Cricket, race, and politics

There are those who would argue that politics has no place in sports. But the reality is that it is almost impossible to keep politics out, especially in international competitions. The history of cricket is inextricably tied up with race and politics. The game originated with the English upper classes and was taken by them to their colonies. But racism was always part of the backdrop to the game. In the colonies of the West Indies, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, the game was initially dominated by English expatriates while in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand it was played almost exclusively by white people. Furthermore, South Africa was under a system of apartheid that excluded people of color from playing on mixed teams while Australia had a ‘whites only’ immigration policy and was infamous for the racist abuse that spectators would hurl at visiting teams that had players of color.

The tide started to turn when a young and inexperienced West Indies team toured Australia in 1975 and were crushed 5-1. But more humiliating than losing was the manner of defeat. Australia had ferocious fast bowlers in Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson who clearly sought to intimidate batters, aiming at the bodies and heads of the batters, egged on by crowds that yelled “Kill, kill, kill!” There were injuries galore. This was before the era of modern protective gear and a hard ball heading for your head or chest at nearly 100 mph was enough to unnerve even the most stout-hearted batter. What was going on on the field was almost like a war, with the Australians having the heavy artillery and mowing down the West Indians.

Clive Lloyd, appointed to lead the West Indian team in 1974, decided to fight fire with fire and scoured the islands of the West Indies to find intimidating fast bowlers for his team. And he did, coming up with the fearsome platoon of fast bowlers led by Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts, and later Malcolm Marshall. The single-minded determination and leadership of the quiet spoken but shrewd tactician of Clive Lloyd made them into a dominant force.

He was immeasurably helped by the brilliant batting of Viv Richards who inspired the others. Richards made it a point to not wear any protective gear and never flinch or show any kind of fear of opposing fast bowlers and never to show any hurt when he was hit. He would stare down the bowlers who tried to intimidate him. He had the soft speech and steely look of someone who could size you up and quickly figure out how to destroy you. He was highly politically conscious and was well aware of the role of race and turned down an offer of a huge sum of money to play in apartheid South Africa, for which Nelson Mandela (then in prison) sent a message of thanks through Desmond Tutu.

Between 1975 and 1995, West Indies won 25 Test match series and lost only two. The sweetest win was when they returned to Australia in 1979 and subjected the Australians to the barrage of fast bowling that had been inflicted on them in 1975. Interestingly, now that the West Indies had the fearsome fast bowlers, other countries complained that it was unfair and that rules should be introduced to restrain them, a sentiment not uttered when Australian and English fast bowlers were dishing it out to other nations. This dominance of the West Indian team was seen by people in the former English colonies as more than just a story of a highly skilled team. It was seen as an epic event in the anti-colonial movement, when people of color took a game that had epitomized English dominance and defeated them soundly.

Meagan Day has a fascinating account of the politics and the cricket that led up to that period.

Driving this project of reinvention was the pervasive feeling that the team had come to represent something bigger than itself. West Indies cricket, writes historian Hilary Beckles, “was born, raised, and socialized within the fiery cauldron of colonial oppression and social protest. In its mature form it is essentially an ideological and politicized species and knows no world better than that of liberation struggle.” To players and supporters in the mid-seventies, West Indian cricket symbolized self-determination.

The Caribbean was also experiencing cultural upheaval, the emergence of new philosophies, new identities, and new music like reggae that was enveloped in an aura of pride and protest. Because cricket was one of the only formal activities the West Indies undertook together on the international stage, the sport emerged as a primary vehicle for asserting West Indian independence. Nowhere was that more on display than in England in 1976. As West Indian cricket player Michael Holding of Jamaica remembers, in an interview captured in Stevan Riley’s 2010 documentary Fire in Babylon, “We wanted to be able to show Englishmen, ‘You brought the game to us, and now we’re better than you.’ The apparent arrogance of the English team added fuel to the fire. In the lead-up to the West Indies team’s arrival on British shores, England cricketer Tony Greig gave an interview that set the tone for the season. Greig said that the press was “building these West Indians up, because I’m not really sure they’re as good as everyone thinks they are.” When they’re good, they’re good, he said. “But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of [my teammates], to make them grovel.”To West Indians, the word grovel called up histories — distant, recent, and ongoing — of racial and national humiliation. To make matters worse, Greig hailed from apartheid South Africa.“Here was this guy,” remembers captain Clive Lloyd, “apartheid still going strong, and he’s gonna make these black guys grovel.” Legendary Antiguan cricketer Viv Richards remembers Lloyd telling the team, “We don’t need to say much. Our man on the television just said it all for us. We know what we’ve gotta do.”

Caribbeans in the late sixties were paying attention to and moved by not only their own independence struggles, but also anti-colonial movements in Africa and the radical politics of black people in the United States. West Indian cricketers were particularly inspired by the Olympic black power salute of 1968.

“We had been born in colonial times. We grew up in independent times,” Colin Croft of Guayana told Riley. Come the seventies, “We started thinking like West Indians and not like Englishmen who were living in the West Indies.”

Viv Richards, now regarded as one of the greatest batsmen of all time, was full of fervor. He called Bob Marley his “battlefield music” and wore Rastafarian colors on the field. Of the seventies, he recalls, “That was the time when I think the heat was on for you to start getting up and standing up because of some of the things you felt were happening worldwide.”

He added, “My bat would have been my sword at that time.”

Lloyd was explicit with West Indies cricketers that they were playing to represent and embolden black Caribbean people — people abused by slavery and colonization, and whose freedom was still constrained by racism and poverty. The team looked up to Lloyd and took his words to heart

Defeating England was also socially important for another reason. Between 1948 and 1970, nearly half a million people immigrated from the Caribbean to Britain. A large West Indian community now resided there, often facing not only miserable living and working conditions but also intense racism and xenophobia. The West Indian cricket team felt it had to play to represent Caribbeans back home and on British soil. The players were even worried about the racist abuse West Indians would face at work the next day if they lost.

Then there was the business of groveling. Tony Greig maintained that he never meant to invoke the caricature of the servile colonial subject (his own father asked him later if he owned a dictionary), but that’s how the comment was interpreted.

In Viv Richards: The Authorised Biography, Trevor McDonald wrote, “For the South African captain of an English team to publicly threaten to make the West Indies grovel was probably the closest any cricketer ever came to making a formal declaration of war.”

In his book Grovel! David Tossell writes, “The West Indies’ anger was felt on two levels — the implicit, if unintentional, racial insult and the slur on the team as cricketers.” For his part, “Lloyd was fed up with the West Indians being characterised as happy-go-lucky players who wilted when the going got tough.” He wanted to retire the “calypso cricketers” stereotype once and for all.

The team brought all of this passion, resentment, and determination to the oval.

C. L. R. James wrote that while the English were bred into knowledge of their own society’s great achievements and long traditions, twentieth-century Caribbeans had none that they were aware of. It was cricket, he observed, that filled the vacuum.

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” James asked. Their knowledge ran deeper than those for whom cricket is a diversion, no matter how vigorously pursued.

The situation has changed. The West Indies is no longer the best, nor is cricket so central to Caribbean identity. But as the summer of 1976 showed, there was a time when West Indians brought to cricket matches “the whole past history and future hopes of the islands” — a time when to experience cricket was to profoundly experience oneself.

The world of cricket has changed considerably since then. Many, many more countries now play it all over the world, giving it one of the largest spectator bases in the world. Apartheid has ended in South Africa and its teams are now the most racially diverse of all the countries playing. South Asian countries, especially India and Pakistan, are now major cricket powers.

Here’s the trailer for the 2010 documentary Fire in Babylon that tells this gripping story that is far more than just about cricket.


  1. mnb0 says

    “There are those who would argue that politics has no place in sports.”
    That’s refuted by eg WCh football in Argentina 1978 (propaganda stunt by the military regime), the Olympic Games of Moscow 1980 and those of Los Angeles 1984.

    “more than just a story of a highly skilled team”
    Dutch football has a comparable story when Afro-Dutch players (mainly of Surinamese descent) entered the national team. However sometimes it’s the media that introduce politics that aren’t there. This picture is infamous:

    Segregation, isn’t it? It isn’t. The Afro-Dutch players preferred spicy food, the others didn’t. There is one exception, half hidden and entirely behind: Richard Witsche.

  2. Holms says

    #1 mnb0
    This reminds me of an ad that ran in Australia maybe 10-15 years ago for a KFC cricket tie in. An Australian supporter, white, finds that his seat in the stands is in amongst Windies supporters, all black, so he wins them over with some KFC. KFC being who they are, this caused uproar -- a white man winning over black people by offering them chicken! -- but what else would feature in a KFC ad?

  3. blf says

    Thanks, Mano. I don’t recall ever hearing much about how the dominant W.Indies team of the time came about, which is also about when I stated to take an interest in cricket — broadly because of that team’s “flair”.

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