Babylon’s Still-Raging Fires

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November 4, 2014 by Keith Brake

When Americans think of dominant athletes or sporting nations, Antigua & Barbuda is probably the last place on our minds, but one of the most dominant and culturally significant athletes of the 20th century came from Antigua. A stadium bears his name on the island. I am, of course, talking about Sir Vivian Richards.

Wait, who?Viv Richards

It’s perfectly okay if you have no idea who Viv Richards is. He is virtually unspoken of in the United States because he played cricket, which is such an impressive oversight in this country that Richards could walk down Madison Avenue in Chicago alongside Michael Jordan and people wouldn’t recognize either of them. But Richards was *the* star batsman of West Indies cricket, and really all of cricket, during the late 1970s and 1980s, when the notion of cricket as a game for pot-bellied old gentry types came to an abrupt end. Bowlers like Michael “Whispering Death” Holding threw hard, upwards of 95 miles per hour, and they were not the least bit averse to throwing *at* a batsman. Mind you, this was in the days before helmets, and there were plenty of verbal and occasional physical exchanges, but Viv Richards just stood there and took it. When someone hit him, he got right up and just stared at the bowler, even as he was getting ready for the next delivery, and on that next delivery, Richards would tee off and crush the ball several hundred feet. If the cricket swing is poetry in motion, Vivian Richards was and is its Whitman, writing in bold strokes and mastering the reverse sweep (pictured above).

It almost didn’t come to pass. In 1982, a team of West Indies players – including famous fast-bowler Colin Croft – went rogue to tour South Africa at the height of apartheid unrest, when South Africa was banned from participating in international cricket. The players received big paychecks from tour organizers and lifetime bans from official international cricket (later repealed when the apartheid fell). The folks in charge made no secret of wanting Richards, and were willing to write him a blank check. When he told them to go jump in a lake, other players who would have been lured by the money followed his lead, and he became a symbol for the rights of oppressed peoples all over the former British Empire. He met Desmond Tutu and got well-wishes from Nelson Mandela to go along with the odd Bob Marley appearance in the West Indies locker room. In 1985, the Windies peaked with a now-legendary “Blackwashing” of the English in England, beating them five times in five-test series as part of an unheard of 27-match winning streak. From 1980 to 1995, the West Indies team was unbeaten in test series. For comparables in America, you’re looking at Knute Rockne’s Fighting Irish of the 1920s, Gil Dobie’s Washington Huskies teams of the 1910s, or Yale’s dynastic run through the early years of college football in the 1880s and 90s.

In short, what they did is exceedingly rare and, as one might expect, it revolutionized the game. It made it a more athletic, more intense, more demanding brand of the Fire In Babylonsport, although the most violent aspects of the batsman-bowler relationship have largely petered out. The 2011 documentary “Fire In Babylon” details most of it pretty well, and does an especially good job of framing the team within the greater context of post-colonial shifts in the Caribbean, even if it is largely one-sided. (What documentary isn’t these days?) The title choice dips into the Rastafari Movement; “Babylon” is the term used to refer to the colonial establishment, and the Windies cricket teams disrupted that establishment by their very existence, let alone their dominance.

Unfortunately, West Indies cricket has not been solely about what goes on during matches. Windies players have constantly struggled to be paid similarly to their counterparts in other countries. It’s why so many of them – including Richards – bolted for World Series Cricket in the late 1970s, and why so many were willing to tour a country like South Africa where they had to have “honorary white” status just to get to the cricket grounds every day. National team cricket players are contracted to their national cricket boards, who pay them an annual salary for their services. For players in the West Indies, that number is about USD $120,000 annually per the Daily Mail, which seems like a lot until comparisons start flying; it’s a quarter of what the typical Australian player makes, and just 17% of what the typical English player makes from international cricket.

I bring this up because, in October, West Indies players opted to strike during a tour of India over pay, among other things. India, with its booming middle class suddenly flush with disposable income, is the center of the cricket universe, where revenues are on par Chris-Gaylewith major sports leagues in North America, and the South Asian diaspora is the major driving force behind cricket demand elsewhere in the world. The Indian Premier League pays out sizable chunks of change for just two or three months of cricket. Of course, the labor market for international cricket is a closed one – players can’t switch Test nations on a whim – so their alternative is to go outside the system. Chris Gayle, who carries on Viv Richards’ tradition of the ferocious, focused West Indian slugger with a burning stare, took a substantial amount of time off from playing for the West Indies in 2011, opting instead to barnstorm Twenty20 leagues across the world, starting with the Indian Premier League, where he got a whopping $550,000 for playing with Royal Challengers Bangalore. Add in stops in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Australia, and Gayle had quite a good year financially.

In most cases, the Windies carried on with second-tier players until conflicts were resolved, fully exploiting the leverage of access to Test cricket, still the highest level of the sport. But that might not be an option anymore. Recent changes to the structure of the International Cricket Council have given India, England, and Australia broader BCCIauthority, including control over TV revenues from international competitions – like the Windies’ tour of India. This has enabled India to immediately go for the nuclear option: not only has the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) backed out of a planned tour of the West Indies next year, but they also hit the West Indies Cricket Board for a bill of $42 million in damages from lost gate, TV, and sponsorship revenues due to the cancellation of the West Indies’ tour of India. Suddenly, a pay dispute with the players has become an existential threat, because anyone reading this can figure out that if the WICB is paying its senior team players and staff about $3 million total, odds are good they don’t have that sort of money lying around to pay off that sort of charge.

The ICC (formerly the Imperial Cricket Council) has seemingly become a new Babylon against which the West Indies, along with the other six Test nations – Zimbabwne, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and, ironically, South Africa – will have to struggle. They are all at the mercy of India and the two nations India tolerates, one of which (England) may well back out of its tour of the West Indies next spring. If the player’s strike continues for a long period of time, the WICB have to cancel the team’s South Africa tour at year’s end and possibly even their participation in the 2015 World Cup, putting the viability of future tours involving the West Indies – the WICB’s main source of income – at serious risk. It is unclear how much the other nations will fight to keep the Windies afloat whilst squarely in the sights of the BCCI, or what sort of recourse the WICB can/will undertake, but it is clear that the legacy of West Indies cricket is now staring into the face of imminent doom, hoping it can take the next ball and crush it into the stands like Sir Vivian Richards.

Or perhaps there is no struggle to be fought? Perhaps the potential doom facing the West Indies is a sign that the current structure of cricket under the ICC is not sustainable for the sport, and this is simply the snowball that will become an avalanche that allows the game to start from scratch from its new heartland in India, whose diaspora will create a boom of demand and allow the sport to take over the world. A bunch of little axes going after one big tree.

Bob Marley would be proud.

Word Count: 1,425
Total Word Count: 1,908

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