Three years ago, during an evening celebrating the West Indies' 75th anniversary as a Test-playing team, Viv Richards took to the stage of Birmingham's Symphony Hall to receive an award as one of the Caribbean's top five players of all time.
At the crease in the 70s and 80s, Richards always cut a distinctive figure. A merciless batsman, he none the less maintained a nonchalant gait. In between apparently effortless boundaries the "Master Blaster" swaggered around the field, chewing gum and refusing to wear a helmet, even against the ferocious pace of the likes of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. But as he addressed the Birmingham audience his easy-going manner gave way to a sterner tone. Collecting his award, he turned to the current West Indies team, which had just lost the first Test to England at Lords by 210 runs, and said: "You guys have something serious to represent, and don't ever forget that. Because of the inspiration factor of the past, let us hope you guys understand what it is to represent the West Indies. Cricket began a long time ago. Let us not forget why you guys are here, OK?" Within a month England had crushed them four-nil.
There was a time, back in Richards' day, when a West Indies defeat of this magnitude meant something. Like a football World Cup without Brazil, or Wimbledon without at least one of the Williams sisters, West Indies losing at cricket altered the natural order of things. "Unprecedented is this fact in world sport," wrote Tim Hector, the late Antiguan socialist and cricket commentator. "No other people for so long - a decade and a half - so completely dominated an international sport. Especially when it is understood that this dominance, this excellence, was based on a small, a tiny, a minuscule population of 5 million souls. The smallest cricketing nation in the world."
But by 1995, when Australia bowled the whole team out for just 51, defeat (sometimes on a humiliating scale) had become commonplace. The next year they lost to Kenya - hardly a cricketing giant. Now, as the West Indies play host to the Cricket World Cup - a cup they were the first to win, in 1975 - they rank eighth of the 11 one-day nations, ahead only of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh (who have overtaken them since the seedings were made) and Kenya.
There are probably as many theories explaining this dismal state of affairs as there are inhabitants of some of the smaller islands. The most popular ones include feckless youth, incompetent management, greedy players, inter-island rivalry, cable television and economic decline. But one consensual strand underpins them all. It's not just about cricket. The Caribbean has long contained its own particular blend of European, African and American influences, of which cricket was but one. But with independence, US hegemony and globalisation, the nature of that mix has shifted radically over the past 50 years.
Just like the banana and sugar industries that once dominated the islands, cricket has found itself under threat from more powerful influences than it has had to contend with in the past. It was the planters and merchants who carried the game there from England. The cricket season and the crop season changed in lockstep. Just as with bananas and sugar, the question today is not whether it is in decline, but whether that decline is permanent or cyclical. Will it adapt or die? News of its death has been greatly exaggerated, but for the time being the prognosis is poor.
Driving into Bridgetown from the airport, banners advertising the World Cup hang from the road lamps proclaiming: "Cricketing legends are born here." Local cricketer Brandon Fross believes the stork that is supposed to deliver such legends is long overdue. "There's no new talent coming up," he says. "Every year the best players get one year older." Fross sits, padded up, by the Barclay ground pavilion, waiting to bat for Wanderers against another local Bajan team, Pickwick.
Most here concede no more than the possibility of a West Indies victory in the World Cup. "I'm a West Indian so I have to love West Indian cricket," says Fross. "But we're a second-division side now. We raised the level of the game and then the others aspired to that level but we didn't maintain it; so relatively speaking, we've fallen."
Michael Walcott, another Wanderers veteran and son of the late, legendary batsman Clyde Walcott, thinks that "there's just not enough money invested to maintain interest. The facilities are poor. The grounds are poor. We have games in the domestic competition which are being forfeited because not enough players are showing up. That never used to happen."
The day before, at the opening of Bridgetown's Kensington Oval, which will host the World Cup final, you would never have guessed the game was in the doldrums. It's a sell-out, and there is a carnival atmosphere. The stadium has been expensively renovated. The World Cup presents a rare chance for the region to showcase itself on the global stage. "Cricket brings in a lot of revenue in sports tourism," says Stephen Wagg, author of Cricket and National Identity in the Postcolonial Age, and a lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University. "It's one of the things that gives the islands an identity in the market place." But with matches played in nine separate countries, spanning roughly the same distance as that between Edinburgh and Madrid, and only Jamaica having enough hotel rooms to comfortably accommodate everyone, the logistics are causing jitters.
The Oval opening is an exercise in nostalgia. Various parts of the stadium are named after the Barbadian cricketing giants: the Garfield Sobers pavilion, the Joel Garner end; the Malcolm Marshall end. The spectators sit in three stands bearing the names of legends: Hall and Griffiths; Worrel, Weekes and Walcott; Greenidge and Haynes. What makes the whole event more poignant is that this great past is so recent in years, and yet so distant in talent. Most of those they are nostalgic for are still alive.
Everton Weekes, Seymour Nurse, Charles Griffith, Joel Garner, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes are each introduced to the crowd and then driven around the stadium in golf buggies. Then comes the big daddy of them all: Garfield Sobers, who brings the stadium to his feet. And as each one circles the pitch they give particularly knowing nods and waves to those they know and recognise: these are both global giants and local heroes.
It is then that two things strike you. The first is that, with the exception of Brian Lara, it is difficult to imagine anyone even remembering the names of the players of the past decade, let alone naming things after them. Second, that one of the most amazing things about the decline of West Indian cricket is the heights it reached in the first place. In terms of size and population, most of the islands are little more than big towns with flags and anthems. Barbados has roughly the population of Nottingham, living on land not much bigger than the county of Rutland; but that makes it the fourth largest and most populous of the 13 islands that comprise the team. It is staggering that such a small area should have dominated anything on a global scale.
"Caribbean social scientists are in general agreement on one point at least," professor Hillary Beckles, principal of the University of West Indies campus in Barbados, has argued. "That the excellence achieved in the region's cricket culture, masterfully demonstrated in the two decades that came crashing down in 1995, represents one of the finest expressions of efficient human resources mobilisation since the fulfilment of the national independence agenda."
"What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" asked the Trinidadian-born intellectual CLR James in his famous treatise on West Indian cricket, Beyond a Boundary. The development of West Indian cricket, say scholars, can be broadly divided into three stages that parallel broader developments in the region. The first was the colonial phase, when the crease was the one place where blacks and whites could interact with some semblance of equality. "Cricket was a field where the social passions of the colonials, suppressed politically, found vigorous if diluted expression," wrote James. If wars were won on the playing fields of Eton, then aspiration for social change was being contested on the playing fields of the Caribbean. "Cricket and cricket alone provided the medium in popular sports, through which we could take an English institution and transform it, recreate it in our own image and likeness, and stamp our personality on it," argued Hector. "Liberating ourselves from impositions which the heavy weight of centuries had reinforced with the limitation of spirit, vision and self-respect."
With the end of the second world war came the broader challenge to colonialism and the second, "nationalist phase". In 1950, just two years after the symbolic arrival of SS Windrush marked the beginning of substantial post-war migration, the West Indies beat England for the first time. "Beating England," wrote Michael Manley, the late Jamaican president and author of A History of West Indian Cricket, "was more than a sporting success. It was the proof that a people was coming of age. They had bested the masters at their own game on their own home turf."
It would be several years before many of the islands would actually gain independence and even longer before West Indies would achieve supremacy in the game. Back home it would also see an attempt to unite the region into a West Indies federation - something like the EU. The efforts would crash on the rocks of petty island rivalries and economic and cultural differences. "It was only in Britain that we became West Indians," the intellectual, Stuart Hall, once told me. "Growing up I was Jamaican."
The only area where the region did explicitly come together was cricket. Since it was an area in which it would come to excel, the sport became something of a flagship for the case for regional unity. "Our politics pales into insignificance against our cricket," Hector once claimed. "Our economies fare even worse. In science and technology we have done little of note. In literature and music alone do we have achievements matching our cricketers."
And as West Indians moved abroad, the impact of this cricketing success moved with them. I know this from my own upbringing: I was named after Gary Sobers. (My dad wanted to call me Garfield but my mum, thank God, put her foot down.) Cricket formed the social glue that bound the Caribbean community in Stevenage, where I grew up. I was a scorer for the Stevenage West Indian Sports and Social Club. One of my brothers kept wicket. My mum was secretary. Every summer we would travel to small home counties villages and integrate with them one weekend at a time.
And during the 70s and early 80s - the years of sus laws and riots when the police used the Notting Hill carnival to test new paramilitary and surveillance equipment - the Test matches between the West Indies and England were not about sport. They were about resistance. In 1976, a particularly violent year at Notting Hill, the South African-born England captain, Tony Greig, promised to make the West Indies "grovel". The West Indies won the series 3-0.
"Everything about our life in England at that time told us that we were inferior," says the Rev Wilfred Wood, Britain's first black bishop, who recently returned to his native Barbados. "It's not something that we accepted. But the only thing that publicly expressed our refusal to accept it was cricket. Once we were on the field with them, everyone knew who the masters were."
But as our generation came of age, the ties that bound our parents no longer held strong. We had football and rugby to choose from and a range of opportunities - including descending into the underclass - that our parents never had. The Stevenage West Indies Sports and Social Club disbanded. Given the fortunes of the West Indian cricket team, we lost interest just in time.
The third, and current, phase is characterised by globalisation. The concentration of capital and unbalanced trading system has left many islands fighting for their economic and cultural life. Since the EU announced it was cutting its import sugar price by a third, St Kitts and Nevis has stopped producing sugar entirely; the current harvest in Trinidad will be the last time the government is directly involved in the industry. Barbados is also cutting back.
In St Vincent, more than 50% of the workforce is in some way involved in the banana business. The effect of cheaper imports from multi-nationals in Central America is the equivalent to a pit closure in a mining town.
So what has all this got to do with cricket? In one sense the same as it has to do with the decline in colliery bands in Britain or jazz in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: decimate an economic base and the culture it helped produce will soon follow. Young aspirant sports players in the Caribbean are now more likely to be attracted by basketball (which could earn them a scholarship to an American university) or football, which could pay millions.
"Twenty-five years ago, cricket was the only avenue anyone had to be recognised. The West Indian team represented international stardom for any youngster," Lara said a few years ago. "It still does [but now] there are a lot more distractions and more avenues."
Such economic realities are buttressed by the cultural effect of cable television piping in the latest international sporting superstars plying their trade. Bubba's, a sports bar in the south of Barbados, was packed with young locals in Manchester United shirts watching the US all-star basketball game beamed live from Las Vegas. Earlier that morning, at the Lucky Horseshoe down the road, there was Premiership football. And although it may be 24C outside, that doesn't stop sports enthusiasts watching ice hockey, if that's what's on.
I can see the changes in my own family. My Uncle Michael is still a cricket coach at primary school level there. He says the enthusiasm remains, but the infrastructure to mould it is decaying. Meanwhile two of my cousins play basketball and another is a regional squash champion. They'll watch cricket, but they neither follow it nor play it. "When you let people know how much Shaq gets for basketball," says Michael, "and how much Beckham gets to go to the US, it's not that surprising that cricket struggles to compete."
"I think we are too influenced by American culture," argues Walcott. "Everything now has to be quick and fast. Cricket is a slow game."
"It's not a game any more, it's a business," says Fross. With money now such a big factor, players are far more assertive. Whereas, in the past, prominent individual players contributed to a team character, today the focus is on personalities and personal success. In 1998 the team staged a strike and refused to travel to a newly democratic South Africa until they got a pay raise. Their actions compared unfavourably with Richards' refusal to break the boycott and play under apartheid, despite being offered $1m.
And there is one individual above all who stokes controversy: Lara. "When Lara finishes batting I turn off the TV," says Fross. "He's entertaining. I would get up at 2am to watch him, but not for anyone else." And Lara, it is fair to say, has a clear idea of his own value. Last year he threatened to resign as captain because the poor management of the team was ruining his personal brand. "It's painful what has gone on in the last couple of months," he said after a Test defeat by India. "I have West Indies cricket at heart, but if it's a situation where my reputation as a captain is being dragged down . . ."
None of this is inevitable. By definition, the West Indies isn't the only region grappling with globalisation. With civil wars, wars on terror, military rule, or postponed elections, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka all have problems of their own, yet their cricket structure remains unharmed. True, the geographical proximity to the US has a bearing on the Caribbean, but the islands are no mere receptacle of American and European influences either. If the banana industries of St Lucia and Dominica have been revived thanks to Fairtrade bananas, then the West Indian cricketing culture could, with effort, restore itself to the heart of the region's identity.
"Cricket is the only sport here that appeals to everyone," says Dorian Bryan, executive news editor of the Barbados Advocate. "It's the only sport we play as a group. It has a significance collectively. Cricket goes further than just winning." For the islands' sake, let's hope he's right.