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ANYONE FOR CRICKET?

Caribbean: No batsman's land

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HOLD ON: David Beckham controls an enthusiastic Trinidad youngster during a soccer clinic in 2010

Having working for the Port Authority of Antigua for 27 years, Egbert Valdes finds himself a contented man. He will turn 61 next month and Valdes is finally planning a celebration. "It will also be the 25th anniversary of my marriage, " he says.

For that grand occasion, he expects his sons, Frederick and Samuel, to fly down to St John's, the family home. Frederick, 19 and Samuel, 17, could not make it when he retired from service two years back. "They in the United States, " says Valdes, with a typically Caribbean flourish, explaining why it is tough for them to travel home so often. "They in Ohio, finishing high school. "

Valdes has two interests left in life: watching cricket and tracking the academic progress of his sons. His sons used to play cricket too but have moved on, concentrating more on their studies and aiming to play professional soccer. Both options are unavailable to Antiguans unless they are willing to move out of the island. "Yeah maan, they applied to the university and they were called, " says the proud father.

Valdes loves his cricket but he's not all that worried that his sons couldn't persist with the game. And what would they have achieved even if they did? The university they are now in takes care of their academics, hostel fees, meals and their sporting interests.

Frederick and Samuels, in a word, are typical of the new generation from the Caribbean islands, busy pursuing the great American dream.

Valdes' Antiguan story is the same as that of Pamela Lawrence, an inn-keeper in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Pamela does good business during international cricket matches because her bed-andbreakfast facility is at walking distance from the Queen's Park Oval. She is a very busy woman, running three such facilities, but her only other interest is her children - 22-year-old son William and 18-year-old daughter Rebecca - both of whom live with her sister in University Hills in suburban Los Angeles.

William plays basketball and Rebecca tennis. Pamela is confident they'll make something for themselves and not return to Trinidad. "There's nothing here. It's a quiet life and everybody knows everybody. There's no future, no good education, " she says. Then she points out a group of young men across the street busy buying their daily beer. "You see, that's what they do. They don't want to study or work, " she says, happy her children have moved on.

Valdes and Pamela are examples of how the younger lot of islanders moving to greener pastures. The US of A presents a picture so bright it's hard to shut your eyes and ignore it. The new generation is growing up with different dreams, and making a life for themselves on these islands is not part of their plan.

Unfortunately, that means they have also given cricket, once the life and soul of the Caribbean, a cold shoulder. A sport that marked the emergence of the black man's right to assert his identity is fast losing its relevance. It shows in the paucity of talent at the international level, in the results and in the endless bickering between players and administrators. And in the largely empty stands at the cricket stadiums.

"Looking for better opportunities is not like how it used to be. My daughter is in America. She's a top lawyer and has been a competitive sportsperson, " says former West Indies spin legend Lance Gibbs. He lives in the US too, and now comes to the Caribbean only when invited by a corporate house for which he is a brand ambassador.

Universities in America offer impressive scholarships and sports offers a ticket out. The basketball, American football and baseball leagues spend quite a bit of money and energy in seeking young talent and once they are convinced they've found it, they go all the way in providing the best opportunities and facilities.

Inn-keeper Pamela has a simple question: "Why wouldn't I allow my children to live that dream?"

Interest in cricket, naturally, has dimmed. It shows at every level that the sport is played on these islands. The national team has been struggling to make victory count;the domestic circuit lacks the lure of the lucre and at school level there's no inspiration to take up the sport because young kids don't have any new role models.

The other day in Kingston, Jamaica, the reserved taxi driver requested this writer to allow him to pick up a few kids from school and drop them off at a nearby cricket ground. When this writer agreed, he dashed his way to Half Way Tree Convent and picked up half a dozen 12-year-old boys who had to rush to a nearby ground to be in time for a game of cricket.

"Come on man, make it fast, " Anthony, one of the kids said impatiently, when we drove in. "I have to rush for another game, " he added. He would finish the game of cricket and then head to play a game of soccer, which he found more exciting.

"I play cricket only because I'm on the school team, " he said. There was certainly no excitement in his voice.

A large chunk of the West Indies team members today consists of people of Indian descent, the Ramnarines, Rampauls, Dinanaths and Devendras, the Trinidadians and Guyanese. They seem to be the ones playing the larger share of the cricket here. Antigua hardly has any new cricketers worthy of mention. Jamaica - a relatively larger island - has given just six international cricketers in the last four years. Barbados is struggling. Dominica, St Kitts and St Lucia suffer a worse fate.

No wonder the island of Trinidad and Tobago has time and again pressed for its own national team to be recognised. "The love that you will find here for the game, you will not find it anywhere else, " says Xavier Colaco, who has played domestic cricket in his prime alongside the likes of Lance Gibbs and Charlie Davis. His own son Cleve is an athlete who is shifting to Europe very soon.

Trinidadian leg-spinner Devendra Bishoo is your typical current-day West Indian cricketer - short in height, of thin frame, ever smiling and very chatty.

Just think back to Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge. Tall, muscular and stocky, focused even if they found time to chat with the opponent with a smile. Always looking to cause a massacre.
Bishoo represents the new era, very different to the kind one grew up watching or hearing about the West Indies, very unlike the past. He laughs when asked about this.

"Well, I am like this, " is his honest reply. "I enjoy bowling leg-spin and I get great joy when I trap batsmen. I feel it's fun when you play cricket and if you can't have that fun, there's no point, " he says.

Bishoo has watched Fire in Babylon, the recent documentary on 15 years of West Indian domination of world cricket, and he says not only him but the entire West Indies team draws great inspiration from it. But Fire in Babylon talks about cricketers who played for a lot more than just fun. They played the game to earn their share of respect, tell the world they were among their equals.

Ramnaresh Sarwan, another West Indies cricketer of Indian descent, says he's "seen the movie five times. " "Yeah, I like it, " is all that you can get out of him.

Jamaica's growing sports industry is a good indication of where cricket stands on this island as compared to athletics, football and boxing. Chris Gayle's controversy with the West Indies cricket board doesn't make it to the front pages but Tyson Gay's comment that he'll beat Usain Bolt this year does. The cab driver in Kingston certainly doesn't know where Andre Russell and Daren Powell stay. But ask him about Asafa Powell and he'll point you towards Beverley Hills, the upscale uphill township in Kingston.

Life's in the fast lane in the Caribbean these days and cricket - except for Twenty20 because it is a three-hour session that can be enjoyed with the beer and the music - doesn't sit well with the current generation. Basketball is in, and you realise it when every second young man is either feeling elated or irritated because Miami lost to Dallas in the NBA. Soccer is such a fad that kids take great pride in their jerseys matching that of Brazil. Baseball and football are tickets to enter the United States.

Today, cricket gives the Caribbean man neither the joy nor the social and financial privilege he is looking to earn. Life has moved beyond.

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