Friday, January 11, 2008

Paddy’s Letter from Barbados

In keeping with the laid back nature of this lovely island this is not my usual intemperate rant but more a few thoughts prompted by being in the country which in the post war era was an unchallenged leader in cricket achievement. My visit to Barbados is part labour of love and part sybaritic slobbing. The former is that for part of my time here I am doing some research into the early life of the Barbados, Kent and West Indies cricketer John Shepherd. Shepherd, for those too young to remember, was one of the key players behind Kent’s success in the 1970s and arguably one of the best all-rounders in county cricket in the post war era. He also played five times for the West Indies – and would certainly have played more Tests if the Windies side of the time had not been so phenomenally strong. He grew up in Belleplaine, a small hamlet in the north of the island – his exact contemporary Keith Boyce grew up nearby and the great West Indian Conrad Hunte was born in the same village. Three world class cricketers born in an area no bigger than Richmond Park! But the total population of the island is only 250,000 (smaller than the London Borough of Bromley) and to think that from that tiny number they produced, at roughly the same time, players of the stature of Sobers, Hall, Griffith, Hunte, Nurse, Garner, Marshall, Haynes, Greenidge, Holder… not to mention Walcott, Worrell and Weekes!

It was to the last surviving of the three Ws, Everton Weekes that I turned to explore John Shepherd’s early days as a young cricketer - Sir Everton had played an important part in coaching Shep as a schoolboy. Now in his eighty-third year Sir Everton is fit and active and his love of cricket is undiminished. He has trenchant views about the current state of West Indies cricket (as you might expect) and whilst I suspect that he casts a somewhat jaundiced eye at the rewards that today’s international cricketer receive he is far to polite openly to say so. The three Ws were motivated solely by their love of the game and whilst they did receive rewards, recognition, honours and fame none of them ever became seriously rich from the game. Weekes is arguably one the top five of all time batsmen – his Test average of just under 59 is higher even than Sobers and in his eighties he is well worth listening to for anyone who cares about the game. It was a privilege for me to be able to do this.

Anyone who argues that the three Ws era was a golden age needs to temper their views with a few reality checks. When they started their careers racism was rife in West Indies cricket. There was discrimination at club level (five of the best clubs in Barbados in the 1950s did not allow black players) and also at Test level. It was only in 1960 that the West Indies appointed a black captain Frank Worrell) for the first time. The financial rewards for these great players were also very modest – a real burden as they all came from humble backgrounds (an ordinary working class family was how Sir Everton described his relatives).

So fresh from my moving chat with Sir Everton I then explored the modern day world of the international player – and how very different that is. On the rich west coast of Barbados there are many exclusive hotels, golf courses and housing developments. The “Royal Westmoreland Golf Club” is perhaps the pick of the crop and it is here that Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan, Mike Gatting and Marcus Trescothick have luxury homes. The cost of these rather vulgar villas is out of the reach of the likes of Sir Everton Weekes – not that he would want to live in one if he could. But today’s stars – most of whose achievements fall rather short of those of the great man – have earned themselves all the ostentations of the celeb lifestyle. To explore this further I drove to the Royal Westmoreland intent not on 18 holes with Vaughney but just to see what the fuss was all about. To my wife’s great amusement they wouldn’t let me near the place – the first time I can ever recall being denied entry to a golf club! For the Royal Westmoreland is that ultimate symbol of celebrity – a gated community into which only other celebs or very high rolling others are admitted. Had my rejection been on golfing grounds I could have understood it (my golf is execrable) but to be turned away just because I am a nobody grated a bit!

I don’t begrudge our cricketing stars their fortune or their privacy and I hope that they enjoy their times under the Bajan sun - and that they sometimes allow themselves to escape the confines of their luxury world to see the real Barbados as well. The Barbados of Everton Weekes and John Shepherd is delightful – a land of green sugar cane fields, fine fishy fare at simple beachside bars, of people who smile at you and talk to you – especially if you mention cricket. Only in Barbados could there be a University department dedicated to “Cricket Research” – and only in Barbados is a day incomplete if somebody hasn’t taken you aside to talk up the merits of calypso cricket. For me a labour of love indeed!