Why Clive Lloyd & Co despised the phrase ‘Calypso cricket’

Simon Lister, author of ‘Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies cricket team brought a people to its feet’, explains why Clive Lloyd disliked the phrase ‘Calypso cricket’ and how it is often wrongly used.

A toast by skipper C.H. Lloyd (right) to fast bowler M. Holding, the hero of West Indies' easy victory over England in the final Test at the Oval on August 17, 1976.   -  The Hindu Photo Archives

As the light faded across the Rajiv Gandhi international stadium in Hyderabad on Sunday, the curtain came down on the Windies challenge. It was the third day of the second Test, the fag end of what in retrospect was a predictable result.

There was, however, a shimmering patch of sunlight beyond the sightscreen that was trying to make its way through, much like Windies' storied past, these days, jostling for space with its not so enthralling present.

Simon Lister.   -  Special Arrangement

  Inspired by the film of the same name, Simon Lister's " Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies cricket team brought a people to its feet" charts the spectacular ascent of West Indies cricket vis-a-vis the struggling lives of its immigrants in the Great Britain, who felt empowered by the exploits of their team in the 1970-80s.

In a chat with Sportstar, Lister discusses the history of the game in West Indies, why Clive Lloyd disliked the phrase 'Calypso cricket' and more.

Your book is, in many ways, a tale of Caribbean empowerment. How closely, would you say, was cricket entwined with the social history of West Indies back in the 1960s and 1970s?

Cricket was deeply enmeshed in the life of the Caribbean in the 1960s and the 1970s. In the years before the territories and the islands became independent, the game provided hope and escape.

After independence, it brought national pride. In the 1960s, the attempt to find political federation in the region had failed – brought down by the insularity and jealousy that had bedevilled West Indian development for decades. So the cricket team was the only obvious example of a successful union in the Caribbean. People from different parts of the West Indies could look at the sides of Frank Worrell and Garry Sobers and say to themselves: ‘Yes, I can identify with that.’

In their everyday lives, people identified strongly as Jamaicans or Trinidadians. When they saw the cricket team, they identified as West Indians. There was a unique emotional neatness to the side that couldn’t be replicated in any other aspect of Caribbean life.

“Lloyd points out that 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.” - Simon Lister, author

In the late 1970s and afterwards, that unity felt by cricket fans was melded to a joy created by the team’s successes. They were the best in the world and whatever the limitations of daily living, people could identify with the team’s successes, which brought them succour.

You talk about the West Indies exodus to U.K. in the 1950s. How did that affect the popularity of the sport in WI? Was it always just as rampant a sport as it became when the Lloyds, Garners and the Holdings took up cricket?

Cricket was always played with great seriousness in the Caribbean, both locally and nationally. If you read Beyond a Boundary by CLR James, then this is immediately evident.

The game was an endless source of debate and argument. It was rarely a passive pre-occupation. Pitch invasions by fans during inter-island games were not unheard of. Local club matches in towns were attended by hundreds of people who may have walked or cycled miles to be there to watch.

Most of them had an opinion on who was worthwhile, who should be selected, who was playing well. This close interest came in part because it was a central pastime for many, and also because lots of people – men and women – identified themselves so strongly with the game. It was their game, they had an emotional investment in its outcome. It mattered deeply to a lot of people.

Michael Holding, in an interview to this publication, had said that the wins in England at the time meant a lot more to the West Indies fans living there than the ones at home...How did the duality of cricket and rampant racism in England play out ?

The first thing to say is that not everyone who came to the UK from the Caribbean experienced rampant racism. That would be a generalisation that is difficult to sustain.

However, it is true that for many West Indians, it was a daily occurrence, compounded because it was so unexpected. Many people leaving the West Indies in the 1950s had been conditioned to see Great Britain as the Mother Country. But this was a lie that took some time to work out.

England skipper Tony Greig’s infamous "I intend to make them grovel" comment made it easier for Clive Lloyd’s team to play well. They stayed calm, they didn’t take it personally, and they prevailed, says Simon Lister.

  After all, these people were British citizens, almost all had actually been invited to Britain by successive governments to help rebuild the country after the war. So their treatment was for many, a rude surprise.

For British West Indians, when their team triumphed in England it meant a hell of a lot. It meant they could go into work on the Monday to the bus garage, or the office or the train station and they could brag about the team they supported. They had pride that was lacking in other areas of their lives. Certainly, the way the side played here in 1950 changed the way some English people considered the merits of West Indians as people. Previously, they had never really considered that they could be successful at anything – on the sports field or in the work place.

Tony Greig's infamous "I intend to make them grovel" comment added a dash of controversy to that series. In context of the series and the times the matches were being played in, how significant was the remark and how did the English media at the time cover it?

Greig’s statement made it easier for Lloyd’s team to play well. It gave them an extra motivation to succeed. It meant they would never be complacent in 1976. It meant that they would not let up and that they would do everything they could to win. They stayed calm, they didn’t take it personally, and they prevailed. Although it’s true to say that when Tony Greig came into bat, the West Indian bowlers did put on about another yard and a half of pace. I suspect it was no coincidence that Greig was clean bowled 4 or 5 times in the series.

Lastly, in your authorised biography of Clive Lloyd, it's revealed that Lloyd used to despise the 'calypso cricket' tag. Considering the label is something that continues to be associated with the 'charm' of the game in the Caribbean island, what was Lloyd's pet peeve?

“For British West Indians, when their team triumphed in England it meant a hell of a lot. It meant they could go into work on the Monday to the bus garage, or the office or the train station and they could brag about the team they supported. They had pride that was lacking in other areas of their lives.” — Simon Lister

The West Indies have always despised the term ‘Calypso Cricket’. Calypso cricket brings to mind coconuts and smiling waiters, batting with palm fronds on the beach, never-mind-the-score, look-at-the-lovely-sunset cricket.

Lloyd points out that 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. It suited a certain narrative of how our world, seen from Britain, was arranged.

For example, there has always been a ‘fantasy monochrome’ version of British history. A history that only recognises one colour. And so it’s little surprise – in fact it’s completely explicable — that there was always a companion rendering of our cricket history. What I learned from writing Fire in Babylon, it was that you cannot separate the story of West Indian cricket from the story of the West Indian people. And you cannot separate West Indian people from their history. Above all, you cannot separate West Indian cricket from West Indian history.

Yet for much of the 20 th century – and it was at its height in the 1980s when the West Indies were at their strongest, there was an influential miss-telling of their story in some British newspapers that was either ignorant of, or willfully tried to dissociate, West Indian cricket from West Indian development.

Through cricket many West Indian people were able to help make sense of their heritage. That is why the subtitle of Fire in Babylon is ‘how the West Indies cricket team brought a people to its feet.’

‘Calypso cricket’ is a slight, often unconsciously used, to undermine that identity.