By RON FANFAIR
As a liberating force in the English-speaking Caribbean, cricket created the only opportunity for the region’s marginalized to rise above the abject poverty in which they were submerged, and become household names, says Barbados-born, Winnipeg-based author and historian, Dr. Keith Sandiford.
“You could not, as a poor Black person in any part of the Caribbean, rise beyond poverty unless you found an avenue of escape,” suggested Sandiford, who delivered the eighth annual Dr. Cheddi Jagan memorial lecture last Saturday night at York University. “There were two possible channels of escape from potential poverty and those were education and cricket. Education was expensive until the Barbados government in the 1960s made it possible for anyone to achieve a secondary education if they could pass certain entrance exams.”
Sandiford pointed to late West Indies player and administrator, Sir Clyde Walcott, as one of the great players who emerged from very modest roots to become a legend because of the sport.
“After a successful tour of England in 1950, he was offered a contract of £900 for a few months a year to play in the Lancashire league,” Sandiford, who began his university teaching career at York University in 1964, revealed. “Now, if you were living in Barbados in the 1950s and you had a Bachelor’s degree, your annual income would have been around £300. Clyde admitted that if he had not become a successful cricketer, he would probably have died of starvation.
“Professional cricket became the most successful form of escape from poverty in the last three to four decades of the 20th century.
“Cricket, in this way, gave the region a presence in the bigger world whereas in business, commerce and industry and almost every other field, the West Indies remained Third World. But in cricket, they were First World and we took great pride in the performances of our heroes and exalted them in a way in which we did not treat other Caribbean champions.
“If you look around the Caribbean now, you will find statues named after cricketers. We idolize our cricketers, but we don’t do the same for our scholars, doctors and scientists and that is because we know that the cricketers gave us a bigger presence than any other aspect of our community.”
In a 15-year period up until 1995, the West Indies – with a population of nearly six million, which is far less than any of the other Test-playing nations – dominated the sport, stringing together an unbeaten run of 29 consecutive Test series. During that golden period, the Caribbean side won 59 contests and lost just 15 of the 115 Tests they played.
A graduate of Combermere, the University of the West Indies and the University of Toronto, Sandiford said that while the sport provided opportunities for poor men, communities and ethnic groups, Caribbean women were the only segment of society that the game did not liberate.
“That’s a failure that has distressed me,” said the University of Manitoba Professor Emeritus and author of “Cricket & the Victorians” and “Cricket Nurseries of Colonial Barbados”.
“When cricket was introduced in the Caribbean late in the 19th century, there were certain kinds of Victorian attitudes prevailing. The sport was seen to be too manly for the fairer sex. Women could prepare tea or lunch, but they did not participate in cricket.”
Barbados High Commissioner to Canada, Edward Greaves and the island’s Consul General in Toronto, Leroy McLean and Jamaica’s Consul Nigel Smith attended the lecture.
The lecture series was established in 1999 to commemorate the life and vision of former Guyana president, the late Dr. Jagan. It was founded upon the idea that the many and varied dimensions of Jagan’s belief in the possibility of a New Global Human Order should be publicly acknowledged as part of his permanent legacy to the world.
The event is co-organized by the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean at York University, York International and a standing committee of volunteers from the Toronto Caribbean community, including planning committee chair, Chandra Budhu, English professor, Dr. Ramabai Espinet and York University Professor Emeritus, Dr. Frank Birbalsingh, who has published widely on cricket.
Previous lecturers included former Guyana president, Janet Jagan; politician and economist, Winston Dookeran; novelist George Lamming; University of the West Indies lecturer, Dr. Carolyn Cooper; New York University Africana Studies director, Dr. J. Michael Dash; noted Caribbean scholar and historian, Dr. Walter Look Lai and the late Caribbean political commentator, Lloyd Best.