Pirates who bowled over Babylon

In the northern hemisphere summer of 1974, Eric Clapton had a top-10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic with a cover version of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff. As acts of cultural homage go, it was seismic. Until then Marley had failed to make an impression on the closed United States market, but Clapton’s cover blew Marley – and reggae, generally – into the forefront of popular Anglo-American consciousness.

Half the world’s youth suddenly had posters of the ganja-smoking Marley and the Wailers taped to the back of their bedroom doors. They looked at the poster adoringly, wondered about the location of the famed Mount Zion and dreamed up ways of smoking weed. It pissed their parents off in ways they could scarcely imagine. 

A year later in London, West Indian cricket was to make a similarly confident cultural step. The inaugural World Cup final – sponsored by insurance giant Prudential – was played at Lord’s, with the West Indies beating Australia by 17 runs. The Windies, resplendent in their maroon blazers and maroon caps, were captained by a lanky child of British Guiana, Clive Lloyd. His 85-ball 102, scored in just under two sizzling hours, catapulted the Windies to 291, batting first – a total they managed narrowly to defend.

The Pirates of the Caribbean had swung into the very heart of the Imperium, quaffed the champagne and rifled through their hosts’ silver. Lloyd was to drive West Indies cricket relentlessly onwards for the next 15 years, as the players from the Caribbean strode across the cricket world like giants.  

Other than being cultural ambassadors, sometimes gangsters, sometimes pioneers, Marley and Lloyd had three or four important things in common. They were born within six months of each other (Lloyd in late August 1944, Marley in February 1945); both were the children of an imperial education system prior to independence (Lloyd in Guiana, Marley in Jamaica) and both were the sons of single mothers, although Lloyd’s father, an alcoholic, died when he was in his early teens. Marley in particular seemed to have a well-developed sense of manifest destiny, writing to his mother: “There is something in me, and when I am singing with everything in me, I feel it.”

Lloyd, too, was forced to grow up early. His biography, for instance, details him cycling across Georgetown in rain and darkness to give relatives the news of his father’s passing. Leaving school to become the family breadwinner, he went to work in a hospital dispensary. Cricket was never far away; neither, in those years, was it particularly close by.

Six months after hoisting silver at Lord’s, Lloyd took the side to Australia for a six-Test series. The Australian public held the tourists in high regard. Frank Worrell, the first black man to captain the Windies, had brought a side to Australia in 1960-1961 and the first Test was tied. Ian Meckiff’s run out in the falling shadows gave rise to one of the great black-and-white cricket photos of all time.

Worrell’s men lost the series but they were so loved that Melbourne held a ticker-tape parade on their departure, singing “For they are jolly good fellows” as they waved goodbye. Lloyd’s tourists, as nominally the best side in the world, kindled similar memories. At lunch on the first day of the first Test in Brisbane they had faced only 18 overs but they were already 128 for six. It was clearly going to be a very different tour.

Lloyd’s troops duly lost the first Test and, although they rallied in Perth to win the second, they were swatted like flies in losing the series 5-1. Jeff Thomson, Australia’s slingshot fast-bowler, and Dennis Lillee, his lithe partner in crime, hauled in 56 wickets between them as the tourists disintegrated.

It became so nasty that Michael Holding, fielding in front of the notorious Hill Stand during the fourth Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, had to be escorted from the boundary because he had received such a barrage of abuse. He was crying. Lloyd returned home, vowing to never captain an underperforming and under-resourced West Indian side ever again.

Marley and the Wailers had some character-building experiences of their own. In 1972, they were stranded in London, homesick and broke. They asked Chris Blackwell, the inheritor of the Crosse & Blackwell fortune and the founder of Island Records, for an advance to get them home. He allowed them to borrow four grand and within a year they’d sent him the tapes that resulted in the album, Catch a Fire.

With the help of two session musicians, Blackwell doctored the original Kingston recordings, essentially softening them for a white audience. The Clapton cover was still around the corner, but it was a start. Blackwell had a good eye and an ear to match. He’d already signed Jethro Tull and Roxy Music to Island. His relationship with Marley was to prove mutually beneficial.

The Australian experience wounded Lloyd. He brought in new players, such as Colin Croft, Joel Garner and Desmond Haynes, who made his Test debut the very next time the West Indies played Australia, at Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1978. Australia batted first and were bowled out for 90 just after lunch on the first day – their batsman, Peter Toohey, being hit badly on the head by an Andy Roberts bouncer early in the day. The West Indies won the Test by an innings and 106 runs and duly triumphed 3-1 in the series, regaining the Frank Worrell trophy, which they’d lost in Australia.

There was now panic in Babylon, as the series win gave rise to a period of singular West Indian dominance. Teenagers were adding posters of Viv Richards and Lloyd himself to that of Marley on the back of their bedroom doors.

With haughty individuals such as the imperious Richards in his midst, there was an undoubted Black Power dimension to the way they played their cricket through the late 1970s and 1980s.

It was a Soul Fire moment: the West Indians determined not to take a backward step against sides that had intimidated them in the past. They became fit, disciplined and pragmatically nasty, often going into Test matches with six batsmen, a wicketkeeper and four fast-bowlers. Spinners were frequently considered effete luxuries.

Marley was also influenced by an emancipation narrative, although this took the form of a sometimes moving, sometimes fatuous, embrace of Rastafarianism: a quixotic blend of back-to-Africa wisdom and chauvinism helped along by copious amounts of reefer.

With his love of football, Marley was often to be seen in his Adidas boots and tracksuit top: reggae was seemingly oceans away from cricket, yet the two forms shared an unusual self-confidence and, increasingly when faced with an adoring world, a swagger women, in particular, found irresistible.

Blackwell, for example, was charmed by his first meeting in London with the Wailers when they came to beg for money, marvelling at their self-possession. Such self-possession has bled away over the years, as the West Indies have frequently consisted of brilliant individuals becalmed in mediocre teams.

It seems strange to think that they once wreaked havoc across the cricketing world, plundering wickets and butchering runs. Alas, they are pirates no longer.

Lloyd: Too much story to tell

In a crowning irony, the Windies’ manager in South Africa is the increasingly glum Clive Lloyd. His presence as part of the backroom staff is meant to be inspirational, but West Indian cricket needs more than inspiration as the team wend their increasingly sorrowful away around the country.

Although he never played in South Africa, Lloyd was a frequent guest of Ali Bacher in the early post-readmission days of South African cricket, often giving clinics in the townships.  

When once asked by a slightly forward township youth what advice he might offer them, given that he didn’t even speak their language, Lloyd shrugged his shoulders and told the youth that he had seen a bit but it was too long a story to tell. That it is: a tale rousing and sad in equal measure. – Luke Alfred

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