Something very unusual,and heartwarming,happened in the moments following the West Indies winning the World T20 in Colombo. The players celebrated like no one else I have seen but across the world,in countries that played cricket and those that merely followed it,there was an outpouring of joy. It does not happen in sport. Excuses are found,plots are unearthed,there is much loathing on message boards and in chat rooms and anger is not unknown among fans. But with the West Indies there was the kind of joy we see when a much loved relative returns. It seems everyone wanted to sing a song and shake a leg. Even my mother-in-law was beaming!
There must be a reason. There must be many in fact. Every team in our little cricket world is both liked and hated. Often these are mere perceptions but the world is ruled more by perception than reality anyway! And so the Aussies are disliked because they are seen to be cocky and because they sledge,the English because they look down on opponents,Indians because they seem to exercise power so visibly,Pakistan because some of their players seem to straddle the divide between what is acceptable and what isnt. But the West Indies dont seem to present us with a reason to dislike them. I mean,they dont even have fast bowlers who snarl and aim to knock your head off.
It could just be that in recent years they have threatened no one,they havent conquered,they havent trodden on emotions. They have largely lost and as I learnt early in my career following India,good natured teams that lose have all the ingredients needed for popularity. The West Indies have no history of ruling others or going to war with them either; indeed,if anything they have emerged out of the darkness of colonisation,they have felt segregation,they have been victims of history.
That might explain their extraordinary popularity in India. My generation didnt see the hardships of foreign rule but felt the last after-effects. We felt a bond across continents and oceans towards black people,I became a fan of Basil DOliveira without ever seeing him play for example. India supported the African National Congress and didnt play South Africa in a rare appearance in the final of the Davis Cup in 1974. And so it was natural that the generation slightly before mine,and many others of my age,naturally gravitated towards the West Indies. Garry Sobers was a big hero but,in later times,so were Viv Richards,Malcolm Marshall and Brian Lara. Racism for this generation was about the white man being rude to the coloured,that the reverse must fit the definition wasnt always obvious!
But those born in the eighties shouldnt have to think like that. Except for South Africa (which did so in the early nineties with great gusto),the world has embraced multi-culturalism. Black players play for England and South Africa,Asians for Australia,South Africa,England and New Zealand,a white man played test cricket for the West Indies recently and frankly,this generation shouldnt care too much now for a history that once segregated people. So why does this generation enjoy watching the West Indies just as much?
I have asked people and inevitably they say they are drawn to the joy that seems to accompany their cricket. They seem to play with a smile (Chris Gayle is a colossal modern icon),there is little bad blood around,they dont sledge and boy,they seem to draw you into their celebration. I find the third of those particularly interesting. The West Indies,everyone says,dont sledge and that seems to strike a chord among people. They are the nice guys,like Roger Federer is,and it is a sentiment,if indeed universally true,that fills me with a lot of joy and hope. Sledging is still looked down upon and isnt that wonderful.
I have often been intrigued by how an entire group of people,from different islands and sporting different accents (though each is more alluring than the other!) seem to believe in this way of playing cricket. Mike Holding laughed it off when I asked him saying We didnt need to but I couldnt imagine him or Andy Roberts or Joel Garner sledging. Ian Bishop,a successor and possessor of a much calmer temperament said it just wasnt done. The West Indies seem to accept what happens on a cricket ground,show disappointment but rarely anger. Brian Lara walked,and expected others to do so. Somehow when he said take my word in 2006 it seemed much more acceptable than if a cricketer from another team said it.
And they have had wonderful ambassadors. Clive Lloyd,Holding and Bishop are but three of them but they gave the world the writing of CLR James and the voice and demeanour of Tony Cozier,perhaps the most universally liked broadcaster there has been. In more recent times in our country,Darren Ganga brought a team from Trinidad and Tobago which played with such verve and elan that even in a tournament like the Champions League they made many friends.
So it could be the laughter that you see ring out all over the stands in the West Indies (Sunil Gavaskars description of the crowds there in his book,Sunny Days,was probably an aberration) and on cricket grounds all over the world. And it isnt just a Gayle,a Bravo or a Pollard. In the early days of TWI filming cricket in India we had a sound engineer called Collin Oliverre whose cheerful accent and laughter always filled the production room.
Or it could be a combination of all these factors and those robust calypsos that capture the ethos of cricket in the islands. I hope the West Indies win much more because they seem to bring happiness back to cricket. We have too much sledging,too much rancour sometimes and then we see these men making all that seem so small and inconsequential.
Yes,that is why we love them; because they play sport the way all of us would secretly love to.