In the book Beyond A Boundary, the West Indian political intellectual, CLR James, poses an intriguing question, "What do they know of cricket that only cricket know?" This question highlights how impossible it is to fully comprehend the game without understanding its social and cultural context. Hilary Beckles, a pro vice-chancellor at the University of the West Indies and founder of its Centre for Cricket Research, has taken this question to heart and is attempting to find a practical solution.
Beckles grew up in a cricket culture and played in the highly competitive Yorkshire League with dreams of playing for the West Indies. However, faced with a West Indian test off-spinner Lance Gibbs in the nets at Edgbaston as a 16-year-old Warwickshire Schools player, his dreams were shattered. Despite this setback, Beckles went on to study history and wrote a book about the development of West Indies cricket, which was hailed as the most important book ever written on the game’s history.
In his book, Beckles examines the reasons why West Indian cricket declined after its complete dominance in the 1980s and points to a range of possible explanations. One of these is the increase in sporting counter-attractions. Previously, cricket had enjoyed a monopoly of sporting attention and talent. However, now talented 14- to 15-year-olds can consider options such as football, basketball, tennis, golf, and track and field, with American universities offering scholarships. Cricket is not the only automatic choice anymore.
Beckles argues that West Indian cricket has lost its sense of identity and national pride, which previously drove the successful teams led by Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards. He explains that players in those teams had a collective sense of West Indian identity from growing up during a period when islands were campaigning for and attaining independence from Britain. However, the modern player epitomised by Brian Lara has developed in a time of neo-liberal globalisation and sees himself as an independent craftsman.
Beckles suggests that this loss of identity is a consequence of the failure to create a successful West Indian federation. He believes that the West Indies is an intellectual construct rather than a reality. However, there are two significant exceptions to this, the West Indian cricket team and the university. Beckles aims to sustain cricket through the university and plans to build a purpose-built cricket academy on its Barbados campus.
The academy aims to educate players to be effective professionals by teaching them about cricket practice, physical education, nutrition, history, and culture. Beckles argues that this is necessary due to the under-development of West Indian economies and the dwindling educational opportunities for most of the population. He explains that players need to be educated to analyse their performance effectively and represent their society adequately.
The academy builds on existing ventures such as the annual Vice-Chancellor’s XI cricket match and the fifteen annual Frank Worrell scholarships awarded to outstanding students who are also achievers or leaders in some sport. Beckles hopes that the academy will bring the West Indies players together, starting with the under-15 and under-17 teams in 2001-2, and eventually, the full team. The academy will have the best possible playing and training facilities, a library, an archive, and ensure that West Indian cricket will remain a defining popular activity in the region.
Beckles stated that the university’s most popular courses are those that depict intricate details of cricket history. According to him, several students, including those whose major is political science, anthropology, and history, have admitted that only by studying two centuries of cricket history, they were able to grasp the rationale behind Caribbean’s history and society. It is highly likely that CLR James, a well-known cricket historian, would have comprehended and commended their approach.