Thursday, 23 June 2011

The unforgiven

I've just bought the DVD of the excellent Fire In Babylon, a documentary film looking at the all-conquering West Indies team of the late 70s and 80s. It's a wonderful reminder of just how good they were - for all their lack of spin bowling, and very occasional fragility against good spinners (well, one great spinner, Abdul Qadir) themselves - I'd still back them to have beaten the more recent great Aussie team, or the Pakistan team of the early 90s spearheaded by Wasim and Waqar.

As a cricket fan at the time, of course, it wasn't always comfortable viewing, with England suffering some catastrophic hammerings at the hands of Lloyd, Richards, Greenidge, Haynes, Holding, Marshall, Garner and co. But, perhaps because so many of them played for long periods in county cricket too, they occupy a special place in my cricketing affections. The fact that they played such an exciting, attacking brand of cricket helped, too.

I can remember my dad taking me to see a Sunday League game at Leicester in the early 80s, against Somerset. From what I remember, Leicestershire won, with their own West Indian, the great Andy Roberts, leading the way. But the real thrill was afterwards, seeing Viv Richards and Joel Garner at close quarters. Both, I remember, seemed huge. Richards had the build of a heavyweight boxer, so you could see why bowlers tended to get intimidated by him even before they started their run-up, while Garner was just impossibly tall. Softly-spoken and charming, he quickly persuaded all us autograph-hunting ankle-biters to line up quietly while he signed everyone's book or programme.

Cricket's not yet undergone the separation between players and fans that has affected football, but it still seems slightly unreal having seen such sporting gods in the flesh. Richards remains the greatest batsman I've ever seen or expect to see. Malcolm Marshall, who died of cancer tragically young, was the greatest quick bowler, but Garner would be somewhere up there too.

But if Fire In Babylon is a celebration of the Caribbean's golden age of cricket, this excellent article on CricInfo highlights a forgotten side of West Indian cricket in the 80s. When you hear black South Africans (including Nelson Mandela) speak about how vital the sporting boycott was to changing attitudes, it's hard if not impossible to argue, but it's equally difficult not to feel an awful lot of sympathy for those West Indians whose lives were wrecked by their misjudged decision to try to earn a living.

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