Spectators use umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun

Spectators in Jamaica shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas, 1986

© Getty Images

Cricket in fiction

Gateway to the Caribbean

If you're a fan of West Indian cricket, you're likely to fall in love with the region's literature

Benjamin Golby  |  

It was the last day of the last match between Trinidad and Jamaica. Gerry Gomez and Len Harbin were making a great stand for Trinidad, and when Gomez reached his 150 Hat went crazy and danced up and down, shouting, 'White people is God you hear!'...

Looking at maps can be stupefying. Such is the West Indies' ubiety in cricket, to see the geographic modesty of the cricket-playing Caribbean - wee specks upon the globe, barely flecks within the Antilles - is disorienting. This is the region that produced the most wonderful of all cricketers, the strongest team of the ages, and tremendous cricketing glory through generations of extraordinary players - doing so by drawing upon a combined regional population of around six million. The nations' poise and allure remains even today, as witnessed in last year's women's and men's World T20 triumphs.

Magnificent, too, is the region's extension of achievement from sport into culture. Caribbean music is a joy. West Indian literature, recognised in two Nobel laureates and boasting so much besides, is a feast. Cricket, happily, intersects. Music celebrates cricket. More erratically, cricketers foray into musicianship. Yes, they do. Players are generally disinclined to turn toward fictional narrative (notwithstanding the ambitious rhetoric and genre-defying Baas-self-exaltation of Chris Gayle's autobiography, Six Machine). West Indian fiction, however, extols and ponders the region's cricket.

In the absence of a Caribbean cricket novel, the anthology of West Indian cricket writing The Bowling Was Superfine is a sound consolation

There is no widely known cricket-focused novel from the Caribbean. Given that the West Indies has produced the single greatest work of cricket literature and an array of improbably superlative players, it's asking rather much for an additional work of grand cricket fiction. The game features, however, in a range of short stories, poems and novel scenes from the region. The extract opening this article is from the West Indies' most internationally celebrated literary figure, VS Naipaul, in his joyous Miguel Street. Set in a Port-of-Spain slum, this collection of vignettes is the most affable of his works, sketching scenes and characters from poor urban life with humanity and amiability to make celebration of what might be joyless. One of the street patriarchs, Hat, takes a dozen boys to an inter-colonial match, and the fun of Caribbean cricket and something of its pathos is illustrated:

Hat taught me many things that afternoon. From the way he pronounced them, I learned about the beauty of cricketer's names, and he gave me all his own excitement at watching a cricket match.

I asked him to explain the scoreboard.

He said, 'On the left-hand side they have the names of the batsman who finish batting.'

I remember that because I thought it such a nice way of saying that a batsman was out: to say that he had finished batting.

All during the tea interval Hat was as excited as ever. He tried to get all sorts of people to take all sorts of crazy bets. He ran about waving a dollar-note and shouting, 'A dollar to a shilling. Headley don't reach double figures.' Or, 'A dollar, Stollmeyer field the first ball.'

The cricket that afternoon was fantastic. The Jamaican team, which included the great Headley, lost six wickets for thirty-one runs. In the fading light the Trinidad fast bowler, Tyrell Johnson, was unplayable, and his success seemed to increase his speed.

A fat old woman on our left began screaming at Tyrell Johnson, and whenever she stopped screaming she turned to us and said very quietly, 'I know Tyrell since he was a boy so high. We use to pitch marble together.' Then she turned away and began screaming again.

The Caribbean fan: joyful, appreciative, fun and, sometimes, noisy

The Caribbean fan: joyful, appreciative, fun and, sometimes, noisy © Getty Images

In the absence of a Caribbean cricket novel, the anthology of West Indian cricket writing The Bowling Was Superfine is a sound consolation. Published several years ago, the collection neatly collates cricket literature from Caribbean non-fiction, poetry and fiction (including the extracts featured in this article). It triumphs in capturing the Caribbean tendency to combine serious matters with bonhomous festival. It flaunts the esprit of West Indian cricket while stressing its political and social compass, and the role of the game in bearing regional cultural and racial identity. As an introduction to the literary dimensions of West Indian cricket, it's a fine primer.

As the anthology demonstrates, Caribbean cricket fiction is often hilarious. The use of vernacular creole and patois languages has a genial effect, beaming with wit, stunning imagery and irrepressible energy. The language of Caribbean speech extends to narration and action, and is often used in stylistic contrast with more conventional staid English, as in the jocose tales of Paul Keens-Douglas and his ageing female relative, Tanti Merle, who "gets among business" when Combined Islands play Trinidad at the Queen's Park Oval. In poetry the language sings, as in Kamau Brathwaite's majestic "Rites", where a tailor excoriates a visitor who has failed to show sufficient attentiveness to a recent Test match:

Look wha happen las' week at de O-

At de Oval?
Wha' happen las' week at de Oval?

You mean to say that you come
in here wid dat lime-skin cone

that you callin' a hat
pun you head, an' them slip slop shoe strap

on to you foot like a touris';
you sprawl you ass

all over my chair widdout ask-
'in me please leave nor licence,

wastin' muh tume when you know very well that uh cahn fine
enough to finish these zoot suits

'fore Christmas; an' on top
o' all this, you could wine up de nerve to stop

me cool cool cool in de middle
o' all me needle

an' t'read; make me prick me hand in me haste;
an' tell me broad an' bole to me face

at Kensington Oval?

As the anthology demonstrates, Caribbean cricket fiction is often hilarious. The use of vernacular creole and patois languages has a genial effect, beaming with wit, stunning imagery and irrepressible energy

Along with comedy is consequence. The Caribbean nations were born out of colonialism, slavery and greed, poignantly underlined in the opening lines of calypsonian David Rudder's West Indies cricket anthem, "Rally Round The West Indies": "No noble thoughts brought us here to this region." Power struggle underpins West Indies cricket, from racial politics and the black captaincy debate of 60 years ago, to anti-colonial agitation in the jubilation of the 1950 Lord's victory, and regional assertion with the grovelling 1976 and blackwash 1984 tours of England.

This political stamp of Caribbean cricket permeates The Bowling Was Superfine. It is apparent most forcefully in the non-fiction of the anthology, which includes Chris Searle's elegant writing on Brian Lara's first world record in Antigua as the culmination of West Indian political emancipation. The theme of power also runs through the collection's fiction, as in an extract from Earl Lovelace's Is Just a Movie.

While the Caribbean may not yet have produced a great cricket novel, Is Just a Movie is possibly the finest of all novels - from anywhere in the world - to feature cricket. Set in a Trinidad village, the story traces a society through a range of characters who participate in the 1970 Black Power Revolution and the resurgence of the Back to Africa movement, and then makes a leap into a fantastical present.

The anthology features such literary greats as VS Naipaul

The anthology features such literary greats as VS Naipaul © Getty Images

Is Just a Movie is an extraordinary artistic triumph. It's a grand read, incredibly funny, commanding, and boundless in scope. Cricket features in the novel for all of two pages. This appearance, though, as a lad goes in to bat and draws the village to the ground, is stirring:

... just watch Franklyn with the bat in his hands walk out to the ground with his slouching walk, bending and unbending his shoulders like the two ends of an accordion, lifting his knees high, one first then the other like the limbering up exercise of a high-jumper. Then he hold himself down and walk off again, nonchalant, this time, like a prince who never see a day of trouble, his head in the air like he walking on a rope stretched across the sky, so confident his balance that he not even looking down to see where he putting his foot. After he mark with chalk the spot on the matting where he would take his stand, Franklyn would settle over his bat, casting to one side, with a shrug, the cape invoked on his shoulders and look now at the bowler run up to release the ball.

People look at cricket for the runs, but with Franklyn it was the runs, yes, it was runs, but his batting wasn't only runs, it was the spring in his step, it was the dance of his body, the confident readiness of muscles to move forward or sideways or back: to tiptoe or pivot or kneel or duck; and then the ball would come and he would leave it alone, just that, watch the ball and withhold his bat from it. And although it didn't show in the score book, that was a stroke, that was a statement, that was an acknowledgement of the bowler and an announcement to the world that we here. We have eyes. We ready, just to hint to them that they can't play the arse, that they have to put it on a length, we not going powerful-stupid chasing after wide balls. Put it on the stumps. Put it on the stumps. Until I ready for you.

Caribbean cricket literature invites the reader to engage with a vibrant culture and regional identity, and discover how and why it exists

If your interest is piqued, it's likely you'll enjoy Caribbean cricket fiction. The Bowling Was Superfine is a good start. Its fiction is charged, and the non-fiction and poetry - with lyrical narratives such as Edward Baugh's "View from the George Headley Stand, Sabina" and Kwame Dawes' "Alado Seandro" - are bracing.

A successful anthology such as this is stimulating rather than satisfying, whetting a reader's appetite to delve further. Caribbean cricket literature invites the reader to engage with a vibrant culture and regional identity, and discover how and why it exists. As in its most notable masterpiece, CLR James' Beyond a Boundary, it rouses the reader to participate in a cricket discourse that transcends a contest of bat and ball.

© Peepal Tree Press

Beginning by gorging on scenes of cricket fiction, engaged readers may find themselves led into further non-cricketing realms of Caribbean fiction. Is Just a Movie is likely to guide the reader to the rest of the novelist's superb oeuvre (most of which has little do with the game). Then there is so much more literature, including non-cricketing fiction from those with cricket associations, such as James' novel Minty Alley and one of the Cricket Monthly's own editors, Rahul Bhattacharya's Guyana-set The Sly Company of People Who Care.

As with West Indian cricket, the region's body of literature is a staggering achievement. Its cricket fiction is a testament to the position the game enjoys in the West Indies, and acts as a conduit to the rich and enthralling world of Caribbean literature.

Benjamin Golby is a pre-school music teacher and roulette croupier