The West Indies cricket team are currently touring England, and the home side look set to beat them. So far, so predictable. Apart from diehard cricket fans the country is mostly indifferent, only perhaps registering that Michael Vaughan seems to be back, a guy with silly hair has done well for himself, and Freddie's ankle has gone again.
But it wasn’t always like that. There was actually an England/West Indies Test series which changed the country.
It was in 1976.
Looking at archive footage in a recent BBC4 documentary, you can see that Britain was an edgy, restless place that year; nobody had much money, different governments had come and gone, Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister. The country was at war - farcically, with Iceland, over fishing rights, but more bitterly and bloodily in the guerrilla struggles in Northern Ireland, which after seven years were becoming a way of life. Twelve IRA bombs exploded in London during January, and in March the extended family known as the Maguire Seven were wrongfully imprisoned for terrorism. In popular culture, the iconoclastic spirit of punk was on the rise.
Racism - conscious and unconscious - was still widespread in Britain, and black youth had constant trouble with a police force which could be bigoted and undisciplined. Many black British felt ‘invisible’ and not really part of the country; but at least there were laws declaring discrimination on grounds of race to be wrong. In South Africa, of course, things were quite different: June 1976 would see the Soweto riots in which protesting schoolchildren were shot and killed by security forces.
The England cricket captain, Tony Greig, had grown up in South Africa. Exceptionally tall, with untidy white-blond hair, he was an outgoing, aggressive player. In a TV interview before the first Test against the West Indies, Greig said “These guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they're down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey and a few others, to make them grovel."
Watching the recording now, it seems clear what he means, the mindset of his childhood resonating unquestioned through his strong South African accent: “these guys”, the black men, have no strength of character, they won’t withstand pressure.
In itself that was insult enough, but for the West Indian players the word ‘grovel’ meant much more than just a punchy soundbite - it meant the auction block and the overseer’s whip. As soon as they heard Greig’s comment, they were blazing angry. Led by Clive Lloyd, whose schoolmasterly exterior masked a ferocious commitment to West Indian cricket as the outward symbol of proud independent nations, they set out to demolish England.
Summer 1976 in Britain would be the hottest and driest summer on record.
Many talented people have come from the county of Yorkshire, but it’s a part of the world that doesn’t do glamour. In the archive footage, this fact is embodied in the solid form of Brian Close, astonishingly an England opening batsman at 45 years old. Balding, managerial, shirtsleeves rolled up, he looks as if he should be at home washing the car before his Sunday dinner.
Bowling to him is Michael Holding from Jamaica, lithe, slim, 22 years old, so famously soft-footed in his long, suspense-inducing run-up that he acquired the nickname ‘Whispering Death’. Today many still consider Holding the fastest bowler in history. As he bowls, with his seemingly effortless action, to Close, the future challenges the past, and leaves it standing lost and helpless.
And here, coming out to bat, is Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, from Antigua, on his first tour of England.
What can you say about King Viv that hasn’t already been said? Except that, watching the old grainy TV pictures, one wonders: has there been a sportsman before or since who used good humour as such a weapon? Here he is already at 24 years old, as he would be throughout his career: lethally affable. Supremely at ease, he makes being at ease threatening. He smiles, he chews gum, he strolls out to the crease like a contented lion checking out its territory of a sunny afternoon. His every move conveys that whatever the bowler sends down, it will be his pleasure to dispatch it to the boundary. He scores 232 in his first Test.
Did the West Indies demolish England and make Tony Greig grovel? Of course they did. They won 3-0, and if two matches hadn’t been drawn because of rain they would have won them all. The English are a funny lot, though, forever torn between a shared tradition of conventional hierarchy and a mongrel subversive individualism. We love a pirate, and the West Indies walloped us that year like mythical pirates with swagger and style and courage; few can have resented that victory, and many - especially the ever-rebellious young - enjoyed every bit of it.
And it really meant something. In those pictures of the final test at the Oval - the unwatered grass bleached out to greyish beige by the August heat - by this time the whole country knows what’s going on and it seems the entire black population of South London is at the match. As Holding splinters Tony Greig’s wicket, Viv Richards scores 291 and West Indies beat England by 231 runs, row upon row of young men in wide lapels and afro hair are cheering, singing, pouring onto the pitch at the final victory, fierce, energised, empowered. No one could tell them now that black people were only there to clip bus tickets and clean hospitals. There would be battles to fight and minds to be changed, rivers to cross, but in that summer of 1976 they believed they could make it: they would never be invisible again.
Some visual aides from youtube:
Some highlights from King Viv’s career against England