Jamaicans Bolting away from traditional bat and ball
When England robbed us of the Ashes last summer, the sense of malaise that fell across the country was palpable. People were cranky. The skies were grey. The rain fell. Cricket was a fundamental source of anxiety. Mental health was served by not thinking about it.
A year later, with a panel of selectors prepared to let some new blood flow and a captain full of surprises, success has followed at a startling rate. In Pattinson and Cummings we have a future bowling attack to make you drool. The possibilities that Warner brings to the game are almost unimaginable. The sun has started shining and summers are back on the agenda.
The extent to which cricket nourishes the soul is not unique to Australia. On entry into Dakar airport one is met with a wall size photograph of the Bangladeshi cricket team that simply says: “We love cricket”.
At the South Asian summit last November, I found myself vying with representatives from the US, China and Europe, trying to establish our place in the consciousness of the South Asian leadership. While they had their super-power credentials, we had cricket. And I’m pretty sure our case was the easier to prosecute.
At the time of engaging in this cricket diplomacy, Australia’s re-emergence was yet unforeseen. South Africa had bundled us out for 47 while India sat near the top of the international table. Thus I represented an unthreatening presence on favourable ground.
But after this summer, playing the cricketing card in a trip through the Caribbean has not met as favourable a response. “I do not wish to have the cricket conversation,” the Jamaican Foreign Minister informed me.
As it turns out the prowess of our cricket team appears to be inversely proportional to the warmth of our international relations.
For a child of the seventies and eighties when Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards and Joel Garner were dominant, it doesn’t feel right that the Caribbean is not immersed in the joy of cricket. To be sure it still matters. Past heroes adorn walls. And the cricket conversation does happen. But rather than being a source of delight it is characterised by frustration.
Yet in the midst of a cricketing drought, the Caribbean is rich with other sources of sporting sustenance.
In Jamaica soccer is big, and the national netball team has assumed a superstar status the envy of the Diamonds.
But surpassing all of this is athletics, for in Jamaica it is all about Usain Bolt. His giant figure towers over the streets drinking a bottle of Gatorade or holding a Puma shoe. Every second person you meet knows his mum, remembers him from school, or tells you where he likes to eat.
Cricket fever has been turned into Bolt fever and it is hard not to catch.
After winning gold in Beijing, the German company that built the Olympic track offered to build a replica for Usain’s training purposes in Kingston. I had to see it.
On the Sunday of our visit we attended a church service for the diplomatic corps at the University of the West Indies’ chapel. The choir was magnificent, the sermon stirring and the worship thoroughly dignified. Yet pious thoughts were competing in my mind with growing excitement. Because the university also housed Usain’s track.
After appropriate salutations, at the end of the service we bolted in search of Usain.
Behind a high locked fence, complete with security guard, we found a glistening blue synthetic track. Some fast talking gained us entry but on the strict condition that there were no photos. With giggling excitement we asked the guard whether he knew Usain. “Oh, of course man, I am Mr Bolt’s chaperone whenever he is here.” This revelation unleashed a flood of questions: how does he train, at what time of the day, for how many hours.
Our enthusiasm, and the long way we had travelled combined with his evident pride, softened the guard to allow a photo.
I stood and posed with the track behind me hoping that some of the magic would rub off. Yet when I looked at my trophy photo it was sadly apparent that my physique was as suited to this hallowed ground as an overweight hippo in a cheetah race.
Just as our Indian summer of cricketing delight has been so good for the Australian psyche, the uplifting role of sport in life is on show in the Caribbean. At a meeting with the head of the Jamaican fisheries department, the details of fish conservation and stock replenishment quickly shifted to Usain. “I cannot think of anything that made Jamaicans so happy and walk so tall as those gold medals. We just love sport.”
And so do we.
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