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In the Era of Decolonization, West Indies Cricketers Refused to “Grovel”

The 1970s in the Caribbean were marked by major political and social upheaval. Cricket became a primary vehicle for asserting West Indian independence — and defeating England was paramount.

West Indies cricketer Viv Richards is greeted by fans after the 1st Test Match, West Indies tour of England at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, UK, 3rd June 1976. (Wood / Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The summer of 1976 was Britain’s hottest in 350 years. The West Indies cricket team was there all season long, playing England in city after city in the oppressive heat. There was a lot riding on their performance. To the cricketers and their fans back home in the Caribbean, the team’s mission went beyond athletics.

Though the West Indies had produced some legendary international cricketers and won stirring victories, its players were often condescendingly referred to as “calypso cricketers,” entertaining but not particularly serious. Now they intended to prove themselves a capable force in the sport. Under the leadership of new captain Clive Lloyd of Guyana, the “Windies” had been building skill and discipline, and reimagining their approach to the game.

Driving this project of reinvention was the pervasive feeling that the team had come to represent something bigger than itself. West Indies cricket, writes historian Hilary Beckles, “was born, raised, and socialized within the fiery cauldron of colonial oppression and social protest. In its mature form it is essentially an ideological and politicized species and knows no world better than that of liberation struggle.” To players and supporters in the mid-seventies, West Indian cricket symbolized self-determination.

It was a heady time. In 1960, only three West Indian nations had achieved independence from European colonial powers. By the early eighties, that number was sixteen. Throughout the sixties and seventies, the islands were not only throwing off the yoke of European rule but were also in some cases, like in Michael Manley’s Jamaica, resisting the directives of global capitalism.

The Caribbean was also experiencing cultural upheaval, the emergence of new philosophies, new identities, and new music like reggae that was enveloped in an aura of pride and protest. Because cricket was one of the only formal activities the West Indies undertook together on the international stage, the sport emerged as a primary vehicle for asserting West Indian independence.Nowhere was that more on display than in England in 1976. As West Indian cricket player Michael Holding of Jamaica remembers, in an interview captured in Stevan Riley’s 2010 documentary Fire in Babylon, “We wanted to be able to show Englishmen, ‘You brought the game to us, and now we’re better than you.’”The apparent arrogance of the English team added fuel to the fire. In the lead-up to the West Indies team’s arrival on British shores, England cricketer Tony Greig gave an interview that set the tone for the season. Greig said that the press was “building these West Indians up, because I’m not really sure they’re as good as everyone thinks they are.” When they’re good, they’re good, he said. “But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of [my teammates], to make them grovel.”To West Indians, the word grovel called up histories — distant, recent, and ongoing — of racial and national humiliation. To make matters worse, Greig hailed from apartheid South Africa.“Here was this guy,” remembers captain Clive Lloyd, “apartheid still going strong, and he’s gonna make these black guys grovel.”Legendary Antiguan cricketer Viv Richards remembers Lloyd telling the team, “We don’t need to say much. Our man on the television just said it all for us. We know what we’ve gotta do.”

A Medium of Expression

The early history of West Indian cricket is artfully rendered in the Marxist intellectual C. L. R. James’ semi-autobiographical 1963 book Beyond a Boundary. In the West Indies, James wrote, “the cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance.” West Indians played for the love of the game, but the meaning of cricket didn’t stop there.

James played club cricket in 1920s Trinidad. At the time, there was clear racial segregation in West Indian cricket. White players, lighter-skinned players, and darker-skinned black players generally had their own teams. James’s private schooling allowed him to be something of an exception, and he ended up in the Maple Cricket Club, “the club of the brown-skinned middle class,” despite his darker complexion.

Trinidadian Marxist historian C. L. R. James (1901–1989).

Over the years, James developed a fierce admiration for Shannon, a club for dark-skinned black cricketers. “The Shannon Club played with a spirit and relentlessness, they were supported by the crowd with a jealous enthusiasm which even then showed the social passions which were using cricket as a medium of expression,” James wrote. When Shannon played well, the explanation “was not mere skill. They played as if they knew that their club represented the great mass of black people in the island.”

The dynamic was much the same for the West Indian international team after it acquired its first black captain in the fifties (a hard-fought campaign in which James himself participated) and especially after decolonization sped up in the sixties. The team came to represent millions of ordinary West Indians, descended from slaves and indentured servants, either newly freed from colonial rule or still living under it, and usually exploited and impoverished either way.

Caribbeans in the late sixties were paying attention to and moved by not only their own independence struggles, but also anti-colonial movements in Africa and the radical politics of black people in the United States. West Indian cricketers were particularly inspired by the Olympic black power salute of 1968.

“We had been born in colonial times. We grew up in independent times,” Colin Croft of Guayana told Riley. Come the seventies, “We started thinking like West Indians and not like Englishmen who were living in the West Indies.”

Viv Richards, now regarded as one of the greatest batsmen of all time, was full of fervor. He called Bob Marley his “battlefield music” and wore Rastafarian colors on the field. Of the seventies, he recalls, “That was the time when I think the heat was on for you to start getting up and standing up because of some of the things you felt were happening worldwide.”

He added, “My bat would have been my sword at that time.”

Defeat Down Under

The notion of cricket as an expression of anti-colonial politics had been developing for decades, but it was institutionalized when Clive Lloyd became captain in 1974. Lloyd was explicit with West Indies cricketers that they were playing to represent and embolden black Caribbean people — people abused by slavery and colonization, and whose freedom was still constrained by racism and poverty. The team looked up to Lloyd and took his words to heart.

Lloyd’s team was subject to its first major test in Australia in 1975. Australia was a formidable opponent, having pushed the envelope in “fast-bowling,” pitching the cricket ball at incredibly high speeds. Fast-bowling not only makes the ball harder to hit but increases the rate and severity of injury, particularly in the days before modern protective gear. The goal wasn’t to harm the batsman, but neither was fear of injury throwing batsmen off their game an unwanted side-effect.

Not only were the Australian players fearsome, but the crowd was intimidating too. Cheering on Australian fast-bowler Dennis Lillee, they chanted “Lillee Lillee, kill, kill, kill!” In addition to the bloodthirsty chants, the all-white crowd hurled racial insults at the West Indies cricket team, which was composed of mostly Afro-Caribbean and a few Indo-Caribbean players. They remember hearing taunts of “black bastard” and “go back to the tree where you came from.”

The physical battery they sustained from the Australian fast-bowlers and the verbal abuse they took from the crowds messed with the West Indies cricketers’ heads, and they played badly. Of six games against the Australians, they lost five. The press called it a “pathetic performance.”

The West Indies team returned home humiliated but determined to repair its reputation. To accomplish that, the team decided to commit to fast-bowling like the Australians.

Lloyd traversed the West Indies looking for club players who could bowl hard and fast, or learn to. One recruit was Jamaica’s Michael Holding, for whom the strategy was above all psychological.

“Once you have the capability of hurting a person with that ball,” he told Riley, “that person is not thinking about how to play the ball. He’s thinking about self-preservation.”

The team debuted its new aggressive fast-bowling style against India in March 1976. India quit in protest against the bowling speeds after only three games. Next up was England.

Declaration of War

The United Kingdom was the cradle of cricket and the dominant colonial power in the Caribbean. For players and fans who associated the sport with West Indian independence, the symbolic stakes of defeating England in the summer of 1976 couldn’t have been higher.

British decolonization in the West Indies was a live issue, a storyline still unfolding. Caribbeans were watching referendum results and cricket matches back-to-back. For example, several of the team’s players were from Antigua, including Viv Richards and formidable fast-bowler Andy Roberts. In February 1976, between the Australian and Indian competitions, Antigua held an unsuccessful referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.

Defeating England was also socially important for another reason. Between 1948 and 1970, nearly half a million people immigrated from the Caribbean to Britain. A large West Indian community now resided there, often facing not only miserable living and working conditions but also intense racism and xenophobia. The West Indian cricket team felt it had to play to represent Caribbeans back home and on British soil. The players were even worried about the racist abuse West Indians would face at work the next day if they lost.

West Indies’ Wayne Daniel bowls, watched by umpire Bill Alley. (S&G / PA Images via Getty Images)

Then there was the business of groveling. Tony Greig maintained that he never meant to invoke the caricature of the servile colonial subject (his own father asked him later if he owned a dictionary), but that’s how the comment was interpreted.

In Viv Richards: The Authorised Biography, Trevor McDonald wrote, “For the South African captain of an English team to publicly threaten to make the West Indies grovel was probably the closest any cricketer ever came to making a formal declaration of war.”

In his book Grovel! David Tossell writes, “The West Indies’ anger was felt on two levels — the implicit, if unintentional, racial insult and the slur on the team as cricketers.” For his part, “Lloyd was fed up with the West Indians being characterised as happy-go-lucky players who wilted when the going got tough.” He wanted to retire the “calypso cricketers” stereotype once and for all.

The team brought all of this passion, resentment, and determination to the oval. Gordon Greenidge of Barbados had lived in England in his youth and had experienced prejudice there.

“My anger came out in the way I played,” he told Riley. “I felt that to forcefully go at what I was doing, to attack, was a way of letting out that anger. It wouldn’t be right to take it out on a fellow human being, though you felt like that at times, but I’m sure gonna take it out on five-and-a-half ounces.”

The English crowds were more restrained than in Australia. More importantly, there was a huge Caribbean presence flying national flags, cheering on the West Indies team, and taunting Greig about his “grovel” comment whenever he hit the field.

This time, it was the West Indians doing the fast-bowling. The new strategy didn’t land well with everyone. The cricket press complained of dangerous ball speeds — despite the fact that the West Indies had been inspired by the Australians, whose fast-bowling hadn’t generated nearly as much outrage.

“The world more or less portrayed the West Indies team as brutal,” Greenidge told Riley, “bringing the game into disrepute. But the adrenaline that’s gonna be pumping, the tension that would have mounted from that ill-fated comment, you were gonna release that ball at a serious pace.”

Viv Richards stood by the team’s strategy, which delivered major returns as the season progressed. “A lot of folks felt that we were spoiling the game, aiming to kill,” he told Riley. “No, man. Aggression meets aggression. That’s how I look at life. You fight, I’m gonna fight.”

“We had a mission,” he added. “We believed in ourselves, and we believed that we were just as good as anyone. Equal, for that matter.”

Past History and Future Hopes

Between the late seventies and the early nineties, the West Indies cricket team was the undisputed best in the world. They beat England in the blazing hot summer of ‘76 and then went on to beat England six more times in a row. After 1979, the team did not lose a series for fifteen years straight and won the first two One Day International Cricket World Cups. The press dubbed its four fast-bowlers, who could each bowl a ball over 90 miles per hour, the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The fate of West Indian cricket and West Indian social progress diverged in the 1980s. The team dominated the sport, while the Caribbean itself began to suffer economically under the weight of neoliberal global financial policy. Crucified by the International Monetary Fund and targeted by the CIA, for example, Michael Manley’s democratic socialist government met defeat in 1980, and internal strife and invasion dislodged a revolutionary socialist government in Grenada just three years later. Throughout the region, things mostly went downhill from there.

Still, it mattered in dark times that the Windies towered over the rest, that it had bested its former masters at a game of their devising.

C. L. R. James wrote that while the English were bred into knowledge of their own society’s great achievements and long traditions, twentieth-century Caribbeans had none that they were aware of. It was cricket, he observed, that filled the vacuum.

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” James asked. Their knowledge ran deeper than those for whom cricket is a diversion, no matter how vigorously pursued.

The situation has changed. The West Indies is no longer the best, nor is cricket so central to Caribbean identity. But as the summer of 1976 showed, there was a time when West Indians brought to cricket matches “the whole past history and future hopes of the islands” — a time when to experience cricket was to profoundly experience oneself.