Much More Than A Game: Colin Babb’s They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun

John Stevenson reviews Colin Babb's study of the West Indies cricket team and the UK Caribbean community.

In his revised and updated book, They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun: West Indian Cricket and its Relationship with the British-Resident Caribbean Diaspora (Hansib: 2015), Colin Babb successfully explores the remarkable relationship between the Caribbean community in Britain and the West Indies cricket team. They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun transports readers to the 1950s and the emergence of the team as a sporting force, through to its rise and dominance in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, until its rapid decline in the mid-1990s.

UK-born Babb blends admirable cricket scholarship with an easily accessible style, liberally littered with personal anecdotes and a refreshing sense of humour. He is an avid fan of the game, whose family hails from Barbados, Guyana and Guadeloupe. A former BBC radio and website producer and broadcast journalist, he received his MA in 2012 from the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies at Warwick University.

Underscoring the history of the mass migration of West Indians from parts of the Caribbean archipelago, beginning with their first large-scale arrival via the Empire Windrush in 1948, They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun gives penetrating insights into the forging of a unique regional identity. It was this immigrant experience that brought Jamaicans, Barbadians, Vincentians, Trinidadians, Kittitians, Guyanese and other islanders together for the first time. They came to toil in towns and cities across the UK – on shop floors in manufacturing, in hospital wards, within the London transportation system and wherever they could find a means of livelihood.

Babb interviews a staggering array of people in his book.

Naturally, the accounts of the game’s legends come as great a boon: Lance Gibbs, Basil Butcher, Jimmy Adams, Winston Davis, Vasbert Drakes, Brendon Nash, Ian Bradshaw, Gareth Breese, Deryck Murray and Ron Headley give illuminating testimonies. His chats with England cricketers of Caribbean descent – Alex Tudor, for example – are equally important.

In They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun Babb tells of his admiration for the Lancashire and Sussex cricket teams as a child in the Britain of the 1970s. He recounts the story of relatives and friends huddled around their brand new television set in the family flat- specially bought in 1973 to watch the Test Series between England and the West Indies. Two years later in 1975, the West Indies defeated Australia to win a thrilling inaugural Cricket World Cup final at Lord’s Cricket Ground.

Though cricket fans will find the book a treasure trove of fascinating historical detail about one of the key institutions uniting the people of the English-speaking Caribbean, readers coming without the prior knowledge or interest in the sport will also find it of tremendous value.

The pivotal role of the game’s historical figures (such as Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott and Frank Worrell, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, Wes Hall, Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Brian Lara to mention a few) in instilling pride in being West Indian, is comprehensively underscored in They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun.

Babb’s reference to calypso music is notable and key. Lord Kitchener’s legendary song, ‘Victory Test Match, with its immortal line, ‘Cricket Lovely Cricket’, is the anthemic rhythm creating the atmosphere for the joyous, party-like atmosphere, flowing with libations, delicious food and strident music found among West Indies team supporters at the hallowed cricket grounds of Lord’s, Headingley, Old Trafford and Trent Bridge among others.

The challenge of sustaining and propagating generations of cricketers and fans of Caribbean origin in the swiftly changing, multi-cultural dynamic of British culture is also borne out persuasively. Babb analyses the impact of sporting sensations such as Usain Bolt and the role of other sporting disciplines such as athletics and football, which have successively lured young Britons of West Indian origin away from cricket.

They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun is a truly captivating book which should be on the reading list of anyone who views cricket as much more than a game.

As part of Black History Month, Colin Babb and Simon Lister (author of Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet) will be talking about the importance of West Indies cricket to the Caribbean community in Britain. The event takes place at 3pm on Saturday 17th October at the Balham Library, SW12 8QY.

To coincide with the 40th anniversary of the West Indies cricket team winning the inaugural Cricket World Cup at Lords, Babb will be launching the book on Tuesday October 20th at Wanstead Library, Wanstead E11 2RQ at 7pm.