Beyond Colonialism: Contemporary Cricket Narratives in the Caribbean

4 October, 2016 by Adnan Hossain

Every year, male cricketers from many islands in the Caribbean migrate temporarily to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the richest country in the region, to play for Trinidadian cricket clubs. Trinidad, however, is not where they want to be. Many had originally aspired to play for the West Indies Cricket Team, a multinational team composed of players from 15 countries, British dependencies and other territories in the Caribbean. While getting selected for this team is difficult for young cricket hopefuls, young Caribbean men continue to desire to be part of it and be recognized as a professional cricketer. However, many realize at an early stage that their dream to make it cannot translate into reality. It is with some of these Caribbean men that I spent considerable time in Trinidad in 2015.

Trinidad is the only Caribbean country with a domestic cricket league that offers financial opportunities to aspiring cricketers. The Trinidadian cricket league attracts many who have either given up completely on playing for the West Indies Cricket Team or are still clinging on to the hope of qualifying for it. There are also former West Indies Cricket Team players who were later dropped from the squad. The Guyanese are the largest group of overseas athletes playing in the Trinidadian domestic cricket league. Although geographically located in South America, Guyana is historically and culturally part of the Caribbean. And, as my Guyanese interlocutors contend, cricket is inextricably entwined with Guyanese identity.

A billboard in Guyana highlighting Guyanese love of cricket, June 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

A billboard in Guyana highlighting Guyanese love of cricket, June 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

While the routine media glamorization of West Indies cricket superstars like Chris Gayle and Sunil Narine showcases the success stories of a tiny proportion of Caribbean cricketers moving around the world, the experience of the Guyanese cricketers in Trinidad is largely one of struggle. Particularly in the Caribbean context, intra-regional migratory dynamics in cricket offers unique insights into the contestation over and forging of a Guyanese national identity in Trinidad. It was in my encounters with Guyanese athletes in Trinidad that I came to understand these sporting migrants’ aspirations, opportunities, cultural dislocation and adjustments that contrast with the celebrity status of the tiny minority of West Indies Cricket Team players of worldwide visibility.

Caribbean cricketers practicing in a Trinidadian cricket club, March 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

Caribbean cricketers practicing in a Trinidadian cricket club, March 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

Cricket League and Overseas Athletes in Trinidad

Started in the early 1980s, the domestic cricket league in Trinidad was originally intended to nurture local talent. In its initial years, the players were only paid stipends and awarded prizes for their performances. In the late 80s, one local club brought two Guyanese players from Berbice, a county of Guyana, to play in the domestic cricket league currently known as the Premier League. The man behind this initiative told me that, after he brought these Guyanese athletes over, his club’s performance improved dramatically. In his view, his efforts set the trend for other clubs to bring more Guyanese athletes over to Trinidad. The introduction of foreign players also led to a shift in the meaning of cricket from an amateur sport fueled by passion to paid labor. At the time of my fieldwork, almost all the roughly 15 Premier League clubs in Trinidad had contracted overseas players. To prevent clubs from having unfair advantages, the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board (TTCB) established guidelines to regulate the number of foreign players each club is allowed to play in tournaments. Today, the clubs are also required to register the foreign players with TTCB and organize formal contracts with them.

The relationship between the club and the athletes they hire is often complicated. In practice, TTCB has very little involvement in the way clubs deal with the cricketers or negotiate athlete’s salary. Athletes and managers often refer to "contracts", but these are actually verbal agreements based on trust. Players are often recruited on the recommendations of former players. In fact, many of my Guyanese interlocutors arrived in Trinidad after only a telephone conversation with a manager or a former player.

Club managers I met argued that the lack of written contracts helps the players to remain vague about their salaries, a strategy that allows them to avoid paying taxes to the Trinidadian government. Although this may lead to the possibility of exploitation, both the clubs and the players find this arrangement acceptable. Generally, foreign players are paid US$2–5,000 per cricket season (from the end of January to roughly the beginning of June), although those with West Indies Cricket Team or national level experience can earn more. Clubs also provide the players accommodation, meals and transportation during their stay in Trinidad.

Disputes sometimes break out between club management and players over matters of housing and food quality or the players’ poor performance. When a cricketer wants to leave a club because of a disagreement, he has to obtain a release from the club before joining another club, which places him at the mercy of the club. However, not a single player I interacted with ever mentioned the lack of proper contracts as contributing to these disputes.

While Trinidadian cricket club managers pride themselves on having the only domestic league in the Caribbean, they also recognize that overseas players cannot work as full-time cricketers. In addition to playing cricket, most of these players also do menial work arranged by the clubs, even though the visa category they come under strictly prohibits them from taking up work other than cricket. Most of the overseas athletes I befriended initially concealed from me the fact that they were also engaged in odd jobs. Coura Cricket Club (a pseudonym) arranged part-time work in a car-parts factory for all five overseas athletes on the squad. Several club managers told me that such activities can help Guyanese players earn extra cash before they return home. What emerges is an informal economy around cricket and the transnational and intra-regional migrations it involves, wherein players are engaged in non-sporting activity to support their efforts to be recognized as professional cricketers.

Guyanese and Trinidadian cricketers celebrate after a local fête (friendly) match in Trinidad, April 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

Guyanese and Trinidadian cricketers celebrate after a local "fête"(friendly) match in Trinidad, April 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

Guyanese Cricketers in Trinidad: The Quest for a Professional Identity

As the richest country in the Caribbean, Trinidad has been a destination for economic migrants from other Caribbean countries for decades. But sport migration to the Trinidadian domestic cricket league is a much more recent phenomenon.

The numerical preponderance of Guyanese players in Trinidad club cricket is not a coincidence. Trinidadian club managers, club sponsors, and cricket enthusiasts contend that this presence is at least partially due to the fact that Guyanese players are "cheaper" than cricketers from other Caribbean countries. For example, as one of my Trinidadian interlocutors explained, bringing players from Guyana is logistically easy as the airfare between Trinidad and Guyana is cheaper than airfares between Trinidad and Jamaica or other islands, which are prohibitively expensive.

Former Guyanese West Indies Cricket Team players "liming", i.e. engaging in the art of doing nothing, in Trinidad, April 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

Former Guyanese West Indies Cricket Team players "liming", i.e. engaging in the art of doing nothing, in Trinidad, April 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

My Trinidadian interlocutors also suggested that the Guyanese tend to fit more easily into Trinidadian society than athletes from other Caribbean countries because of alleged cultural similarities between Trinidad and Guyana, which share a history of African slavery and Indian indentureship. According to my Trinidadian and Guyanese interlocutors, they are the two countries in the Caribbean where people of African and Indian origins live side-by-side, a feature that is foreign to cricketers of most other Caribbean countries. Many Trinidadians also explained to me that the Guyanese tend to do well in Trinidad because of similar playing conditions and styles of play in both these countries.

In contrast, my Guyanese interlocutors interpret Trinidadian interest in Guyanese athletes as a recognition of Guyanese talent and cricketing abilities. While they agree that cultural familiarity and similar race-based social stratification makes it easy for Guyanese to navigate the Trinidadian social world, the Guyanese also insist that they are different from the Trinidadians. In the words of Nishal, a Guyanese cricketer in Trinidad, "we are more appealing to the Trinidadians because we are more hard working, will do things that Trinidadians will not do and we perform better on the cricket field".

The Guyanese as the "Small Island People"

Mango Tree (a pseudonym), a club where I was based during my fieldwork, had four Guyanese players. They all stayed in a two-bedroom apartment that the club had arranged. A 20-minute drive away from the club, the apartment was located in a neighborhood of Indo-Trinidadians, or Trinidadians of Indian descent. The Guyanese cricketers lived on the first floor while the ground floor apartment was occupied by a group of women from the Dominican Republic working in local massage parlors. The club supplied food while the athletes cooked for themselves. During the five-month Premier League cricket season, the athletes spent most of their time at the apartment or on the cricket grounds. Whatever spare time they had was devoted to various kinds of income-generating activities organized by the club.

One club manager I grew close to often complained about what he considered to be the "monster-like" eating habits of the Guyanese athletes, as food supplies ran out faster than he would have liked. The athletes, in contrast, frequently complained about being mistreated by the club, giving as illustration the fact that food was not delivered in a timely manner, but they pleaded that I not divulge their feelings to the club manager.

I was struck by how the Guyanese always behaved in a very guarded and self-conscious manner, as if their every move was being judged. Compared to Trinidadian players, who were often spontaneous, the Guyanese were tense and tongue-tied. In my first month of fieldwork, I thought they were perhaps too polite and unassertive. I also felt I was perhaps reading too much in the apparent lack of frankness in everything they did.

However, I soon realized that Trinidadians routinely mocked the Guyanese and denigrated them as "small islanders". Rampersad , a cricket scholar in Trinidad, traced the roots of these "small island" jokes to a cricket match between Trinidad and the rest of the Caribbean countries in 1975. Migrants from other Caribbean countries based in Trinidad turned out in droves to support the visiting team. When Trinidadians lost that match, newspapers the following day were flooded with commentaries questioning the allegiance of migrants from other islands and their right to work and stay in Trinidad. Apparently, during another match in the 1980s, Trinidadian immigration officers were called in to check the legal status of the supporters of the Guyanese team playing against Trinidad. Such incidents, Rampersad explained, provide the backdrop for current Trinidadian attitude towards the Guyanese.

But Guyana is not an island, let alone a small one. In fact, with 215,000 km2 compared to Trinidad and Tobago’s 5,100 km2, it is the largest country in the Caribbean. So the label "small islander" refers not to country size but to the pervasive poverty in Guyana and the stereotype about Guyanese being generally "backward". Club managers and Trinidadian players often jokingly called Guyana a "bush". The Guyanese dialect of English was a constant source of amusement among Trinidadians. Although my Guyanese interlocutors were aware of these taunts, they barely reacted to them and even sometimes laughed along.

Many Trinidadians think that "small island" Guyanese men of both Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese "steal" Trinidadian women: they come over to Trinidad, earn Trinidadian money, marry Trinidadian women and settle down. Particularly in the context of Mango Tree club, the popularity among Trinidadian female fans of two former West Indies Cricket Team players origins was a constant topic of commentary by club managers (both of Indo- and Afro-Trinidadian origin). Indo-Trinidadian men’s complaints about Afro-Trinidadian men "stealing" Indo-Trinidadian women is a theme that places race at the center of masculine anxiety. In contrast, the Trinidadian club managers’ dissatisfaction with both Afro- and Indo-Guyanese athletes’ erotic exploits highlights the role of a national identity rather than race as contributing to a sense of emasculation among Trinidadian men.

My Trinidadian interlocutors’ masculine anxieties are not the result of their inability to form sexual relations with Trinidadian women. In fact, the club managers and the Trinidadian athletes at Mango Tree Club had multiple sexual partners. Some of these women would also frequent the cricket grounds to cheer for the team. The "mistresses" of the club mangers would also often visit the club premise and spend hours hanging out with the managers and the athletes. Thus, rather than a case of individual inability to "access" women and feelings of jealousy, Trinidadian club managers’ dismay about Guyanese athletes’ involvement with Trinidadian women stems from the fact that despite being from Guyana, a poor country, these athletes are able to have both sexual and romantic relations with Trinidadian women. As a further illustration of this point, it is useful to note that both Guyana and Trinidad are part of CARICOM, a Caribbean regional bloc of economic integration and cooperation. Out of the 15 CARICOM member states, Trinidad and Guyana are often considered to be the wealthiest and the poorest countries respectively (although they may at times move up and down the ladder according to the criteria used). The economic disparity between Guyana and Trinidad here produces hierarchies of masculinities. In particular, the casting of the Guyanese men as problematic is linked to the dominant construction of Guyana in the Trinidadian imaginary as a pariah nation in the Caribbean region.

Guyanese Cricketers Return Home "Transformed"

Curious to learn more about my Guyanese interlocutors and the meaning of cricket in Guyana, in June 2015 I travelled to Berbice, a county in Guyana that was home to at least ten cricketers I befriended in Trinidad, a four-hour drive from the capital Georgetown. Within moments of my arrival, I noticed billboards depicting local cricket talent who have played for the West Indies Cricket Team. By the end of May, most of my Guyanese interlocutors had left Trinidad and had already been back home for two weeks when I arrived. Some has taken up part-time work like taxi driving.

A billboard in Berbice showcasing former local Guyanese cricketers who played for the West Indies Cricket Team, June 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

A billboard in Berbice showcasing former local Guyanese cricketers who played for the West Indies Cricket Team, June 2015 (Photo Adnan Hossain)

The first thing that struck me after I reached New Amsterdam, the capital of the county, was the frankness and spontaneity with which these cricketers were speaking to me. I felt as if I was talking to completely different people from the ones I had known in Trinidad: convivial, eloquent and self-assured. I visited their families and parents, who invited me for lunch or dinner. In the neighborhoods and the cricket circles I hung out in, it was evident that those who had returned from Trinidad exuded greater confidence in their interaction with others than those who had stayed home. The parents of the young men, all connected to a local sugar estate, were happy to have their sons back home. At one of the matches of bumper ball, a popular local variant of cricket, organized by a Presbyterian church, I met several young people interested in pursuing a cricket career. Many wanted to travel to Trinidad to play. Knowing of my connection with cricket clubs in Trinidad, some asked if I could link them up with my networks. Later in the evening, I joined a few cricketers at a nearby rum shop to enjoy chilled beer and wild meat, chatting about cricket, Guyana and their sexual experiences in Trinidad. One of them, Bhoodesh Dookhie (a pseudonym), the most taciturn of all Guyanese cricketers in Trinidad, said, "Trinidadians are Trickidadians. They are like tricksters".

As I left Guyana, Dookhie’s words were ringing in my ears, as it raised important questions about the complex relationships between the sport and the athletes who aspire to excel in it. For many Guyanese cricketers, Trinidad was their first experience of a consumer capitalist society and it is only by playing cricket that they could experience it. As many Guyanese told me "those who have come back from Trinidad are changed for good". Some viewed this change positively as the Guyanese boys returned more confident. Others suggested that they returned with attitudes not compatible with Guyanese values: for example, they sport wear flashy clothes and sunglasses, sartorial styles that many locals find ostentatious.

Towards Postcolonial Cricket in the Caribbean?

Introduced in the Caribbean as an elite sport by the British, cricket soon became a site for anti-colonial resistance. The literature on Caribbean cricket focuses primarily on the complex relation between the sport and colonial power and cricket’s contribution to the forging of a common Caribbean or West Indian identity. However, in the rapidly changing context of the postcolonial Caribbean, cricket continues to take on new meaning. Rather than being a symbolic battlefield for the assertion of a Caribbean power against the colonial forces, cricket today is often associated with the sudden emergence of wealth and individual glory, and the glamor and ostentation of a capitalist consumerist lifestyle. In reality, however, only a tiny minority manages to make it to the top and enjoy such lifestyles, even though the few examples of "success" continue to drive the dreams and aspirations of thousands of young men who play cricket to try to move out of poverty and obscurity. The changing meaning of cricket in the postcolonial Caribbean countries necessitates taking into account not only the old colonial relations between the colonizer and the colonized or the center and the periphery, but also new forms of dependence between and among countries in the Global South and within regional blocs like the CARICOM, of which both Guyana and Trinidad are part.

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