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LONG READ: How did the success of West Indies cricket team allow them to overcome negative racial discourse in cricket media and bring West Indian culture back to the islands of the West Indies?

On 8th July 2020, before their first Test of the summer at Southampton, the England cricket team knelt in unison with the West Indian cricket team in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Black Lives Matter movement aimed to bring awareness to racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd in America, with protests erupting around the world, most significantly in America and the United Kingdom.

The display at the Ageas Bowl was described by media outlets such as The Telegraph and the Guardian as an act of “solidarity” during the series but when England decided to drop the statement they were equally as quick to “condemn” them for doing so. This stance on racism from the English press is an almost direct antithesis from the racial discourse that was presented when the two sides met around 60 years ago during the famous “Fire in Babylon” era of West Indian cricket.

During those years the West Indian side faced great racial prejudice in a time of oppression in the islands and their culture but also on the cricket field with their tactics vilified by the media despite their overwhelming success. However, it was the success of the team that managed to overcome the embellished racist narrative portrayed by the team as they rose to world number one.

But how did the success of West Indies cricket team allow them to overcome negative racial discourse in cricket media and bring Rastafarian culture back to the islands of the West Indies?

Racial discourse in sport media was common in cricket during the West Indies journey to the top between the 1960s to the 1990s with the casual use of language that portrayed the West Indian’s to be villains or even terms that would adhere to the themes of the theory of monstrous blackness. As the West Indies began to dominate Test cricket in the mid-1970s, the negative racial discourse that was implemented by the media was slowly changed, with the further success of the team meaning all eyes were on them when touring against their main oppressors in England.

However, against England, they forced a change of hand from the English media when England were consistently humbled. With England failing to beat West Indies in a Test series from 1973 to 1997. This included the famous ‘blackwash’ tour where the West Indies led by Viv Richards defeated England 5-0 in England and coined the term ‘blackwash’ in reference to the term ‘whitewash’ to not only rub it in the faces of the English media that had hounded them with headlines demonizing their tactics containing words that were in reference to West Indian culture but also to show that a team consisting of black players had dominated a white prominent sport and a sport created by white people, so a term to fit that was created.

During the era of dominance of the West Indies, previously oppressed West Indian culture began to return the 23 islands that make up the ‘West Indies’, with cricket at the centre of it all. Their extreme success in their national sport of cricket had allowed the people of the West Indies to be able to express themselves to black culture after years of white oppression with Rastafarian culture including Bob Marley and the Wailers prominent in their revolution. 

The term “Fire in Babylon”, the title of the famous book by Simon Lister and documentary by Stevan Riley implies the destruction of the term “Babylon”, which is defined as a contemptuous or dismissive term for aspects of white culture seen as degenerate or oppressive.

This was shown in the journey of the West Indian team as they created a “fire” which slowly destroyed the media’s negative racial discourse led by white people that attempted to oppress the West Indies at every stage, often when they were losing but more so as they started to gain more attention as they rose the ranks of Test cricket in an attempt to vilify the West Indian’s for tactics that were seen as “controversial”.

However, despite having a clear battle against the media to reverse their racial discourse narrative, there were still some that saw the movement differently as Hilary Beckles explains. “Once again West Indian cricket found itself in the vanguard of political movement, dividing those who saw it as an activity to combat racism and those who considered that it could serve to a greater degree the interests of racists.”

One player who was part of the famous “Fire in Babylon” side was Michael Holding and it would have been no surprise to cricket fans to know the legendary West Indian fast bowler is an eloquent speaker. However, during the West Indian tour of England in 2020 the speech that Holding made before the series commencing in July still resonated in fans minds as to why the Black Lives Matter movement was important to cricket as someone who was part of a side that fought heavily against racial oppression.

Holding, was a member of one of cricket’s greatest ever sides as West Indies dominated Test cricket. Known primarily for his part in a West Indian bowling attack consisting of himself, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft, Holding under captain Clive Lloyd helped West Indies rise from a struggling Test nation in the early 1960s into a side feared by all in 1970s to the late 1990s that saw them go on a 16-year unbeaten run in Test cricket. Holding was in the side long enough to see the change of West Indies but would have also overseen how the media changed their perspective and the racial discourse that came with this as the West Indies began to dominate and overhaul their once previous oppressors. 

Where the racial discourse and racist agenda first became prominent was during the early 1970s where a struggling West Indian side went under a new change of captaincy that saw Clive Lloyd take over from Rohan Kanhai in 1974 and implemented a controversial style of play that saw his bowlers lead the way. West Indies captain Lloyd based his philosophy on that of the Australian’s they faced in 1976.

The famous pair of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee spearheaded the Australian attack and made a name for themselves by being feared fast bowlers by using the tactic of “bodyline”, a tactic first implemented by England in 1932 where the bowlers attempt to “rough up” the batsmen with short-pitched deliveries in an attempt to harm them. With this tactic so effective, Lloyd implemented it, instructing his bowlers to ball fast and at the body.

This gave the West Indies instant success, defeating India 2-1 in West Indies but the press, despite witnessing this tactic in Australia for several years suddenly saw wrong with it. This is shown in an article by English newspaper Daily Sport, with the headline “Killer Instinct Floors Batsman.”

The article goes on to say how the West Indies only took “11 legitimate wickets” in reference to how the West Indies would barrage the batsmen with short-pitched deliveries in an attempt to disrupt them or dismiss them, describing the bowling as “terrifying”. This is a clear example of the media attempting to vilify the West Indies, something that was commonplace during this era with Australia using a similar tactic.

The article attempts to discredit the victory of the West Indies and dehumanizes them, portraying them as “killers” and “terrifying”, simply for using a tactic, that whilst was dangerous was legitimate. It adheres to the theory of monstrous blackness, an idea used to describe the language that refers to black athletes in ways to portray them as “unnatural” with often animalistic references used or references to abnormal activities.

It was terms such as this that created the media narrative of targeting the West Indies and diminishing their achievements to run their racial discourse. It soon became more than just underhanded racism when the term “calypso cricketers” was used by newspapers to undermine the West Indies tactics on the field, often used to refer to them collapsing when batting.

As Lister points out in “Fire in Babylon” it was used to suit the British narrative when the phrase “calypso boys collapso again” was used when West Indies toured, “the stereotype ‘calypso cricket’ perpetuated was that West Indians were simple, spontaneous, incapable of insight, planning, or tactical subtlety. In other words, they were child-like. I suspect this cliché existed and was maintained for so long, firstly because it was convenient – it meant there was no need for any genuine journalistic enquiry, and secondly, and more invidiously, it suited a certain reading and understanding of British history.”

Where the topic of racial discourse used by the media against the West Indies was particularly noticeable, was during their tours to England. Due to the historical backdrop of black rights and slavery, between the two countries, there was often tension whenever the two sides played. As Lister discusses in Fire in Babylon, while players may have been fans of the tactics inserted by West Indies, the English media were unhappy with the West Indies bowling tactics. “While other players may have appreciated the West Indies craft, there was undisguised displeasure regarding their bowling by some in the English media.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Robin Marlar stated that ‘as the umpires seemed neither to count nor care how many balls pitch closer to the bowlers that the batsmen, we can expect the plague of short stuff to continue. The beautiful game will die of such brutality, but you cannot get a West Indian to agree with that proposition.” Marlar was staunchly opposed to the West Indies tactics going on to say ‘most people on whose English cricket depends, believe monotonous fast bowling to be both brutalising the game and boring to watch.”

Furthermore, Elizabeth Cooper adds in her book Playing against empire: Slavery and Abolition, that the language used by journalists such as Marlar and in newspaper headlines were thoroughly in line with the English media’s narrative of attempting to create a negative racial discourse. “The language used to describe both the style of play and quality of players in late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century cricket publications is thoroughly racialised and eerily foreshadows the controversies over the supposedly overly aggressive, hyper-masculinised form of fast bowling employed by the West Indies Test side in the 1970s and 1980s.”

 These comments show the opinion of the English media and the negative discourse that they are attempting to convey to oppose a tactic that was being used against them for the first time. Furthermore, they also attempt to create and galvanise support for their narrative using phrases such as “most people on whose English cricket depends”, is almost directly calling out not only fans but board members of the English game to disagree with.

This adheres to David Goldberg’s race theory that “it is not that race is simply silenced, if silenced at all. It is shifted to less formal domains, for the most part, embedded in structures, without being explicitly named, where it is more difficult to identify, more ambivalently related to, more ambiguous.” This shows that it wasn’t just newspaper headlines or match reports that the negative racial discourse was applied, it was applied in personal columns by journalists, hence showing that it was in more than one “domain” some more formal than others. 

During a time in cricket where all major board members of international cricket sides were white, this comment not only attempted to convey the media’s negative racial discourse to the masses but also by indicating that the tactics are opposed by the people on who the “English cricket depends” shows how the discourse that the media ran, was already at the heart of the game and reflected the attitude towards black players and people at the time, especially in England.

As Caryl Phillips argues in their article “The summer of broken boundaries”, 1976 was the year that changed it all as West Indies defeated England 3-0 in England, to become the world’s number one Test side in amongst racial discourse that was used by the English media to vilify the West Indians. “1976 proved to be a perfect storm when the brashness of black British youth was married to the fearless determination of a young West Indian cricket team, as the empire struck back.”

The English media had made their narrative known throughout their previous series versus the West Indies, with their negative racial discourse fully established within the minds of fans and it was their captain who went on to further resonate those opinions and fuel the fire that the media had started. Then England captain Tony Greig weighed in on the narrative that the media had created, whether intentionally or not, when discussing the West Indian tactics in a press interview he fuelled the fire of the English media’s racial discourse.

“When the West Indies are up they are up but when they are down they grovel, and I intend with the help of Closey (Brian Close, England fast-bowler) to make them grovel.” The word “grovel” stirred up the most controversy than the whole phrase alone, with the issues that surrounded the hounding of West Indian players in the media being shown to have been directed at their race and heritage, the speech by the English captain that contained a word that connoted the idea of slavery where black people were forced to “grovel” to their white masters only further fuelled the flames that had been started by the English media as Simon Hughes explains in his book And God Created Cricket.

“How it was couched, it didn’t wash too well with the West Indies players, who were, anyway, the world champions. Added to the fact that the words were uttered by a white South African, it was like loosening the lid of a boiling cauldron.” Some believed that this comment made its way through to the English public, who had been subjected to the narrative of the negative racial discourse of the English media, began to change their minds on what they thought about the West Indians, as David Tossell explains in his book Grovel! “The reaction to the ‘grovel’ comment, the significance of which initially cleared the heads of an English cricket public aroused by Greig’s passion.”

The West Indies continued to go about fighting the negative racial discourse imposed by the media as they had done since their inception, by winning games as the West Indies won the series 3-0 with England having no answer to the bowling of Holding and the batting of Viv Richards. Before the second Test at Trent Bridge, Greig made the “grovel” comment and hence saw his side barraged with short-pitched bowling, but where Greig most suffered was during fielding.

With England being thrashed about in the field by Richards, Greig had gone down to field a ball which had burst through his grasps, this was greeted by cheers by the crowd as the England captain went down on all fours. This captured the famous image of Greig and was used by the Daily Sport with the accompanying headline “whose grovelling now”. This image was used by the English media, to perhaps convey a sense of support towards the behaviour of crowd at The Oval, whether it was siding with the English fans, most of whom would have been readers, knowing the West Indians were the far superior side.

This incident was not only damning for Greig and the portrayal of England but it had a positive effect for people outside of the country, having seen the former conqueror’s of the world, then implementing their imperialistic nuances through racial portrayal and racial discourse by their media, being beaten badly by these they had oppressed made fans grow to love the West Indies and thus fall in love with cricket as Mike Marqusse states in his book Anyone But England: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket. “I had first fallen in love with cricket during the hot summer of 1976 when the West Indies made the South African-born Tony Greig grovel.”

However, as the West Indies continued to win and dominate the world of cricket during these years, the West Indies slowly saw the media’s racial discourse narrative unravel as shown in their tour of England in 1984. The success of the West Indian side was further highlighted when they toured England again in 1984, later to be known as the “Blackwash tour” due to a banner displayed by the West Indian fans during the series. In a series dominated by Richards, the series culminated at The Oval where the West Indies won by 172 runs to seal a series whitewash against England.

The banner that was unfurled displayed the term “blackwash” a reference to the term “whitewash”, a term typically in reference to a side dominating. The fans saw this as an opportunity to break down the narrative that had been implemented against their side over the years by the media and created a term to indicate that it now was to time for a black side to dominate the sport, by first defeating their previous oppressors and creators of the game that had kept them at bay for so long.

It would have been a sight to behold for the world of cricket which had not seen a side predominately of black players dominate a game that was run by white men and largely contained white men competing. As Rob Steen and Jed Novick explain in the Routledge Handbook of Sport, Race and Ethnicity. “No other major team sport, furthermore, had seen black (in the guise of the West Indies teams from 1965 to 1995) repeatedly overtake white on the field if not in the committee rooms.”

The triumph of West Indian cricket over their oppressors not only meant that the media narrative of negative racial discourse had been overcome but it also meant that people living in the islands of the West Indies could celebrate at the fact that players who had grown up on the islands were now part of a movement that had helped formerly repressed West Indian culture return to the islands of the West Indies with this becoming more prominent than ever in the islands in the late 1970s, thanks to the success of the West Indian side.

This was because that West Indian culture on the islands had been repressed under the ruling of the English and so when the West Indies were able to humble the English at the game they invented it gave the islands a chance to celebrate, using culture that had been previously diminished by English rule to show their delight at the English being defeated by West Indies.

This is shown in Elizabeth Cooper’s book Playing against Empire: Slavery and Abolition. “Cricket and military bands were social and public rituals of colonialism, crucial to the expansion and spread of white superiority and British power. As tools and products of the British Empire, cricket and military music gained meaning and ideological significance in practice.”

As Cooper explains, the British had used cricket and music to assert their authority over the people of the West Indies but thanks to the country’s success in comprehensively defeating their former oppressors multiple times during their rise to the top as well as changing the negative racial discourse narrative that the media had previously painted about West Indies and West Indian culture, this gave prosperity and life to a new found love for cricket and previously oppressed culture. 

The West Indies side certainly faced adversity since the moment they started to become a threat to a white-dominated sport, something that the media particularly in England had a problem with and began to come up with a narrative that attempted to create negative racial discourse to vilify and disrupt the West Indian team. However, as the West Indies dominated under the captaincy of Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, they began to overcome this discourse, even with their biggest oppressors and their media in England eventually seeing right after the Greig “grovel” incident. This extreme success in amongst overcoming racial struggle saw the people of the West Indies rejoice as previously oppressed West Indian culture returned to the islands of the West Indies with cricket at the forefront of them all, not only showing the West Indian team to be a force for change in cricket but how it was revolutionary in restarting Rastafarian pride in the islands through music such as Bob Marley and the Wailers.

The West Indies not only changed their perception in the media but thanks to their success were almost forced to be praised as they dominated the world of cricket, a sport containing countries that just a decade before their success would have ridiculed them for doing so. 

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