Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The curious case of world cricket, perspective and Sir Curtly Ambrose

Perspective is a funny thing. A respected older friend once told me “Your perspective is your reality”; it’s an adage I’ve often tried to fault without ever managing to do so.

While listening to Subash Jayaraman’s excellent interview with Sir Curtly Ambrose, I was struck by one of Sir Curtly’s remarks about his series mirabilis, the 1992-93 five-Test stoush away against the upstart Australians.
“We were a young team; we were not expected to win”.
Sir Curtly’s reasoning is logical, in a way: the Undisputed Champs had a new captain in Richie Richardson and the team’s middle order had played in a combined 43 Tests, with Carl Hooper having the vast majority of those (33).

That doesn’t make his statement any less stunning to much of his audience, because while Australia had some victories under their belts against India at home and, with the first glimpses of Warne-spun mastery, away in Sri Lanka, this hardly gave them a claim to the title of World’s Best.

While Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge had retired, the West Indies of 1992 had last lost a series in 1980 and had conceded only 7 of 34 Tests – never more than one in a series – since Ambrose’s debut in April 1988. But Sir Curtly’s interview tells of an interior perception of a team not expected to win.

This is somewhat odd, because the Australian crowd expected nothing else. The locals were talented and might put up a fight, but victory for the home side was nestled in next to a Geelong Premiership and dating Elizabeth Berkley in the most teen of dreams. Our perception of the West Indies was of an implacable machine, a viewpoint reinforced when Keith Arthurton made the highest score of his career in the first innings of the first Test.

Local perceptions formed our reality – the West Indies were coming and they would almost certainly win. How could two viewpoints on the same series be at such crossed purposes? The answer is relatively straighforward: a unique perspective narrows the visual field, for better and worse. What is gained in the detail is lost in the scope.

As heralded best (amongst others) by the documentary Fire in Babylon, the West Indies began life as a handful of colonies who existed almost solely to be taken advantage of. It took independence for these colonies to really coalesce around an oval and some of the best players of all time waged private battles against against racism and imperialism, not just intimidating their cricketing opponents but demoralizing them. While the forefathers of that revolution had moved on, their progeny – Richardson, Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop, Haynes and Lara – remained.

The West Indies of 1992 thought of themselves as underdogs because forty years of being enjoyable non-threats (to 1975-76) had taught them how to be exactly not that.

To outsiders, in no way should the West Indians have been anything other than favourites – if only due to the mental barriers faced by Aussies still scarred from years of Marshall, Garner, Colin Croft, Holding, Walsh, Roberts, Ambrose and Patrick Patterson. The tourists were still a generation influenced heavily by revolutionaries like Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Clive Lloyd and Sir Vivian Richards; their self-perception was of a team that would continue fighting because otherwise they once again risked being marginalized by the actions of cricket’s off-field establishment.

Australians knew nothing of the financial climate in the West Indies. Nor were we aware of the difficulties faced by many – or most – of our vanquishers, such that cricket was only a route to a comfortable lifestyle for those who managed to secure major sponsors or County deals.

Our perception – bouncers fired in at 155 clicks and Viv swatting Tony Dodemaide for six (again) – meant antipodean audiences could see only a small fraction of the macroeconomic picture. For generations, the West Indies knew nothing but being entertainers. For nearly twenty years, the Australians could only couple this particular set of opponents with impending defeat.

Twenty-one years later, and we can begin to reconcile these opposing perspectives. Both viewpoints are still absolutely valid; if swayed a little by the Kenobi principle (“What I told you was true. From a certain point of view”). Even though world cricket is still plagued by nepotism and self-interest that threatens to further marginalize boards such as the West Indies, the accessibility of information has never been greater and as such we have more facility to appreciate the situations of our rivals. Unfortunately cricket’s never been really good at that.

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