Sixteen years ago the West Indies went into the Cricket World Cup as overwhelming favourites. They had already won the competition twice and had the aura of Brazil in football's World Cup. Anywhere in Britain, but above all at the Kennington Oval, they could count on a large, vociferous following of UK-based West Indians. They did not win the 1983 World Cup - their defeat by India in the final still ranks as one of cricket's great shocks - but still had a further decade of domination to look forward to.
This month the World Cup has returned to Britain for the first time since 1983 and has found the West Indians in very different circumstances. They still have remarkable players - captain Brian Lara has just restated his claim to be the greatest batsman in the world with three extraordinary centuries against Australia, while fast bowler Courtney Walsh, close to the all-time record for test wickets, appears to have discovered the cure for ageing. But few experts see them as likely winners. Their mystique and ability to intimidate, mentally as much as physically, have gone.
Another change over the past 16 years has been growing acceptance that such phenomena are worthy of serious academic attention. Hilary Beckles, a pioneering cricket historian whose other role as pro-vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies confers extra expertise on institutions that express pan-West Indian aspirations, is peculiarly well qualified to examine the vicissitudes and socio-cultural context of the West Indian team.
Sport matters. Not as much as satellite television and much of the press would have us believe, but it is as much a mirror of any society as literature, art and music. This is particularly so of societies where an individual sport has taken on a central cultural significance. Welsh historian Gareth Williams famously wrote that rugby has been a pre-eminent expression of Welsh consciousness, a signifier of Welsh nationhood. For rugby read cricket, for Welsh read West Indian. As Vivian Richards, the most culturally and politically articulate of recent West Indian players, has written, cricket is not some irrelevant, eccentric sport played by a handful of countries, but a game that gets right to the root of the societies involved.
As such it deserves more extended, sophisticated attention than it receives from day-to-day journalism. While accepting that sport is an expression of cultural identity, journalism too often reduces this to the level of barroom stereotype, and test cricket, born of colonialism, offers almost irresistible opportunities. West Indians (and more recently Sri Lankans) have indeed brought to the game flamboyance and joy. But the calypso cricketer stereotype overlooks the way that the batting of players like Richards and Desmond Haynes, the bowling of Walsh and Malcolm Marshall and the captaincy of Clive Lloyd (or that of Arjuna Ranatunga in Sri Lanka's compelling but systematic demolition of England last summer) demonstrated a much less remarked capability - disciplined purposefulness matching anything ever produced by Australians and Yorkshiremen, the stereotypical exemplars of such qualities.
We understand that the West Indies has produced a stream of terrific cricketers, but Beckles argues that we do not comprehend the forces that produce them. As C. L. R. James, that profound analyst of West Indian cricket and society, put it: "What do they know of cricket, that only cricket know?" Beckles places himself consciously in the line of James and of the late Michael Manley, for many years prime minister of Jamaica and author of a vast, polemical History of West Indies Cricket (1988), in recognising sportsmen and women not just as talented individuals but as expressions of the society that produced them. This does not mean ignoring the singularity of sporting genius. Among the central spines of two volumes of much greater analytical than narrative coherence is Beckles's celebration of a succession of great players - Learie Constantine, George Headley, Frank Worrell, Gary Sobers, Viv Richards, Brian Lara.
Genius - no exaggeration for any of that apostolic succession - can occur anywhere. But there is nothing random about its chances of being spotted, nurtured, given full expression and, in team games like cricket, a decent supporting cast. One of the greatest Welsh rugby players recently told me:
"I was lucky that at every stage I had someone who could give me good advice." His luck was no coincidence, but is what happens when you have a deep-rooted, highly sophisticated sporting culture.
Beckles's central thesis is that cricket, so memorably anatomised by C. L. R. James in Beyond a Boundary (1963), has always produced talented players, but that talent has not always been matched by a collective identity capable of creating and inspiring an effective team. In the earliest stages of West Indian cricket, lasting into the 1950s, colonialism meant that the game was controlled by the white elites, who ensured that the captaincy stayed in the hands of one of their own. Thus Constantine was chosen by the players of what was in effect a Rest of World team as their captain against England in a victory celebration test in 1945. But he and Headley, except on one occasion in 1947-48, never captained their own country - an affront, as Beckles rightly asserts, to merit, democracy and social justice.
This phase ended with the appointment of Frank Worrell, the first black captain, in 1960 following a furious campaign by James in the Trinidad Nation. The next 30 years saw generations of cricketers informed and driven by a strong West Indian consciousness - even though the West Indian Federation was a short-lived political failure - playing the game with a controlled, disciplined ferocity that few opponents could resist.
Phase three finds West Indian cricket struggling to cope with globalisation. Players, informed by neo-liberal ideology, see themselves as independent craftsmen with no collective or community obligations and little sense of their culture. West Indian identity has splintered into what Beckles terms micro-nationalisms, based on the individual states. Under-achievement, banished for 30 years, returns as the team's collective identity also disintegrates. While Beckles is strong on all periods, it is the contemporary account in volume two that takes his work beyond James and Manley and provides real insights into the problems of the modern game. Lara's egotism is, if not excused, explained by the neo-liberal economic and cultural context. So too are the devastatingly unsuccessful tour of South Africa and the pay dispute that preceded it earlier this year, both events that occurred after Beckles had finished writing.
He notes that the West Indies is the only test-playing nation lacking the locally owned commercial base that underpins other teams, and in particular the rising international influence of the Indian game. Attempts to compensate lead to crass commercialism such as the attempt to sell the team to an Indian brewery and label them the Kingfisher West Indies - football fans will note the parallel with the subjugation of Brazilian football to Nike - and the displacement of local fans by free-spending English visitors when England play tests in Antigua and Barbados.
This is an angry, ideologically driven work - one would expect little else from a man whose sons are named Rodney and Biko, and whose prefatory list of dedications includes Fidel Castro, Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon. The anger is both retrospective in its resentment of early injustice and contemporary when it examines the consequences of World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies for the poor of the West Indies. It is little wonder that Beckles identifies more with Viv Richards - a cricketer who expressed and articulated the anger and passion he shares - than the cooler figure of Clive Lloyd, Richards's predecessor as West Indies captain.
But there are cool, dispassionate judgements amid the anger. Pelham Warner, scion of the Trinidad planter ascendancy and a dominant figure in English cricket for much of this century, has in recent years been brutally demoted by radical historians such as Derek Birley and Ric Sissons from the sainthood conferred on him in establishment accounts. Beckles does not resanctify him, but recognises the comparatively progressive role he played in ensuring that black players were admitted to representative teams in the early days of the West Indian games. He is similarly objective about Gary Sobers, a singular feat given that Sobers - the greatest player of his time and arguably of any time - must have bulked extraordinarily large and heroic in Beckles's own youth. Such heroes are always hard to fault, yet Beckles does not balk at criticising Sobers's engagement with Rhodesia in 1971, arguing that as the leader of a hugely significant cultural institution like the West Indian cricket team, Sobers should have known better.
It is understandable that academics who pioneer new areas of study feel under particular pressure to prove themselves to more conservative colleagues by retaining their terminology. But it is still a pity that he is quite so afflicted by what Mr Polly termed sesquippledan verboojuice. Quite a few potential readers, one fears, will quail before a chapter titled "Theorising the third paradigm: crisis of sovereignty at the end of the 20th-century", put the book back on the shelf at Sportspages and settle for something less demanding. And while there is consistency in Beckles's analysis, much of the book feels more like a collection of essays than a coherent whole.
But these are minor quibbles about a major achievement. Beckles certainly knows an immense amount about cricket, but those who only cricket know will have no excuse for failing in a wider understanding of the West Indian game and the society underpinning it after they have read this. If the tradition of Constantine and Headley looks in jeopardy, that of James and Manley is in good - neither they nor Beckles would be interested in anything as unchallenging as safe - hands.
Huw Richards writes on cricket for the International Herald Tribune and is a research associate, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University.
The Development of West Indian Cricket, Volume One: The Age of Nationalism
Author - Hilary McD. Beckles
ISBN - 0 7453 1467 8 and 1462 7
Publisher - Pluto
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 236