Saturday, October 13, 2012

Congratulations to our boys!: Beautiful Sunday morning mass with the West Indies cricket team

It was a glorious, glorious Sunday morning! A lift to my spirit that is difficult to describe. I tell you,  If there really was a heaven I would  have been in it. Yes,  I am proud of my team, the West Indies cricket team that on Sunday won the final of the T20 Cricket World Cup. For those of you not  familiar with the game, T20 stands for twenty 20, 20 overs a side. It's a shortened form of the game, developed to bring excitement, draw crowds out to the sport and please people who can't imagine sitting and watching a game for six hours of a day, to say nothing of the traditional five consecutive days that make up the conventional Test Matches. A T20 cricket match can be over in three hours, just a little bit longer than a football or soccer match.

The short length of the game and the concentration on entertainment as much as competition has led some purists to say that the game is not the real thing, notwithstanding that this is now the format of the game where you can make the millions of dollars. But whatever you think of the game, it was clear that this was a trophy that all the cricketing world were keen to get their hands on, and it is obvious that teams have now become focused on perfecting this new form of cricket, with all kinds of innovations  being used. So, for West Indies to come out on top after coming through tough first round, Super 8 and Semi final matches, and then win the final against Sri Lanka on their home ground with a roaring crowd behind them, was no small feat.

When I watched the celebrations at the end of the match on Sunday, I have to admit I was overcome. Try as I might, I just couldn't hold back the tears. Often those who prefer to spend Sundays in places with steeples, chapels, organs and wooden crosses, try to tell us who have abandoned such things, that we just don't know what it is to have a heart, to be moved by words, sermons and testimonies that are so central to their lives and who they are. I am convinced however, that the mass I had last  Sunday with the Windies was better than anything they could have got from the pulpit on that day. So, like a true evangelist I have to share the good news with those who weren't as fortunate as me. In case you think my service was one of those that was only about praising you are mistaken. Even as I joined in the mass of dancing and gyrating in the aisles with my boys in maroon, I made sure that the acts of these eleven West Indian apostles didn't make me miss the more important messages of the sermon.

A Bit of Old Testament History

Sir Garfield Sobers: Greatest of the greats
Before I get to the details of the sermon, a little Old Testament background is necessary to put the whole thing in context. For me West Indies cricket is something that runs deep in my blood.  From the time I was small, I was hearing the stories of  West Indies cricketing heroes. My father grew up in the Bayland in Barbados where many of the greats had their start. One of them Sir Garfield Sobers, widely acknowledged to be the greatest to ever play the game of cricket. I heard exploits of his feats as a boy and the talent even of his brothers George and Gerald. George in fact was married to one of my Aunts. A fact that I was always proud of, especially when I went to school in England for a while and told the boys at school that I was 'related' to the great Sir Gary.

West Indies with pace like fire
My Dad's interest in cricket meant that  from about six years old I was carried to watch games at Kensington Oval, the famous international cricket ground in Barbados. Long before I understood claims of God, Jesus and resurrection for sins, I had first hand experiences of gods on the cricket field. Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes,Michael Holding, Clive Lloyd, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall. These were the first deities I knew of. No human being in the world could stand up to these giants on the cricket field, no demon, however powerful could ever prevail against them.

Viv Richards - The Master Blaster
At that time it was the dream of every single boy to one day play for the West Indies. We would all have or time pretending to be one or the other of the 'greats' when we went out to play at lunch time. Unfortunately, most of us didn't go on to wear the maroon, although there was one a little bit younger than me who did. A quiet understated guy, who was somehow able even at eight years old, to bowl six balls in a row exactly on the same spot. His name was Ian Bradshaw and he would one day hit the winning runs to win a trophy for the West Indies in 2004. That was our last major win before the one on Sunday and that had also been a tear jerker to watch.

So, from early cricket meant a lot to me. But it was more than bat and ball to me then and it is more than bat and ball to me now. Even though I never got anywhere near the top in that sport I love, I took a lot from what I saw in my heroes as motivation. At the time, as a black boy coming from a tiny island like Barbados, it was hard to feel that you could be world class and compete with the best. But seeing guys who looked like me coming from the same small villages I walked through, dominating people from vast countries like England, Australia and India gave me a great deal of confidence. It really made me feel that if I put my mind to it and worked hard I could be up there with the world's best in whatever field I chose to pursue. There was no other context in which I saw outstanding Caribbean performance on display and I often wonder where I would have gotten the idea I could truly make it to the top, if they hadn't been these guys to look up to then.

I grew up with the West Indies by my side, almost literally. Many nights when we were playing in Australia, I went to sleep with them under my pillow as I tucked away my favourite 'Tony the Tiger' transistor radio. That radio would be playing the voice of another Tony, Tony Cozier giving the commentary as we we batted merrily through the night. When we were playing in England, matches would start about 6:00 am Caribbean time, and when I got out of bed I had to turn on the radio to make sure we hadn't lost any early wickets before I could even think about having my breakfast.

Yes, those were the lovely days of yore. It was all brilliant until one morning after one Australia Test match,  I heard the words ' West Indies lost.' West Indies lost??? How was something like that even possible? I was 14 years old and this was the first time I had an experience of West Indies losing a Test Match. It was if my worldview had collapsed overnight. Like if you woke up and realised that the laws of gravity no longer applied.  Thankfully, at that time, it was just a blip on the radar, something to show me that my heroes were less than perfect. Still gods, but maybe not quite as invincible as I once thought.

Drought after the days of plenty

Ten years later we lost again, but things were different this time. It became very clear that this was no one off thing. We were definitely going into decline and it was rapid. In the blink of an eye, we went from heroes to zeros. Losses followed losses with as much regularity as the wins had piled up fifteen years earlier. All over the Caribbean people argued about who was to blame. Was it the players attitude? Competition from other sports? Bad management by the Board? Insularity of certain countries? Fingers were pointed all over the spectrum and the results just kept getting worse and worse.

It is not to say that in this period everything was bad in our  game. We produced the great Brian Lara, a batsman just as much of a master with the bat as any in that glory era, but it was as if he had escaped from a time machine, because there just wasn't the talent around in his day to match him. At times, he himself was blamed for the decline in our game which was ironic, but at least losing as we were, we could still lay claim to having one of the games brightest stars.

Brian Lara: The great that often stood alone
When his career came to an end and we were still losing, the future began to look even bleaker. We were at the bottom of the ladder without a star who could even shine occasionally for us. We did have a very industrious whole hearted player in the form of Shivnarine Chanderpaul who could be counted on to save us from indignity, but he lacked that flair and star quality of a Lara. Behind him the cupboard seemed bare and it was not unreasonable to think that once Chanderpaul was gone, the decline in West Indies cricket would be terminal. There were times indeed when we even wondered whether the entity 'West Indies' would survive. After all the West Indies is not a country, and the only institution other than cricket that bears its name is the UWI, University of the West Indies.

The Offering we couldn't resist: The Temptation of Stanford and the Indian Premier League

Alan Stanford: Turned out to be not the real thing
The downward spiral continued and the pain especially for the fans who had lived through the glory years was palpable. It is often said in the Caribbean that cricket is like a religion, that may be true, but people were starting to lose faith and few new converts were coming through. A struggling religion is a bit like a struggling business. When things get a bit tough people look towards trying to get money in. In business this is done through looking at the bottom line in religion it is all about the collection plate, how to get more offering coming in on Sunday morning. The first man to come a calling with promises of adding to that plate was a Texas billionaire by the name of Alan Stanford, but it soon became clear that he was not the Good Samaritan he was touted as, he was indeed a fraud from abroad. Whether you could say he was like the Anti- Christ, I don't know, but the West Indies Cricket Board and many of the players in the region definitely ended up with a false profit.

Not to worry, money soon came a calling again, it came from the only other part of the world where I am told cricket is also the national religion. That country is of course India. Yes, India had developed the Indian Premier League (IPL), cash was floating around and the owners of big Indian TV franchises were like the glitzy American tele evangelists, tempting our cricketers with lucrative offers. Their sales pitch was like a prosperity gospel and many of our players eagerly signed up. It was indeed an offering that even after the sting of Stanford, they just couldn't refuse.

The IPL was to be the short T20 version of cricket. Well suited to some of our younger players who seemed to have lost the appetite for concentrating over the long periods necessary in the traditional game. The guys who were happy to give a thrill a minute to DJs in the Party Stands before going back to the pavilion and enjoying a bit of merriment themselves. In a way you couldn't blame the impressionable youth to be lured by these smooth talking evangelists in the IPL. With the West Indies team not performing, these players had more to gain from seeking individual fame and glory than by sitting on a sinking Caribbean ship. In India they would be sold to the highest bidder for their pieces of silver and in so doing they would make themselves less available to play for the Caribbean side. Try as they might, the Board could do nothing to stop the exodus of the few top class players we had left in the region and weak became weaker.

Chris Gayle: West Indian star in the IPL
Not only did the team decline but great rifts between players and Board emerged. Acrimonious relationships ensued over the players decision to put loyalty to Indian Franchises above the West Indies. The public at large had their say as well and all kinds of dirty linen was hung out.  In the most recent melee, the main protagonist was Chris Gayle. A hard hitting Jamaican batsman that was in the shorter game threatening to become the kind of star that Viv Richards and Brian Lara had been in the longer game before him. Just maybe someone like Gayle, could help save our game. But no, the rifts between him and the Board became greater and greater. Eventually the Board decided not to make him eligible for selection on any West Indies team and he went on his way plying his trade as a freelance cricketer. It seemed at that time that Gayle was unlikely to play for West Indies again.

Others followed Gayle to the lure of the IPL and from all reports were successful. Gayle stood out in the tournament along with a few other West Indians, including a young emerging slow bowler, Sunil Narine. Meanwhile our West Indies team continued to struggle. I used to hear my Indian friends telling me how much they loved our players over there, they spoke of the great innings they were playing and the outstanding bowling performances they were putting in, but I just couldn't watch it. Why couldn't these guys be doing these things for us? Why should Kolkata, Mumbai, Decca and Bangalore be prospering on our talent, while we languish?

So now we come up to the present. Thankfully, things seemed to get a little better before this tournament, as there was some mending of fences and it appeared that we would have all of our big players available. It was a surprise to me when some commentators even installed us as being among the favourites. We blew a bit hot and cold in the tournament but we made it to the final. A final which as I said at the outset was to produce a powerful sermon with some great testimonies.

The Sermon: Preaching from the book of 1st and 2nd Samuels

Like all good sermons, the one last Sunday built on the readings from the past and applied them to present day. The poignant message was taken from the books of 1st and 2nd Samuels, no not the one in the biblical Old Testament, this is the modern day West Indian version. The story of Marlon.

Marlon Samuels: Subject of the sermon and star of the show

1st Samuels

The Book of 1st Samuels does not read well. It is a true testimony of tribulation. I remember watching this 1st Samuels on television scoring 100 runs as a youngster barely over 20, in a One Day match in India. Never had I witnessed more consistent clean hitting, even from the greats I saw in our glory days. It looked like he had what it took to be a cricketing saviour. But Marlon faded badly, disappointing time and time again after that. He walked on to the field to play as if he didn't care and wished he was somewhere else. Talent he had, but he never seemed to accept it and make the effort. He was truly like the Prodigal Son. But things got even worse for this 1st Samuels, he was caught giving advice to an Indian involved in betting and match fixing and was subsequently banned from playing all cricket for two years. He also had further indignity by being suspended from bowling because his action was considered illegal by the International Cricket Council.

When all this happened we thought that was the last chapter and verse as far as Samuels was  concerned. Here was a man that couldn't even make good when everything was in his favour, to think that he could ever get close to a West Indies team after two years out of the game was a joke.

2nd Samuels

Last year after the period of the ban was over, we heard for the first time, the word from 2nd Samuels. He was back, he told us ready to go again, he had been practising for the last two years. Samuels practicing on his own to get back to where he left off and then go further? No, not the Samuels we knew. But they were some early suggestions that this 2nd coming of Samuels might be different. He started to score runs with regularity for Jamaica, he really seemed to want to atone for previous transgressions. He was even to be seen admonishing himself if he got out as a result of playing an injudicious shot. This was something we never ever saw in 1st Samuels.

When I was in Barbados last year I went to a match against Pakistan, where I saw this 2nd Samuels myself. He did not score heavily, but he did appear to be more focused, watching the ball carefully, picking the right balls to hit. Still there was none of that clean hitting I saw of him when he first came on the scene and though I thought he could probably hold a place on the team, I didn't see him doing much more than that. Now we know that there was a lot more to be written in that Book of 2nd Samuels. In 2012, he just has not stopped scoring runs. In spite of his success he has never got carried away or suggested any bravado or don't carishness he showed in his earlier Book. He has just told us over and over again that he wants to keep playing and practising hard because he knows he has two years of runs put down that he has to make up for. It really did appear that this Samuels was a changed man.

The question was, did he have what it took for the big occasion? The answer over the last few weeks was a resounding YES. With bat and ball he has been the captain's 'go to ' man and he has delivered every time. None moreso than on Sunday. We made the worse possible start we could in the match. We lost Gayle or star batsman very early and the other batsmen just couldn't get any runs. It was clear we would be left with a paltry score and Sri Lanka would walk to victory. The crowd was roaring and the Sri Lanka party was about to rev up, but out strode 2nd Samuels to make sure that there were more verses to come. He started hitting clean and hard as he had that time when I saw him first on television. The ball disappeared over and over into the night sky and suddenly West Indies were back in the game. No one else in our team could get going on the day, but Marlon Samuels stood up to this stiffest of tests. Even if we were still to lose, he made sure we had a fighting score. And fighting is what we did after that, with everyone involved. Marlon once again was in the forefront with the ball and as they say the rest is history. 2nd Samuels had delivered and all I could say was "Amen!"

If you ever wanted a story, a testimony a parable of redemption, there it was. Not in a myth or a 'Holy Book' from ancient times, but in the story of a real flesh and blood human being living in our own time. Not a person with any special divine powers, not a 'chosen one.' Just an ordinary person, determined to turn his life around after many years of hardship. Finally the Prodigal Son had returned home and the whole village was ready to throw a party in his honour.

Marlon's story reminds us of much; that we can always come back strong and we shouldn't give up, that we mustn't be quick to write off people because of earlier transgressions. It illustrates to all that we can make a horrible circumstance work dramatically in our favour. It's not to say that now Samuels is the saviour of the West Indies. We don't know what the future will hold and they may be a 3rd Book of  Samuels that doesn't quite deliver the goods.  I hope for all our sakes that there are no other installments of  Samuels and that things follow on like the Bible, because after Samuels comes Kings in that 'Holy Book' and no one in the Caribbean, not even the ones most staunchly in favour of a republic, would begrudge us having a period of West Indies cricket monarchy right now.

Further inspiration in the Book of Sams

Darren Sammy: Captain that landed the big prize

If the Samuels story wasn't enough for the morning, there was further inspiration from the Sams. When I used to go to church, I always tried to draw a lesson from the verses of the Psalms and this morning the Sams kept coming up as well. There was another Samuel from Trinidad whose bowling kept us in the match, but the other stand out Sam, was Sammy. Darren Sammy the St.Lucian captain of the West Indies team.

Again I need to give some back story on Darren. When I think of him, I remember a St. Lucian lady that I worked with in Barbados that was probably the biggest fan of the West Indies team that I have ever met. During the time I worked with her, win, lose or draw she always stuck with them, referring to them consistently as ' My boys.' It was interesting for me at the time, because her home country St. Lucia of which she was intensely proud, had never produced a single West Indies player in their history. She never had the privilege of watching anyone from her country put on the maroon but she held the West Indies team as close to her heart as a family member. Many of us would moan about who was in or not in the team, but for her it didn't matter. Once they were West Indians playing she was 100% behind them.

I used to encourage her by telling her that one day she would be able to cheer for one of her own too, a St.Lucian out there on the field. At that time none seemed that close to the mark, but she always used to say that there's this boy Darren Sammy who came from her village. "He is a very good cricketer, one day Sammy will make it." she would often say. By 'make it' she meant, play for the West Indies, maybe one match sometime, somewhere.

On Sunday there was that Darren Sammy I had heard about all those years ago. Not just wearing the maroon, but as the captain, yes the CAPTAIN of the West Indies team. And not just any captain either, he was the one holding the WORLD CUP aloft. I thought about how my former workmate must have felt at that moment. I just couldn't even begin to imagine the pride that must have been inside her. As I watched the proceedings, I realised that I in a way had come to the position that she was once in. For as many great cricketers as Barbados has produced over its illustrious history, not one was part of the eleven that played in the match to win the Cup on Sunday. Yet, it didn't matter one iota, these were still 'My boys,' just as I had learnt from my St. Lucian friend back then, this team is our team no matter what.

Just like Marlon Samuels, it's not been an easy road for Darren Sammy. Sammy himself would be the first to admit that he is not the world's greatest cricketer. He took over the captaincy at a difficult time and many have argued he shouldn't be playing because they don't think that he is  good enough to make the eleven. That is debatable, but what Sammy lacks in talent he makes up for in heart and effort. Like the office mate I had in Barbados years ago, he seems to really believe in the West Indies and playing for 'the crest' as he puts it. Whatever his personal abilities and failings may be, he has managed to take the team and make it gel, putting the mission of 'one team, one people, one goal'  in the forefront. His success is definitely a reminder that one needn't be the biggest star or come from the biggest island to achieve greatness.

I remember being in St. Lucia three years ago watching a match when Sammy was not playing, much to the dismay of many St. Lucians at the ground who felt he had been unfairly left out. Darren walked among the ground while the match was going on to tell those there that it was OK. He didn't fuel the crowd by expressing disappointment, he said he recognised his own faults and that he would go away and work harder on his game, so that he could make the team next time. Of course I don't know Darren Sammy personally, but this was an early impression that I got of him that made me believe he was a  decent man. I am delighted that his diligence has paid off in such an amazing way. So, there ended the morning's lesson, at least for the most part. You can't finish a service without the Benediction and there was plenty of that going around.  "Thanks to the Almighty," was the repeated phrase. I guess the "Almighty" could be any kind of God you wanted it to be.

Interviews are always 'must see TV' after games like these. During his interview, Sammy was asked about how he handled criticism over the years. He responded by talking about Jesus and how he was crucified even though he didn't do anything wrong, so who is he Darren Sammy, to bother about the critics. It made me laugh because I knew that Christians hearing that would be caught in two minds. On the one hand, they would have been glad to hear reference to Jesus, they Lord and Saviour at such a public moment before all the world. On the other hand, they would be somewhat perturbed by the fact that  Sammy was comparing himself with that Jesus. That would seem like blasphemy to many.  Thankfully, blasphemy doesn't regularly lead to violence in our part of the world, so all was well. Still, I am sure the dissonance of the listening believers would have had them in a bit of a bind.

Not withstanding the God references, I was proud of how the guys spoke at the end of the game. Excited as they were with winning, they made no bones about the fact that they know that this is only the beginning of what is still likely going to be a very long journey back for West Indies cricket. On Sunday I rededicated myself to sticking with them in that journey, long and hard as it may be.

Of course the next thing up was the song service, with the music and dancing. A combination of cultures with the new West Indian version of Gangnam style led by worship leader Chris Gayle! If you have any questions about whether Chris Gayle is the 'annointed one' you can hear that he is in the clip below, straight from the mouth of the Bishop on commentary. Gayle prophesied before the game and it was a prophecy that came to pass.

The scenes shown here are something to watch and there was even more revelry to come later. International commentators and sports lovers the world over keep commenting that they love the way we celebrate and the joy we bring to what we do. It is this kind of unrestrained exuberance that they respond to. Whether it's the cricketers as we are seeing here, or Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake in the Olympics. It's great to know that in an age where war and conflicts seem to dominate world news, that we can at least lead the way in making the world smile. It is a trait in the Caribbean that is not by any means limited to sportsmen. It's just the way we do things. In North America  and Europe there is often emphasis on curbing natural instincts so as not to upset anyone present who may not approve. In the Caribbean, it's about self expression and letting your true self show to all the world. Showing that true self includes expressing our religion and beliefs as can be seen here. Some may be surprised to hear me say this, but I have no problem with it. If they are convinced that the Lord has guided them or that a lucky yellow band around the Samuels' neck did the trick it's all well and good.

If only we could dance to atheism too

My only wish is that one day we with different beliefs will also be able to join the party. It would be great if one day Caribbean atheists will also be able to express themselves, openly proclaiming their faith in reason to the world. As Caribbean people it's not in our nature to have to live and hide who we are, to not be able to evangelise about things near and dear to our hearts. I look forward to the day when we can all dance together regardless and proclaim the 'Word of truth' whatever we may think that truth to be. It is unfortunate that as things stand, anytime we say anything against religion it is deemed to be a 'no ball.' Then Christians get a ' free hit' where they are allowed to dispatch our arguments anywhere they please, often going way beyond the boundaries of logic. They can swing at us with maximum force knowing that under the rules that they have established, they can never be caught out.

Well, that little caveat was just but one moment of sober reflection, in the midst of the jumping with pride. It may sound strange, but in a way I enjoy the victories now even more than when I was a kid. These days I no longer see the gods I once saw wearing West Indies colours. I see flawed men trying their best to put together their talents to make us feel a sense of pride. Sometimes they will make us deliriously happy other times they will flop and leave us in deep disappointment, but that's all part of the game.

Even though the parties are no doubt still going on from Jamaica right down to Guyana, I am not convinced that every West Indian has got out of their chair to cheer along with the 'Gangnam Style' beat. For many, I think it is that they have been disappointed too many times. Too many false dawns. Many West Indians will gladly show of their allegiance to Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal, the Miami Heat, the New York Nicks or the Chicago Bulls. But when it comes to their own West Indies they want to hold themselves back. I remember wearing my West Indies shirt to an exhibition when the West Indies team was struggling. I was told rather publicly by a man in attendance that I should be ashamed to wear it. That was a comment that hurt.

We have to do better as Caribbean people, supporting a team, means being there through it all, through thick and thin. That's why I loved the way that Sammy ended on Sunday by thanking Peter Matthews who has traveled the world supporting the West Indies. His unmistakable tall maroon hat has been spotted all over the globe. As Sammy said, he has been there  ' through rain and sun.' I wish more West Indians would follow suit. I can sense even now, that some from the islands are waiting in the wings for things to go sour again, to say, " I told you so!"

We know that the rains in West Indies will come again, and that our day in the sun will not last forever. Being a winner just like life itself is transient. Neither will be here for eternity, and that makes both of them precious moments to be cherished. As I know after four years here in Canada, you don't shut up yourself in the house in the summer just because you know that winter's coming. So, I am certainly going to take the time now to bask in the Caribbean sun whether or not it's another false dawn or the start of a brand new day.

Recessional Hymn

Well friends, that's it. Great service from the West Indies on Sunday. Please stand now for the Recessional Hymn, Number 137, "Rally Round the West Indies!"


  1. Congratulations!! Have a bright future.
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  2. Thanks! We'll continue to rally around them and look forward to many more bright days ahead.

  3. A brilliant retelling of the legend of West Indies cricket. You've inspired me to get out my maroon shirt. Rally!

  4. Thanks! We really have to stick with these boys and reignite that passion in the region. I saw on Barbados TV the other night, Kraigg Brathwaite with some primary school cricketers asking them who among them wanted to play for West Indies someday. Kids stood looking at each other and a few hands slowly, almost reluctantly went up.

    It was a bit sad. If we were asked a question like that when I was a boy, every hand would have shot up and we would all have been screaming " Me, Me, Me!!!"

    Lot of repair work to be done in West Indies cricket yet, let's hope this victory has started the process.