“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hopes of the islands.” CLR James. Beyond A Boundary


What happens to a culture when its strongest unifying force dies? The English speaking Caribbean may be about to find out. After the recent string of humiliating defeats we have to face the reality that West Indian cricket may be dying. All the excuses in the world cannot hide the basic reality - the West Indies no longer contains enough good cricketers to field a competitive test side. If things continue as they have the Australian tour might have to be called off for lack of competition. Sponsors are already preparing to desert the sinking ship.


Few in the West Indies would complain if this happened. All ears and eyes used to be glued to TVs and radios when the Windies were playing. Now when a test match is on we cringe when passing a TV for fear of accidentally glimpsing the latest disgrace.


In retrospect perhaps only the heroics of Brian Lara last year postponed the final reckoning. If not for his Sabina Park double century we might have witnessed the last rights then. And in future years that memorable day might well come to represent a last stand of the West Indian identity against American television pop culture.


Cricket has always been more than a game to West Indians, and its demise would mean the passing of a way of life. Apart from the University of the West Indies – which touches only a small minority - cricket really is the only thing the English speaking Caribbean has in common. Not one in twenty Jamaicans know who Basdeo Pandeo or Samuel Hinds or Owen Arthur are. (I confess – I had to look up the Prime Minister of Guyana.) But we all identify with Brian Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Sherwin Campbell. In a few years there might be nothing linking Jamaica to Trinidad, Guyana and Barbados but memories and they might mean as little to us as the Bahamas. And if the idea of West Indianness is lost, how long before our sense of Jamaicanness also goes?


As a rural sport in an urban world cricket has been fighting an uphill battle for people’s hearts and minds for a long time. Football has long been more popular among the masses. Some say the Reggae Boys can take the place of the West Indies. But football is a game of narrow nationalism and the immediate moment. It does not strengthen cultural bonds or lend itself to reflective history. It is difficult to imagine a footballing “Beyond The Boundary” that at once captures the essence of a game and a society.


But football always left a space in the national psyche for cricket. The game’s irrevocable decline – at least in Jamaica – probably started in 1992 or so with the coming of cable TV and basketball. The Jordan and Olajuwon people saw in their living room every night soon became more real than a Walsh or Ambrose they saw a few times a year. Most young Jamaican boys are now more comfortable with a basketball than a bat and ball. In places like Portmore – the largest community in the country – there is a basketball hoop on every corner, and cricket is an unfamiliar sport which occasionally comes on TV but which few actually play. What was once more than a game has in a way become less than one, for it has lost its spontaneous appeal.


But cricket is not the only aspect of our national identity being undermined by cable TV and the American pop culture it pumps out 24-7. The proliferation of fast food restaurants has in many places made authentic Jamaican cuisine an almost niche market. Kentucky chicken probably outsells jerk in Jamaica today. Of course nowadays most of what is called jerk consists merely of grilled chicken or pork with pepper sauce on the side. That uniquely hot and sweetish ‘season to the bone’ pimento flavour is becoming as rare as street cricket.


Even reggae’s days may be numbered. Before Black Entertainment Television rap had almost no following in Jamaica. Now it seems to be more popular among young people than dancehall. The natural authenticity that made Jamaican music so popular world-wide has given way to an aping of TV hip hop culture. The dancehall used to produce new stars every year. But we have not seen a true guaranteed ‘dance rammer’ since Bounty Killa and Beenie Man came on the scene over five years ago. And stagnancy is a sure sign of decline.


Whatever its lack of subtly, dancehall music used to have a genuine flavour of indigenous exuberance. Now it is virtually indistinguishable from rap, except for the deejays’ Jamaican accents. And even then, they are sounding and acting more and more like ‘Yankees’, because that is what sells in the cross over market.


Yet all this may be the ranting of a soon to be middle aged crank. To those who did not grow up in it the new fast-food, basketball and rap culture may appear superficial and unsatisfying. But the young who know nothing else seem perfectly happy with it.


It is not as if cable TV is an entirely or even primarily bad influence. Does anyone really long for the days of only JBC and its endless repeats of tile making documentaries? The greater variety of available shows has made children far more informed and aware than they used to be. Studies abroad show that IQ scores have consistently gotten higher over the past fifty years, and some say this is because television constantly exposes youngsters to more varied stimuli at an earlier age.


People love to complain about today’s rushed and confusing world. But how many who use one regularly would give up that arch villain of speed and complication – the computer? Perhaps it is only natural in the instant e-mail age that people should forsake the ritualistic contemplation of cricket for the immediate gratification of basketball. So what if the internet turns us – and the whole world - all into quasi-Americans? Will it not in the long run also make us healthier and wealthier? And is it not a choice we are all willingly making? After all, nobody is forcing these cultural changes on us.


My mind sees the logic in all of this. Something’s lost and something’s gained in living everyday. Nothing endures but change. “You could not step twice into the same rivers; for other waters are ever flowing on to you” Heraclitus said over 2,500 years ago. But still my heart grieves for West Indies cricket, convinced that something irreplaceable is being lost. One of life’s joys may soon be gone forever. Ah well. Wha fe do. changkob@hotmail.com

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