Monday, August 6, 2012

Book review: Sixty years on the back foot, by 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
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 the myriad failings in Caribbean cricket politics.


  1. I'd argue the issue has plagued West Indies cricket for longer than that, back to Constantine, and therefore the very outset. Constantine is a fascinating subject by the way; wrote a book called "The Theory and Practice of joyful cricket" with this great quote (courtesy of Down at Third Man):

    “I have spent my life trying to play Brighter Cricket and I have embroiled myself in constant hot water for advocating and attempting to spread it. When, being in the mood, I went to the wicket and slammed the England and Australian bowling for some sixes, the critics hid their eyes and wailed that I was flamboyant. When I went into League cricket, where people pay to see a lively game, the same critics cried out that I was selling my birthright for a mess of potage.”

    And of course he paved the way for CLR James, and therefore the intellectual roots of West Indies cricket.

    That period 75-95 is really a story of them hitching themselves to Packer, who paid them as a team, rather than requiring them to make their way as professionals, either in the counties or the leagues. Once Indian cricket started to bring in the dosh, the market value of the West Indies team lessened considerably (being weak didn't help, but is not the root cause). And yet their players retain it.

    Cricket's messed up really. You don't see Didier Drogba relying on the pittance the Ivory Coast might pay him, nor having to choose one or the other.

    1. Thanks as always for reading Russ - I hadn't made the connection with CLR James, let alone Constantine, but from what I know of the pair you're right on. Gideon Haigh wrote an essay about CLR James in Game for Anything that was really interesting.

      With '75-'95, no doubt the West Indies hitched themselves to Packer but I'd also argue your point about being paid "as a team": the 1983-84 rebel tours to South Africa were effective free agents who were out for their individual financial security. I'd suggest the intrinsic link between success and finance is most crucial for the West Indies because of the scattered administration and socioeconomic climate of the Caribbean.

    2. I probably didn't explain that well. You are right, there was a lot of individual contracting going on, including rebel tours and county contracts. But the Packer era was the only period where the West Indies team was commercially valuable as a team (as opposed to a specific West Indies player having commercial pull). For two specific reasons: they were very popular in the Australian market and toured almost every year from '77 to '92; and Australian cricket derived almost all its income from the Australian market. Post-1996, the former was partly true, but the latter wasn't; Australian cricket derived a lot of its income from Indian and English markets, and the Australia vs. West Indies isn't an attractive fixture to those markets.

      Richard Lord, the very good WSJ cricket writer summarised it best I think: the WICB can't afford their own players. What was interesting about the 1980s was that for a brief period the WICB could afford their own players. I don't think those days will ever return.

    3. Completely agree. I think we're coming at it from two different sides of the same coin: I'm suggesting that success intrinsically promotes more tours/financing/endorsements etc for players from a lower socioeconomic region while you suggest the WI's value has never been higher than during that period when individuals (except for Richards, really) were heaps less important than the more-marketable collective: no matter how much money India has, I think Australian fans would clamour for matches against a strong Caribbean outfit because of the nostalgia factor - and because of what Walcott says: a strong WI unit almost by definition has to play an almost avant-garde style.

      I think the Lord summary almost completely sums it up.

  2. Great book review, this was a man who I didn't even know about! West Indies truly were the kings back in the day, and I'm sure they're on their way to the top after a comprehensive series win vs the New Zealanders!