By Dr David Hinds
This past week the West Indies cricket selectors named a new captain of the region’s team for Test cricket, which despite frequent obituaries remains the soul of the game. But the news was hardly about the new captain; it was more about the one who was fired -- Darren Sammy.
Dr David Hinds is an Associate Professor of Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies at Arizona State University where he teaches Caribbean Popular Culture -- Music and Sports -- as Political Expression. More of his writings can be found on his website.
This was inevitable, as Sammy is one of four significant captains in the almost nine decades of West Indies participation in Test Cricket -- the others being Frank Worrell, Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards. Note, I say significant; not best. What they all have had in common is that they assumed the captaincy and presided over the team at critical eras in Caribbean post-colonial history -- independence, black power and radical nationalism and globalization/structural adjustment.
To get to what I am saying we have to go back to the appointment of Worrell in 1960 and, as CLR James would demand of us, extend our thoughts Beyond a Boundary.
Worrell, the first black man to be named as the team’s full-time captain, assumed the captaincy on the eve of Caribbean Independence. Like his counterparts in other aspects of the Caribbean experience, Worrell had a dual task. First, to prove, contrary to the racist narrative that informed slavery and colonialism, that non-white formerly enslaved and colonized peoples could govern themselves and exist in a state of freedom. Second, having assumed the captaincy two years into the West Indies Federation, his was the task of welding the players from the various pre-nations into a collective national unit.
That he succeeded on both counts was due not only to his own formidable personal talent, but, more significantly, he led a team of players who could marry their individual exploits to the independence expectations and aspirations of the Caribbean nation(s) which at the eve of independence included Caribbean integration and the quest for self government. Eric Williams’ “Massa day must done” had significant resonance for the Caribbean masses.
Worrell retired in 1963. A decade later in the midst of a black consciousness and radical upsurge that swept the Caribbean, beginning with the so-called Rodney Riots in 1968, Clive Lloyd assumed the captaincy of the team. To understand the significance of Lloyd’s stint as captain and that of his successor, Vivian Richards, we must understand the forces that produced them and the teams they captained.
Black power and radical Caribbean nationalism arose out of a desire to own and shape independence in the image of the Caribbean to be of service to the Caribbean peoples of all classes. For this generation, independence meant a radical break with the colonial praxis and the evolution of a revolutionary independence praxis based on ethno-racial and social equality and freedom.
Having endured dehumanization of one sort or the other more than three centuries, independence could not mean anything short of total freedom. In effect, this radicalism challenged the reformist, neo-colonial praxis that had consumed most of the independence political and cultural elite.
With physical shackles unlocked, the sons and daughters of the enslaved and indentured were obviously eager to fling them in the face of the former master, to paraphrase Martin Carter. This is the consciousness out of which emerged the Lloyd-Richards teams and which motivated them to turn the cricket field into a space of freedom production and conversation between players and nation and between players, as representatives of the nation, and those who still sought to stifle the new nation march.
Like Worrell before them, Lloyd and Richards possessed tremendous leadership and cricketing skills, but their successes at the helm was dependent ultimately on the ability of the men they led to merge individualism with duty to and consciousness of the role of the team on the field and the larger one beyond the boundary.
Cricket meant black power, anti-racism, anti imperialism, working class liberation and Caribbean integration/nationalism. These weapons informed a culture of triumph for approximately two decades -- the smallest and poorest cricketing nation conquering the cricketing world.
Richards left the scene in 1991. By 1995, the West Indies team had surrendered the pride and glory of our nationhood. By then the radical nationalism of the 1970s and 1980s had given way to an era of anti-nationalism, which was premised on a sense that Caribbean independence was a colossal failure of nationhood.
The Grenadian Revolution had self- destructed. Guyana had killed Walter Rodney, the prophet of self emancipation. Democratic socialism and cooperative socialism had given way to structural adjustment and globalization, which Professor Rex Nettleford called “a new name for an old obscenity”. Banana died at the hands of the global greed. High tech narco trade had infiltrated state and society. Education slid down the ladder of importance. Material crave became an end in itself. Conscious reggae and calypso was replaced by nursery-rhyme lyrics and jump and wave. The nation was floundering.
In the absence of nation both as symbol and imagination, predictably the notion of individualism, as means and end, became normative. It is in this context that the leadership of the nine appointed captains (one appointed twice) from 1992 to 2010 and the tenth, Darren Sammy, from 20010-2014 should be analyzed and understood.
During this period the region continued to produce some world-class individual stars, the most outstanding being the great Brian Lara. But unlike the stars of the two previous eras, the individuals could not marry their talents and exploits to the needs of the team inside the boundary and the nation beyond. That they could not achieve that pointed to an absence of national consciousness.
One player, a part-time captain, pledged loyalty to his club team over that of his nation. One full-time captain of the Test team declared that he would not mind if Test cricket died. Another embarrassed the collective dignity by displaying a piece of paper in the wind, not to the oppressor but to a freedom fighter. Many other players only played for the nation when they were not playing for their clubs abroad.
What is critical here is that half of the society, perhaps a majority, was sympathetic to and identified with this anti-national individualism as the normative present and future of the society at large. Therefore, for them, celebration of the collective was replaced by celebration of the individual player. In the absence of team glory, many became obsessed with the individual player either as good or evil -- us versus them.
Many, including respected journalists repeated the untruth that Sammy’s captaincy divided the Caribbean. The Caribbean was divided long before Sammy’s captaincy between those who celebrated individualism as identity-choice and individual survival and those who critiqued unbridled individualism as a danger to the collective health of our Caribbean.
It should be remembered that, when Sobers visited Rhodesia, he was forced to apologize to the nation and, when others went to South Africa, they were banished. Now, those who shun the nation are defended and celebrated, even by political leaders, and are rewarded with leadership. I am not excusing the players, but they are products of the state of play beyond the boundary. How can they play for a nation when they cannot imagine a nation?
It is against this background that Darren Sammy assumed the captaincy in 2010. The nation faced disintegration not just from outside but from within. The independence solidarity and aspiration were dissolving. Sammy embodied the alternative to individualism and nationlessness. He represented hope for a shift away from recolonization. He was not going to turn his back on the people who still held out hope for the glory days.
Like Worrell, Lloyd and Richards, Sammy was not appointed captain because of his cricketing skills, but rather because he was perceived to have the leadership qualities that were needed to meet the larger challenges of the moment. But unlike the others, his was not the task of leading a charge that gave voice and meaning to the larger quest for self-expression and freedom. Rather, he had the uphill task of leading a charge to halt the slide of West Indies cricket into oblivion. And, critically, unlike the others he did not have enough troops to fight the battle.
But after four years, against great odds, he has had moderate success in reintroducing a sense of collectivism in the meaning of team. The individualist had returned to the fold. Glimpses of national passion were becoming less infrequent. The recent victory over Australia in the recent T20 World Cup was the most recent manifestation of this stir of the collective pride and spirit. Nevertheless, the return to glory was beyond his reach as it was for the nine captains who preceded him. That, I submit, will arise from a new national consciousness beyond the boundary.
The understandable, simplistic explanation that Sammy cannot make the team on merit and thus impeded the team’s balance became a mantra. After repeating it for four years many came to believe it, while others became afraid of rejecting it as an explanation of the West Indies continued decline on the field of play.
The logic seems to be that, with Sammy out of the way, there would be balance in the team and all players will be picked on merit and that would open the door to the team’s resurgence. The less said about such foolishness the better. Suffice to say, the teams between 1995 and 2007, when Sammy started to play, were supposedly balanced and everyone merited his place. Yet history shows us that the results were the same and worse in some instances.
Ultimately Sammy’s tenure has exposed some uncomfortable truths about our Caribbean. In some quarters, he was otherized; the other who didn’t belong to us. On a popular meeting space, where some of our thinkers frequent, he was daily referred to as a “donkey” a “fraud,” a “scam” a “dotty”, the latter a reference to him being a “small-islander.” Those who know something about our history understand the origins of such self-hate.
Now, the powers-that-be have succumbed to the logic, loudness and relentlessness of the silly crowd. The professed quest to return to the glory days is a long way from finished; it might have been dealt a setback. And the long silly season that started in 1995 continues, Dinesh Ramdin notwithstanding.