AS A child, Kraigg Brathwaite was scrawny and puny. And he would often get picked on and bullied in the school bus. Brathwaite, however, had protection. He had Rihanna. The future pop sensation was four years older than her Combermere schoolmate and would board the bus from the same stop in St Michael. Rihanna, then simply Robyn Fenty, would not only put Brathwaite on her lap; she would also beat up any kid who dared to bother the future West Indies opener.
Rihanna didn’t stop looking out for Brathwaite long after they’d both passed out of school. In fact, the fashion diva provided front-row seats to not just Brathwaite, who was the West Indies under-19 captain then, but the entire team for her concert in the USA when they were there for a camp before the junior World Cup in 2012.
Brathwaite, now 24, has grown taller with time. But he still possesses one of the slightest frames going around in international cricket. Over the last five days, he was up against some of the meanest bullies with ball in hand at England’s favourite bullying ground. But Brathwaite didn’t need any saving against the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes at Headingley. He was the one saving the West Indies and their legacy. He did have familiar company at the other end though in compatriot Shai Hope. Interestingly enough, they were two among seven players from Barbados in the playing XI — on a day the tiny island got its first-ever Grand Slam tennis player in Darian King at the US Open — most of whom had a role to play in the West Indies making history.
While Brathwaite, with scores of 134 and 95, helped West Indies do something nobody expected of them, Hope ended up doing something that nobody else had done before. He became the first batsman to score a century in each innings of a first-class match not only at Headingley, but anywhere in the county of Yorkshire, where cricket’s been played for a century and a half. Jason Holder led from the front with a crucial cameo in the first innings and pressure spells with the ball in both. He also sent a text to his entire team on the morning of the fifth day asking them to believe, which they did. Roston Chase slowed England down with wickets in the second innings and shared a steadying partnership with Hope during the run-chase, while Kemar Roach led the bowling attack both on the field and, it’s learnt, in the dressing room. Shane Dowrich was neat behind the stumps and present at the crease when the winning runs were scored. Trinidad’s Shannon Gabriel and Jamaica’s Jermaine Blackwood were stars too in the eventual victory but in many ways the Leeds victory was a throwback to the times when West Indian cricket success generally revolved around a bunch of individuals from an island the size of Chennai — around 167 square miles — and a population of under 3 lakh.
It would still be premature to link the astonishing five-wicket win to some sort of dramatic revival in West Indies cricket. There have been way too many false dawns in the Caribbean over the last decade after all. But like Michael Atherton put it, when West Indies chased down 322 in the second Test in Leeds, they had completed arguably the greatest turnaround in cricket history, only a week after they were humbled and humiliated within three days at Edgbaston.
AMONG THE many rave reviews that came the West Indies’ way was one from Ian Botham, who wrote about how world cricket needs a vibrant West Indies team. It’s a statement we’ve heard over and over again as the men from the Caribbean have tried to climb out of the deep and dark hole their cricket has found itself in during the 21st century. But perhaps, what it needs is a vibrant Barbados cricket team. For, like history suggests, some of West Indian cricket’s greatest moments have come when they have had generous representation from the tiny country, which per capita possesses the most prosperous cricketing legacy compared to any other cricketing nation. And not just because Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott and Frank Worrell were born in the same neighbourhood.
But right from the time of the 3Ws to when Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith terrorised opposition batsmen with Garry Sobers, Seymour Nurse and Conrad Hunte shifting yardsticks with the bat, West Indian cricket has always thrived on a generous dollop of Barbados talent. When they dominated the world during the 70s and 80s, there were the likes of Viv Richards and Andy Roberts from Antigua and Jamaica’s Michael Holding and Jeffrey Dujon. But even then, no island was represented as well as Barbados — Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes destroyed attacks at the top with Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner destroying batting line-ups with the ball. Most of the reserve pacers, from Winston Davis to Wayne Daniel, came from there too.
And perhaps, it’s no coincidence that the downfall of West Indies cricket has coincided with Barbados’ own talent drain. Just take the 2000s. Only 25 cricketers from Barbados have appeared in Tests for West Indies in the last 17 years, seven of whom played at Leeds. Only three of those managed to play over 30 matches. Fidel Edwards ended up with 55 while Brathwaite and Roach presently sit on 39 each. Overall in this period, Bajans have appeared in 404 matches. That pales in comparison to those played by the Jamaicans, Trinis and even the Guyanese — who during the days of Bajan domination had minimal representation. Generally there was only Clive Lloyd, with Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan coming later. For the record, when West Indies last won a Test in England — at Edgbaston in 2000 — they had only one Bajan in the team, opener Sherwin Campbell. But though the democratisation of cricket in the Caribbean is not a bad thing, it doesn’t seem to have resulted in much success.
The most common cause given for the fall of Barbados cricket is the state of the pitches. The Kensington Oval at its prime lived up the reputation of being the home of the most fearsome fast bowlers in the world. But somehow through the 90s and during this century, the pitches have been more in favour of spin. And it’s said to be across the island too and has seen Barbados not winning a single four-day title in the last 10 years. Matches get over within two days, and the pitches deteriorate so rapidly that the home team is often keen on declaring with a low total just so that they can skittle out hapless visiting teams.
The clubs, even the historic ones, have as a result struggled to produce talent. Take Pickwick Cricket Club, which is housed at the Kensington Oval, and was once home to Worrell. So too Hope. Pickwick was in fact relegated to the second division last year, and it’s seen Hope play in the lower leagues, often batting alongside Hayley Matthews, the teenaged West Indian women’s cricketer who won them the World T20 final last year. Hope, who came into the Leeds match with a Test batting average of 18, was only the third middle-order batsman from Barbados after Carlisle Best and Dwayne Smith to score a Test century since Sobers retired in 1974.
BARBADOS CELEBRATED the 50th anniversary of its independence only last year and has always been considered the most British of the islands. It’s even referred to as Little England by some still. Everyone from Richard Branson to Mick Jagger own houses on the island and often show up for the cricket, or have done so in the past. The Tridents, the Caribbean Premier League team that represents the island, is owned by Vijay Mallya. But the benefactor responsible for the renaissance of cricketing talent in Barbados is one that nobody in the island had ever heard of before.
He was neither a famous musician nor a businessman. Lord Robert Gavron, who passed away in 2015, was a publisher and a philanthropist who fell in love with Barbados. To such an extent, that at the turn of the century he set up the Lord Gavron Scholarship for promising young cricketers. Over the years, he spent over a million pounds on developing and giving opportunities to budding talent from the island, even setting up scholarships for them in England.
For the record, six of the seven Bajans who played the Leeds Test — Kyle Hope the only exception — were winners and beneficiaries of the Gavron scholarship or in the words of the late Lord’s wife, were Bob’s boys. And Bob’s boys were responsible for more than half the wickets and nearly 90 per cent of the runs that West Indies scored during their famous win.
There are some in the Caribbean who have turned their nose up at the burgeoning of Bajan presence in the West Indian team, putting it down to Holder being the captain. The Headlingley Test should have those detractors to rest. Holder is slowly but surely developing into a decent all-rounder — he’s scored the most Test runs at No.8 over the last two years — and has held this team together despite the never-ending crisis. Chase has emerged as the most consistent batsman of the side — averaging in the mid-40s — and a useful spin bowler. Roach has returned stronger and keener to play Tests after a two-year hiatus while Brathwaite remains the bedrock of the batting line-up, now with Hope showing signs of sharing the burden.
But again, only a similar performance at Lord’s in the third Test will justify any talk of the Leeds win having been a step towards a brighter future for West Indies cricket. They’re only a loss away from slipping back into the abyss they’ve existed in for a long time and for the “it is what it is” diatribe to take over again. But for now, the cricket world can sit back and savour what was a terrific Test win orchestrated by a bunch of young underdogs.
This time, nobody was asking the cricket world to remember any names, Brathwaite or otherwise, and there was no manic dancing at the end of it but just two very cool young men walking off the field nonchalantly. Unlike the World T20 wins, the scenes at Headlingley didn’t thrill the hearts of the cricket world, they warmed them.