158. The Golden Age of West Indian Cricket

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 7 November 2021
Publication: The Gleaner (Jamaica)
Image courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons

South African cricketer, Quinton de Kock’s politically inept decision not to “take the knee” as an anti-racism gesture during the recent T20 cricket world cup game against the West Indies, forces us to recall a golden age of West Indian dominance of the sport, when cricketing superstars championed anti-racism causes.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

Caribbean players had traditionally been derided as “Calypso cricketers”: entertaining and undisciplined, and prone to buckle easily under pressure. The greatest generation of West Indian cricketers of 1976-1995 shattered this myth. They reigned supreme during a period of decolonization and anti-apartheid struggles in Southern African, supported by many Caribbean countries and citizens. Between 1976 and 1986, the West Indies won 15 out of 17 test series. The team also became the best one-day side in the world, winning the cricket world cup in 1975 and 1979, before losing its third consecutive final in 1983. Between 1975 and 1987, the West Indies won an impressive 74% of one-day international matches.

The team captains of the all-conquering sides, Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, openly embraced the important Pan-African symbolism of their victories. Lloyd unapologetically advocated anti-apartheid causes, and was unequivocal in an address to the United Nations that: “Racism is contrary to the United Nations Charter; it is contrary to humanity….I consider it my duty to add my voice from the perspective of the captaincy of the West Indies cricket team to the chorus of condemnation of the system of apartheid.”

The Guyanese became the first West Indian cricketer to win 100 test caps, eventually scoring 7,515 runs at an average of nearly 47 runs, including 19 centuries. He was a father-figure for his players, enjoying their fierce loyalty. Trinidadian-British broadcaster, Trevor McDonald, noted about Lloyd: “He had come to represent everything that was solid, durable, responsible and honourable about West Indian cricket.” The Guyanese masterminded the revolution in Caribbean cricket. Having suffered from a destructive Australian four-pronged fast-bowling attack – Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Gary Gilmour, and Max Walker – in the 1975/1976 Test series, on his return home, he scoured the Caribbean seeking out fast bowlers.

Lloyd then unleashed on the world what became known as “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, and Malcolm Marshall. They became the most fearsome pacemen in world cricket, raining down bouncers at speeds of 90 miles an hour. The West Indian bowlers intimidated batsmen into submission even before they took to the pitch. The team also had incredible batsmen in Richards, Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, and Alvin Kallicharin.

The Windrush Wars

The test series in England during the long, hot summer of 1976 was when the West Indies had the first opportunity to unleash their fearsome bowling attack and incredible batsmen against their former colonial master. A rampaging Holding and Roberts took 56 of the 84 wickets that fell in a 3-0 series victory. Viv Richard’s superlative displays (829 runs at an average of 118.42) and Michael Holding’s explosive 28 wickets in four tests for an average of 12 runs, gave the

long-suffering West Indian community in Britain – the “Windrush generation” of immigrants – a great sense of pride that had been denied them in broader British society.

The Caribbean cricketers had been motivated to succeed by the condescending comments of the South African-born England captain, Tony Greig, who noted, that the West Indians were overrated, and that he would make them “grovel.” Some regarded the comment as racist, with the image of a subservient dog grovelling before its dominant Master. The West Indian team used this as extra motivation to send a message to the Mother Country and its former “white Dominions.”

This was the context for the overwhelming displays of black pride by West Indians attending tests at the Oval, Lord’s, Old Trafford, and Nottingham. Senior Caribbean players persistently reminded their younger counterparts never to forget that they were playing for their often maligned compatriots living in England. Gordon Greenidge had a personal grudge in this series, having lived in England from the age of eight, and experienced widespread racism at school. The formidable West Indian team again beat England 5-0 in 1984/1985, leading to the famous “Blackwash” headline. Richards, H.A. Gomes, and Greenidge excelled with the bat, while speed merchants, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall, performed magic with the ball.

The Pied Piper of Pan-Africanism

The Viv Richards era between 1985 and 1995 was even more impressive than Lloyd’s, as he never lost a test series, despite having to rebuild the team with players like Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, and Patrick Patterson. Richards’ Somerset team-mate and close friend, England all-rounder, Ian Botham, paid the Antiguan the ultimate tribute in describing him as a better batsman than the legendary Australian, Don Bradman. The Antiguan became the first global superstar of cricket in the television age. He coolly chewed gum, as he effortlessly sauntered his way to countless test centuries. Richards was a supreme batsman and problem-solver. Like legendary Panamanian-Jamaican, George Headley, his sighting of the ball and movement of his feet were outstanding. He was totally fearless against any range of bowlers (refusing to wear protective helmets), and he had a range of spectacular strokes.

Politically, Richards was the ultimate Pied Piper of Pan-Africanism who spoke through his bat – which he described as a sword – in uncompromising anti-colonial tones. He literally wore his anti-racism on his sleeves, with his red-gold-and-green armband representing the blood shed by his people and the wealth that had been stolen from Africa and its diaspora. As he bluntly put it: “I believe very strongly in the black man asserting himself in this world.” Richards thus embraced the Black Power movement in the US. He listened to Bob Marley’s “battlefield music” to relax before games, and proudly embraced the widely marginalised Rastafarian community.

Richards strongly believed that his team was on a sacred mission to prove the equality of black people with the rest of the world, bluntly stating that “playing cricket is in itself a political action.” He clearly explained why he turned down a reported $1 million to play in apartheid South Africa: “As long as the black majority in South Africa remains suppressed by the apartheid system, I could never come to terms with playing cricket there. I would be letting down my own people back in Antigua and it would destroy my self-esteem.” The Antiguan thus used cricket to wage a broader liberation struggle: “I would like to think that I carried my bat for the liberation of Africa and other oppressed people everywhere.”

From Calypso to Colossus

Between February 1980 and March 1995, the West Indian cricket team went unbeaten in test series, becoming one of the greatest teams in the history of sport. The fact that the West Indians maintained their dominance over two decades, finally shattered the negative stereotypes of a lack of organisational discipline among black people across the globe. The Caribbean Colossus had finally trumped the West Indian Calypso.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Global African Affairs (IGAA) in South Africa, a joint initiative with the University of the West Indies.