket World T20 Cup, beating England with an incredible final over performance by Carlos Brathwaite that sent the cricketing world in general, and the Windies fans in particular, into a frenzy. In so doing, they had become the first team to win the short form cricket world cup twice, having won in 2012 as well. Beyond cricketing exploits, the team's triumph comes in the face of hostilities and skepticism from pundits, as well as a virtual absence of harmony with their national administration. It also comes with their customary, anti-cricket establishment flare, this year embodied by the 'Champion' anthem and dance.
More than just a win for the island nations, the story of West Indian cricket ought to be held up as a beacon of triumph, hope, and resistance for the entire Pan-African world. To explain why this remarkable cricketing and cultural legacy should hold a larger socio-political resonants among African descendant people everywhere, there are a few categorical histories for which we need to account.
African Deficit Theory
For the past five centuries Black subjugation has been supported by a series of theories which posited the African body as subaltern; an inferior being whose historical relevance was only through the lens of their imperial subjectivity. Whether as a mere front to justify slavery and colonialism or in genuine belief of African inferiority, scholar and politician alike stepped forward to justify the imperial project.
Widely cited 19th century German philosopher, Georg Hegel, argued that "the negro exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state...for Africa is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit..." For his part, American founding father Thomas Jefferson chimed in with "free blacks were “pests in society” “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves…“never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” or poetry among blacks” and argued that blacks’ ability to “reason” was “much inferior” to whites’, while “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous."
|Now Tommy, the irony of the 'incapable as children'|
taking care of your kids in uncanny
(Among other things!)
Why does any of this matter in a conversation about cricket, you ask? Well, the same patronizing and often unsubstantiated castigations have often been leveled on Blacks in cricket as pertains to their abiding by the rigid parameters of the imperial game. In 1971, veteran South African sports administrator Andre Odendaal remarked that "the coloured populations does not seem very interested in sport. They do not play much rugby and cricket"- an argument absurd on two fronts: 'Coloured people' had been deprived of opportunities and resources to play these games and, also, more 'coloured' people were actually playing these sports than the statement would have us believe. In the early 2000s, at the height of racial tensions in the Zimbabwean team, an independent body held consultation with members of the multi-racial national team to see what their attitudes were. Among the vitriol submitted in the anonymous survey were gems like "Black people will never be good at batting because they are psychologically incapable of timing the batting stroke, although they might be good bowlers." Fancy that: I wonder what Brian Lara, Chris Gayle and, as per last week's heroics, Brathwaite would say about such absurdities!
While the opening quote bemoans the lack of West Indian discipline, it is worth noting that, by the 1960s, the West Indies cricket team was arguably the best in the world, and would go on to win the first ever Cricket World Cup in 1975, beating Australia, before repeating the feat at the second one in 1979, beating, you wouldn't believe it, England.
In 2016, in the build-up to the T-20 World Cup, veteran English cricket broadcaster Mark Nicholas described the West Indian team as being "short of brains." A few weeks later, they had won the World Cup in spectacular style- again over England.
Cricket as an Imperial Project
Beyond just being the ceremonial custodian of British imperial values, international cricket competition was unabashedly an imperial project. According to early 20th Century South African mining tycoon Abe Bailey, who spearheaded early incarnations of the cricket World Cup in 1912, the competition was meant to 'strengthen the bonds of the empire" and to "unite the White Colonies of Australia and South Africa with England." Nothing is more telling than the fact that the I in ICC (International Cricket Council) stood for 'Imperial' up until the 1960s. Interestingly, although, West Indies had played competitively internationally since 1920s, it was in the 60s that they transitioned to a majority Black team- and arguably the best team in the world, going on to win the first two modern incarnations of the World Cup.
Although not as blatantly an imperial project as when 'imperial' was in its very name, world cricket continues to exhibit several attitudes- collectively or individually, reminiscent of imperial nostalgia. For example, South Africa and Zimbabwe are, respectively, the two most prominent cricket-playing African nations (and only two test-playing countries.) Yet it took Zimbabwe 15 years after independence to field their first Black player and, 20 years after Apartheid, here is the South African squad for the 2015 Cricket World Cup.
|Black South Africans? 76.4% of the country.|
In the 1960s, when anti-Apartheid sentiment and protests began to resonate loudly, the ICC was split along ethnic imperial lines: Australia and England maintained that Apartheid South Africa should remain a part of the ICC, while West Indies and the Asian countries called for their expulsion and boycott of international cricket as long as they were involved. The same rift resurfaced in 2003 when, after South Africa was awarded the honor to host the 2003 World Cup, they brought in Zimbabwe and Kenya to co-host at least a couple of the games in a show of Pan-African unity. Bemoaning Zimbabwe's socio-political decline initiated in large part by the haphazard redistribution of White-owned farming land in the country, England, Australia and New Zealand re-enacted their Anglo-Saxon loyalties by boycotting the country's status as co-host, while West Indies and the Asian and African countries stood by Zimbabwe's right to host.
Thus, even in a self-proclaimed imperial sporting community, a predominantly Black West Indian team has not only been a staple for the past 50 years, but have, time and again, emerged a dominant team and assumed anti-imperial positions on the side of their African kin.
Speaking of African kin...
West Indies as a Vehicle for Pan-Africanism
While people of African descent have tried to organize in resistance since earliest Western imperial contact, the Pan-African ideology is largely attributed to the turn of the 20th century and, since then, figures from the West Indies (And first/second generation immigrants therefrom) have had an overwhelmingly disproportionate influence on the Pan-African movement. The Who's Who of the early Pan-African movement reads like a list of West Indian citizens or recent immigrants and descendants; from C L R James (Trinidad and Tobago) to W.E.B Du Bois (Haitian born and raised father), Marcus Garvey (Jamaican) to Stokely Carmichael (Trinidad and Tobago), Edward Blyden (US Virgin Islands) to Malcolm X (Grenada) all the way to Bob Marley.
That the West Indies had a magnified role in the Pan-African movement as opposed to other regions was no accident. First, the movement would not have come out of Africa, as colonialism was only its infancy at the turn of the 20th century (The Berlin Conference which begot "The Scramble for Africa' was in 1886, while the first Pan-African Congress was in 1900) and thus no unified resistance movements of note had emerged. By then, the West Indies had been under European rule for four centuries, and had devised revolutionary strategies and spirit already. They contrasted with African Americans too, in that they had the consciousness of being a majority (and thus challenged the status quo from a position of power), had extensive political organization over the years, extensive prior travel experience, educational opportunities beyond the reach of many African Americans at the time (to mention but a few factors.) Hence they arrived upon the American shores already prone to radicalization.
Thus when we are looking at the West Indies, we are not only looking at a Pan-African spirit of revolution restricted to the islands; it invigorated the entire African world. The likes of Du Bois and X are some of the most influential activists in American history, while the works of Blyden, Carmichael, James and Garvey transcended continental boundaries and directly influenced Black people everywhere. For example, long before independence from colonialism was perceivable across most of Africa, Garvey had planted the American-born United Negro Improvement Association in South Africa, while Carmichael's relationship with African revolutionaries such as Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure not only informed their Pan-African vision, but informed the Black Power movement back in the USA as well.
Even on the cricket field, then, they served as a beacon of hope. At a time when Blacks were not even part of the cricket structure in Zimbabwe and South Africa, for example, the West Indies served as that shining instance of Blacks excelling in a sport that the locals were being told they're physically and mentally incapable of. Henry Olonga describes watching the West Indies team play the all-white Zimbabwean team in the late 1980s and seeing them 'smashing Zimbabwe to all parts' and how it was inspiring to 'see that cricket wasn't just a White man's sport.' And in South Africa, when the Apartheid regime had forced the Blacks to form their own 'national team,' it was the West Indian team that stepped up to even play against them. In cricket, as in politics, the West Indies provided the African world with a site of resistance and promise.
Triumph over Post-colonial Mismanagement.
Writing in the mid 20th century, Frantz Fanon (yet another West Indian) wrote about the pitfalls of national consciousness, through which the national bourgeoisie comes into power and proceeds to neglect the masses upon whom their rise to power was built. It takes not a philosopher of old to observe that such a pitfall of poor, self-serving governance is one that African countries have repeatedly fallen into in the post-colonial era. The populace are typically left with two options: either to revolt against their government or find a way to live and thrive in spite of them. The recent West Indies victory is an instance of the latter.
Over the past few years, West Indian players have bemoaned the lack of professionalism of the West Indian Cricket Board (WICB.) In his post-match interview soon after their triumph last week, captain Darren Sammy held no punches when he told reporters that " "I'm yet to hear from our own cricket board. That is very disappointing. For today, I'm going to celebrate with these 15 men (teammates) and coaching staff." In the following days, all-rounder Dwayne Bravo reiterated the sentiments when he stated that "people don't understand the things we go through as players dealing with our board. It is the most unprofessional board in the world to me. Sammy spoke from his heart."
(Oh, in all this, it is also worth mentioning that West Indies U-19 team won their World Cup earlier this year, and the women's team won the t20 World Cup the day before the man's triumph: not bad for a 'brainless' cricketing community going through a slump and under incompetent administration.)
So there we have it. Windies cricket has, for almost 100 years, stood to defy the racist logic that Black people could not play cricket. They have, time and again, taken stances in solidarity with the Pan-African cricket community. All this is in concert with the West Indies' rich cricketing history and unmatched socio-political impact on the African community around the world. Finally, their recent success and accompanying vocal criticism of their administrating represents a pipe dream for many in the global African community: standing up against the modern day rulers, and triumphing in spite of their incompetencies. The history and success of West Indian cricket should resonate loud across African peoples everywhere: it is our victory.
Feel free to share and comment. Warning, I probably won't respond for a few weeks- I'll be somewhere with the people, still doing the 'Champion' Dance.