Don’t let them fool ya
Or even try to school ya
We’ve got a mind of our own
So go to hell if what you’re thinking is not right
– Bob Marley, “Could You be Loved“
Once upon a time, when America was as great as Donald Trump wants it to be again, professional and college sports were the near-exclusive domain of white athletes. Mainstream media coverage of sports back then was dominated by old white men, a condition that largely persists to the present day.
And back then, when athletes and commentators were a racially homogenous group, a stereotype was born: The “Dumb Jock.” The athlete as moron – physically gifted, affable, capable of awe-inspiring acts. But dumb as a post. The stereotype was likely created by the pens of sportswriters who wanted to create a line of demarcation between the dumb jocks and the frustrated poets and failed novelists that covered their feats.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st Century. Black people began breaking the colour barrier, one sport at a time. Boxing. Athletics. Baseball. Basketball. American Football. And our brainy sportswriters had to recalibrate their hierarchy of intelligence, by adding the new element of racial superiority. So, voila! The Dumb Jock stereotype evolved. White athletes, formerly bumbling oafs, became cunning tacticians. They were portrayed as cerebral, analytical combatants who played their sport “the right way,” and achieved their success through hard work, training, and dedication to fundamentals. The Black athletes became the new Dumb Jocks, but the caricature was mutated to portray them in a harsher light than their white predecessors ever had to endure. Black athletes might occasionally be “articulate,” they played “instinctively,” didn’t need to hone their skills, and relied exclusively on their “freakish gifts,” and “natural talents.”
When the trickle of Black athletes became a torrent, the press and the white sporting establishment built a firewall around certain prized positions. In American football, only white athletes had the capacity to play quarterback. Only white athletes were smart enough to be basketball point guards. Or golfers. Or tennis pros.
CRICKET AND THE DUMB JOCK
Which brings us to cricket.
The Brits didn’t originally apply the dumb jock stereotypes to cricketers. This is because cricket was the sport of middle and upper classes. W.G. Grace, one of the earliest and greatest exponents of the game, was a doctor. In the 1700s, the Prince of Wales was an early fan of the game. And, of course, the British used cricket as a unifying cultural export throughout its realms and Commonwealth territories over the years. Early test matches between England and Australia took on special significance. Brilliant players, like Don Bradman were knighted for their cricketing exploits. Cricket was a “gentleman’s game” and the gentlemen who played it were respected and esteemed.
But then the West Indies started playing cricket. And the cricketing version of the dumb jock was born.
The West Indies didn’t just play cricket. They played “Calypso Cricket.” To us, that term is a compliment, because Calypso is a complex social, political and entertainment art form, as well as a unifying force across the region. But make no mistake, from the tongues and pens of British and Australian journalists, “Calypso Cricket” was a put down. It denoted a simplistic, childlike style of play. Joyous, yes, but unconcerned with the complexities and intellectual challenges of “real cricket.” Whenever the phrase “Calypso Cricket” was written or uttered, the words “rum” and “dance” were not far behind. Before the West Indies became world beaters, “Calypso Cricket” was the explanation: While the Windies might be good for occasional flashes of athletic brilliance, they’d never get it together to win a Test series. They were affable, lovable, happy-go-lucky losers. When the tables turned and the West Indians began winning matches, they still weren’t playing “real” cricket. They were winning on the brutish strength of their intimidatory pace bowlers and muscular batsmen who slogged the ball out of the ground. When the West Indies became the most dominant cricketing team in the world in the 1980s and 1990s, the sporting press asked the question: How much tactical or strategic skill is involved in winning matches if you have four giant fast bowlers and a bunch of hard-hitting batsmen who disregard the “proper way” to bat?
The Windies were winning, yes. But they were winning on the strength of their overwhelming natural physical gifts, and in spite of their rum-swilling, dancing, unintelligent style of play.
As the West Indies’ cricketing fortunes declined, the derisive stereotypes were again used to explain our fall. The journalists declared that this was because of the new focus of the Australians and Brits and New Zealanders on training harder and improved athletic support. These teams were now able to neutralise the Caribbean physical superiority. Of course, lacking the intellectual capacity to comprehend the intricacies of the game, or implement the structures necessary to succeed in the modern game, we were doomed to eternal failure.
SHUT UP AND DANCE FOR ME
But on their way to cricketing irrelevance, another funny thing happened: The West Indian under-19, Women’s and Men’s teams all won 2016 World Cups in their respective Twenty20 tournaments, the most modern version of the venerable game. And just like that, the old stereotypes were dusted off to marginalize our achievements.
I was struck by the on-field, post-match interviews of the victorious West Indian and defeated Australian women. The Australian skipper was asked sober tactical questions about the pitch, the run rate, the bowling, etc. When the two West Indian heroes of the match were interviewed, the interviewer quickly dispensed with preliminary questions and demanded that the ladies teach her their victory dance. “Do you think I can learn your dance? Show me how to do your dance!” The young women, unfortunately, happily obliged their interviewer.
The journalists on the ESPNcricinfo.com website got into the act early, and in disgusting ways. British journalist Mark Nicholas, in his pre-tournament analysis, dismissed the West Indies as “short of brains” and therefore unlikely to win the Men’s T20 title. After Darren Sammy passionately called him out on his comments, he apologized (even while noting that “the rest of us can almost taste the rum“). But his original comment was an honest window into the soul of the media’s view of the West Indian athletes and cricketers.
Post-victory, Cricinfo journalists doubled down on the stereotype in an article about T20 tactics. Cricinfo scribe Jarrod Kimber created a hierarchy of “batsmen,” “strikers,” and “hitters.”
It’s worth reading excerpts of just how Kimber described these three classes of cricketer:
If we break down the three types of modern T20 batting, we have batsmen, strikers and hitters, with obvious overlapping in some cases…
The batsmen are pretty easy to spot: Kane Williamson, Smith, Joe Root and Virat Kohli are the best of them. They can play all the shots, they find ways to score on all the pitches, they hustle between the wickets, make the bowlers all but irrelevant, and generally don’t come out all guns blazing…
The strikers are players like Yuvraj Singh, Martin Guptill, Sharjeel Khan, Soumya Sarkar and Angelo Mathews. They can hit clean and long, but they usually don’t slog, or don’t try to hit; it is part of their natural batting style…
And then the hitters. Cricket’s cavemen. They clear front legs and hack at the ball like it’s done them a mischief…
West Indies have a team of these hitters. Perhaps more hitters per capita than any line-up in cricket history. They have Denesh Ramdin and Lendl Simmons as strikers, and Marlon Samuels as their proper batsman. The rest hit.
So, if you’re keeping track at home, the West Indies are a team of cavemen. More cavemen than at any point in cricket history.
Who are short of brains.
Who “hack at the ball.”
After the victory, former Australian cricketer Shane Warne – no friend of Windies cricket, and less so of Marlon Samules – decided to do his part to reinforce the stereotype. “Bring on some dancing haha” he tweeted.
The Sidney Morning Herald trumpeted “The Rebirth of Calypso Cricket,” as did some British press services. The Morning Herald article is required reading for its almost poetic ability to simultaneously damn and praise: “Now, the game has gone calypso, and as it turns out, the Windies were there, waiting for it.” Or how about this nugget: “As for style, you would have to say it is naive. How else could you describe a team that in pursuit of a modest target fritters away early wickets, lets dot balls mount insouciantly, saunters between wickets and leaves themselves 19 to get from the last over, and gets them anyway, with two balls to spare?”
It’s all a load of crap. Demeaning, bigoted crap.
CHRIS GAYLE: CAVEMAN
Let’s take Chris Gayle. Gayle is often portrayed as Caveman-in-Chief because of his utter dominance of the T20 format. Very little technique, sniff the so-called purists. He’s just big and strong and slogging through this “instant cricket” format. His lack of technique and focus would be exposed in the more traditional test cricket format, they proclaim.
It’s all a lie.
Chris Gayle may be a mercenary. He may be a bat-for-hire who sells his talents to the highest bidder from Mumbai to Middlesex to Melbourne. He may have decided to specialize in T20 cricket in the twilight years of his career.
But Caveman Chris? Never.
Gayle has 15 Test cricket centuries to his name. A high score of 333 and an average of 42 runs per innings. In 2009, against Australia, he grafted through a seven-hour 165 not-out in one test match and a lightning-fast 70-ball century in the next. This is a man with the skill, the versatility and yes, the intellect, to succeed at the highest levels. And he has proven it over a lengthy international career, now in its 16th year.
You know who else has a high score of 333 and a batting average of 42? England’s Graham Gooch, who was revered as a brilliant and hardworking cricketing tactician. (“Gooch has always believed that the difference between ordinariness and excellence lies in hard work“). Cricketing fans may know the name Sir Colin Cowdrey, whose name is spoken in reverence by the British (“unbridled genius unsurpassed for both merit and technique“). He, statistically, is only slightly better than Gayle. Or maybe you’ve heard of the great Mike Atherton, the English opening batsman who Cricinfo lauds with all the adjectives that are reserved for non-West Indians: “Gutsy and stubborn, single-minded and sledger-proof, Mike Atherton was an opener in the classic English tradition…” Chris Gayle, our Caveman clubber, is superior to Atherton in almost every statistical Test cricket category.
PLAYING THE RIGHT WAY
In T20 cricket, commentators and journalists focus obsessively on the “dot ball.” A “dot ball,” for those who don’t know, is a delivery from the bowler that the batsman fails to score a run from. It gets its name from the “dot” that scorekeepers would put in their scorebooks to record each such delivery. In a T20 match, spanning a mere 120 balls per inning, the dot ball is fetishized. According to the commentators, a team facing 120 balls must score from as many balls as possible. Even if it’s just a single run. The sign of a thinking batsman, they say, is his ability to “find the gaps,” “rotate the strike,” and “keep the scoreboard ticking over,” though his cerebral calculations designed to push the ball to open gaps on the field.
The West Indies were derided for receiving too many “dot balls.” It was cited as a limitation of style and substance. It was evidence of their inability to “play the right way.” The West Indies’ focus on hitting fours and sixes would be their downfall.
Except it wasn’t.
The West Indies scored more runs than their opponents in all but one meaningless game against Afghanistan. Opponents – like England, South Africa and India – who were acknowledged masters at playing the right way.
Let’s oversimplify things: An over is six balls long. And if you get a single for every delivery you face, you’ll score six runs in the over, and 120 runs in the match. But if you set yourself up to hit two fours per over, you’ll score 8 runs per over, despite the four “dot balls” in between. And you’ll make 160 runs in the match, crushing the thinking batsman and his eradication of dot balls.
In a game created under the premise of scoring the most possible runs in the shortest possible time period, the anti-Windies media wanted us to feel ashamed of our very rational and well thought out tactical approach of focusing on the most profitable scoring shots instead of the least profitable shots. Instead of finding gaps among 11 fielders, we recognised that there are no fielders beyond the boundary rope, so we hit the ball there. We made a risk-reward assessment and decided to pursue the riskier, but more profitable approach to run scoring. This isn’t dumb. It’s borderline genius.
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
– E.F. Schumacher, “Small is Beautiful“
I THINK, THEREFORE I HIT SIXES
As any West Indian cricket fan knows, we won the Men’s T20 trophy after a dramatic and spellbinding last over of batting by Carlos Brathwaite, our newest legend. Brathwaite hit each ball he faced in the final over for six.
It’s one of the greatest batting feats ever seen in T20 cricket. But of course it was cited as just another example of Caveman cricket. What can a crafty, hardworking, thinking bowler like Ben Stokes do in the face of such brute force? The guy with the club beat the guy with the brain.
But anyone who thinks hitting four consecutive balls for six is easy should try it. Even if your five-year-old daughter is bowling you full-tosses with a tennis ball. It aint easy. And if you think Brathwaite is some unthinking sporting Neanderthal, read his interview about the legendary performance:
In the last over, there are only two plans he could have had – slower balls into the wicket, or full and straight. Knowing England, they pride themselves on being a good death-bowling team, especially with the yorkers. It was very important to get away the first one or two balls and put the pressure back on him. Get the target down to a manageable score. But yeah, the two plans were going to be into the wicket, forcing me to hit into the big side, or yorkers. We don’t think he hit the mark as well as he would have liked to, but I still want to give God thanks for helping me to execute my plan the way I wanted to and get the balls over the boundary
I knew it was basically two plans he could have used, which was basically the yorker, either wide or straight, or a slower ball into the wicket to try to hit me to the long side. So I was prepared. And from watching the guys scoring runs in the tournament – I like to watch a lot of cricket – those guys stay really still, and those guys react well, and I just wanted to stay still, forget the crowd, forget the occasion, and just concentrate on watching the ball.
You got all that? Brathwaite had a plan, which he executed. He had also considered his opponent’s plan, and what he needed to do to negate it. Brathwaite was prepared for his moment. He had studied lots of match footage, and in studying the footage, he decided on a particular style and course of action.
Now remember that Brathwaite is only 27 years old. That he was playing in his first T20 finals. That he was in a foreign country. That 70,000 screaming fans were surrounding him. That the hopes of a region were resting on his inexperienced shoulders.
But he was focused on his plan. How’s that for Caveman Calypso Cricket?
I’ve written 2,500 words so far and haven’t used the word “racism” yet. Here it comes.
Racism in sports coverage is nothing new. It’s well documented, particularly in America, where racist code-words have been elevated to an art form.
Race and West Indies cricket are so thoroughly intertwined as to be eternally united. “Race and Cricket” is probably an undergraduate course at the University of the West Indies. CLR James was writing about race and cricket five decades ago. Google “Frank Worrell” to learn how he broke the colour barrier against a West Indies Cricket Board that assumed a Black Man could not lead our regional team. Watch the “Fire in Babylon” documentary for a taste of the way that legends like Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and Michael Holding became the physical embodiments of Black pride and power when they became the only known group of Black people in world history to consistently beat white people at their own game.
From the first day we covered our black skin in cricketing “whites,” trotted out onto a field and beat colonialists at the game they taught us, the racial undertones of cricket have been unmistakable. Far greater writers that I could ever hope to be have shared their insights on this topic for decades.
But our dominance or ubiquity on the field of play has never translated to similar prevalence as journalists, broadcasters and commentators. For every Ian Bishop and Michael Holding behind the microphone, there are a hundred old white commentators, perpetuating stereotypes for a new generation of listeners. There are a hundred Mark Nicholases calling us brainless; a hundred Jarrod Kimbers to call us Cavemen; and a hundred interviewers and tweets to remind us to dance, smile and drink some rum. Leave the grit and discipline and planning and training and thinking to others.
Darren Sammy, the leader of men who has twice willed his teams to T20 glory, said that Mark Nicholas’ “short of brains” comment angered him, and that it was “really out of order.”
I’d be tempted to dust off the most clichéd phrase in the sport and say “it’s just not cricket.”
But, sadly, it is.