07 October 2008

A nation imagined...a Caribbean reality

“Becoming a nation is different from and broader than the process of forming a state: a state is a political structure, whereas a nation is a shared culture, a sense of common destiny” (Martin-Barbero)

Cricket has long been the common factor in the English-speaking Caribbean with regional competition dating over a hundred years, and a West Indies cricket team being created as a symbol of the homogenity of the region and a sign of the hegemonic intent of the Empire to form a West Indian nation, the ill fated West Indian Federation being the other manifestation. Following the failure of the Federation and with the advent of independence, the subject of a West Indian identity was played out on the cricket fields of the world, “Calypso cricket” coming to represent a West Indies imagined.
As the independent nations have forged ahead into the international arena independently, in the absence of a unified West Indian position; the relevance of a West Indian culture forged by cricket, the social institutions which are its legacy and the relevance of a sport that is limited by colonial history to societies subject to the effects of globalisation is being questioned not on the fields of play but beyond the boundary, among the spectators.

The way West Indian cricket is consumed both in the media and at the ground has changed, reflecting the shift away from a West Indian identity in the case of the latter while blaming the death of West Indian cricket on the fictional West Indian nation in the case of the former. Cricket continues to form a significant part of the social fabric of the West Indian nation states, however the game itself is no longer the site of conflict, this has been supplanted by the forms of national expression evident in the way each island consumes its cricket.

West Indies cricket was first posited as an expression of West Indian identity, a celebration of the constituent inputs of this region of immigrants; by CLR James in his seminal work ‘Beyond A Boundary’ (1963).The formal study of cricket’s significance to the development of a West Indian society coincides with the Independence movement in the region. In fact, Grimshaw notes “the imminence of independence and the publication of Beyond a Boundary were intimately connected: they were part of the same historical moment.”

In an effort to imbue the region with a sense of identity, cricket was and continues to be seen as a metaphor for social expression in the region. All the societal upheavals as the region moved from crown colony government to self rule through federation to independence were reflected in both the composition and fortunes of the West Indies team, with arguably the greatest of all West Indies teams coming at the end of the region’s independence movement.

By elevating cricket to an artform and concentrating on the aesthetics of the West Indian game, James makes the point that the game itself as played in the colonial West Indies is itself according to Graves (1995) “social resistance against British colonialism.”

Having provided the newly independent West Indian islands with a historical context for their independence struggles, James’ work continues to influence most scholarship on the topic of West Indies cricket. Whereas James and other cultural critics see colonial cricket as a channel of resistance, others see it as “a white cultural re-inscription of black West Indian culture.”

Burdened by James’ observation of the importance of cricket to West Indian society, most contemporary media reports concentrate on the declining success of the West Indies team and conclude that as goes our society so too goes our cricket. The West Indies cricket team, representing as it does the fiction of a West Indian nation is the only sport team that is held up as a reflection of contemporary society. In this era of globalisation, “the claim that cricket is ‘a means of national expression’ is just untenable, especially in the last two decades or so, when capitalism has moved into a globally integrated phase” (Surin).

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