Windies of Change: T20, the CPL, and the Future of Cricket in the Caribbean

In 1963, CLR James predicted the genesis of T20 cricket—or, at least, that the future of cricket lay in the improvisation and controlled recklessness that we now associate with the shortest form of the game.

Eulogizing Wilton St. Hill—a well-known Trinidadian batsman from the 1920s—James recalled the vicious beauty of Hill’s technique. Facing off against a fearsome paceman, Hill “…[w]ith his shoulder well up, almost scoop[ed] up the ball, his body following through almost towards point… hurtling [the ball] over mid-off’s head.” It was a shot that James believed Hill “had never had to make…before in his life.” For Hill, if success “required the invention of a stroke on the spot, invented it would be.” Presciently, James believed Hill’s style was “where a future for big cricket lies.”

Much to the chagrin of the Test purist, James looks to have been right. Fifty years before cricket, marketing, and television came together to birth the twenty-over format, James had already recognized inherent appeal of T20 (although James, being the good Marxist that he was, surely would have abhorred the franchise system). With the success of the IPL, the Big Bash League, and the emergence of the Caribbean Premier league, the future of big cricket does indeed look to be T20—for better or for worse.

Much on this topic has already been written. At this point, the debate surrounding cricket’s future has taken on the tone and venom usually associated with a political campaign. By and large, it’s a debate I have very little interest participating in. However, in a recent column, the venerable Tony Cozier touched on an claim I had yet to see made elsewhere: Contrary to prevailing narrative, West Indian cricket isn’t dying. Rather, it’s being reborn.

In a piece praising the CPL for instilling life into Caribbean cricket, Cozier says:

Provided all [the West Indies’] top T20 players are available and selected, they will start as one of the favourites for the [ICC World Twenty20] tournament in India. It is success their devotees yearn for in all formats. At present, that seems some way off.

The West Indies’ lack of success in the longer formats is undeniable. But, perhaps, the overall future of cricket in the Caribbean is not nearly as bleak as some claim. The CPL is loud, garish, and—in terms of the overbearing and never ending advertising—often embarrassing. However, while the league has not yet made a profit, the packed stadiums and atmosphere at the grounds speak to the excitement the Caribbean public seemingly has for the tournament.

And Cozier is right—on paper, the West Indies do have one of the strongest T20 sides in the world. Combined with the emergence of the CPL, perhaps West Indian cricket is far from being on its deathbed. Much like James, they could simply be ahead of the curve in embracing the ugly, thrilling, overbearing joy of T20.

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