Someone who read my piece entitled “Why do we love sports so much?” threw me a simple question: 'what about cricket'?
My examination of sports had largely taken in football and basketball but had not included a word about cricket. Yet cricket is played by a number of the better secondary schools in Ghana, and Ghana also fields teams against Nigeria, Gambia and Sierra Leone on occasion.
So the logic of my exclusion of cricket, namely that it is an elite sport doesn't hold water. In any case, I had included basketball, which to some Ghanaians, is an even more exotic sport. There are Ghanaians to whom the name, Michael Jordan, is in the same league as Pele, Maradona or Lionel Messi. So I make no apologies for writing on cricket today.
My fascination with cricket needs explaining, for I didn't go to an elite secondary school, nor did any of my siblings, though I remember an elder brother, who attended schools at both Koforidua and Accra, talk excitedly about what he mispronounced as “crucket”.
Now, this brother of mine was a keen sportsman but quite strange: his favourite game was draughts or checkers. Family whispers had it that instead of paying his school fees with the funds provided by my father, he used the fees to – gamble! He played for money in draughts tournaments organised for draughts players at Jackson's Park, at Koforidua.
A schoolboy gambler? Yes, that's what my brother Kwasi Kwakye was. In the tournaments, you paid a pound, an opponent also paid a pound. You gave the money to a third person to “hold”. He made the money invisible either by palming it tightly, or hiding it in his pocket. Whoever won a match looked around quickly, and if the coast was clear, retrieved his winnings and quickly walked away. For under no circumstances could the money be seen changing hands. For, of course, gambling was illegal.
There were serious risks in gambling at Jackson's Park. A spy could go and inform the police that gambling was taking place, and they would raid the place and confiscate every penny they found on anyone there, whether he was gambling or not. The police would put them in a police cell on top of that.
Secondly, only very tough guys agreed to “hold” the prize money, because they needed to be able to resist arrest by the police, if necessary. The only trouble was that such tough guys could run off with the money, if they felt like it. If one of them did this, there was nothing anyone else could do about it. I mean, one could hardly go to the police and report that someone had run off with the proceeds of an illegal act – i. e. gambling.
Indeed, there were some physically strong hoodlums who claimed particular areas of the Park as their patch, or “territory”, on which they arrogated to themselves, the task of guarding every penny that was gambled.
They took a “cut” of the winnings, but occasionally, they were not satisfied with that but pocketed the lot. One of the most notorious of these was “King Solomon”. He was given the name because he interfered in cases involving other hoodlums – as well his own. Since he was a very strong bloke, his judgement was as final as the judgement of the Biblical King Solomon.
If you complained against anything “King Solomon” did, he would put his own policemen on to you – his two fists. So, he was more feared at Jackson's Park than the Government's police themselves.
It is no wonder that having got himself involved with characters like “King Solomon”, my brother was not able to pay his school fees with the money my father sent him, and he returned home without obtaining a certificate of any sort. But no matter: he talked my father into allowing him to go and continue his education at West Africa Secondary School in Accra. There, too, he frequented draughts dens near the school, at a place then called 'Lagos Town' (now Accra New Town.)
So he became a very good draughts player and when he came back to Asiakwa during the school holidays, he was able to defeat everyone in the town. Only Kofi Misa, who had learnt to play in Kumase, could match him. He and my brother engaged in some stupendous contests, all of which I watched. Had I had the knack for the game, I would have learnt a great deal about how to “set traps” and all sorts of tricks. But I lacked the concentration.
But back to cricket. One day in mid-1978, I travelled to London to try and settle a dispute between the Ghana High Commission in London and the Sunday Times newspaper. It was an article on Ghana that had been written by a guy called David Leitch, author of God Stand Up For Bastards. He had interviewed some Ghanaians arriving at Heathrow airport, in London, from Accra, who had given him exaggerated accounts of a “last flight” by Ghana Airways from Accra before a “political siege” they said was taking place there. True, strikes by the Association of Recognised Professional Bodies had created a tense situation in Ghana, but it was nothing like what David Leitch had been made to believe. Had he referred the article to me, the paper's stringer in Accra, I would have saved him a lot of embarrassment.
As the case was, the Ghana High Commission in London had reacted angrily and even implied that the Sunday Times might have acted out of racism. I went to London and persuaded the paper to publish a piece of mine, giving the factual situation as I saw it. My article did not please the High Commission either, but when it raised the bogey of racism once again in a letter to the Editor that the paper published, I wrote a reply, pointing out that I am an African and could hardly write racists reports about Africa. I shut them up by producing evidence to substantiate everything I had said in my piece.
David Leitch was pleased with the outcome of the issue, and he asked me out of the blue, “Will you come to Lord's with me?”
I knew that Lord's meant cricket and I did not think twice in rejecting the idea. A friend of mine, Kwasi Frempong, who was then living in London, had also tried once to interest me in going to watch cricket. “The West Indian fast bowlers are something to see!” he'd said. But I just didn't take the bait, as I regarded cricket, if I ever thought about it, as a relic of imperialism.
Then I went to live in Britain towards the end of 1983. My watering-hole was a pub close to my new home at Clapham Common, which I visited most lunch-times. I was largely ignored by the pub's regulars, who occasionally exchanged a polite word with me but didn't warm to me.
I used to miss my drinking companions at the Continental and Star Hotels and the Polo Club, with whom I was used to drinking and laughing uproariously very badly, as I sat drinking by myself in Clapham.
Then in July 1984, the West Indies arrived in the UK to play cricket against England. They played so well that people in the pub, watching the matches on TV, and assuming that I was a West Indian, threw banter across their tables to me. When Gordon Greenwich or Viv Richards hit a beautiful six against an England bowler, they would shout to me, “Not half bad, was it?” I would smile and nod, saying nothing. When Malcolm Marshall took England wicket after England wicket, the remarks directed at me increased in intensity. Before play ended, someone had bought me a drink! And I'd bought one for him. Eventually, I was invited to one of the tables of the cricket-lovers.
That night, alone at home, I worked out the answer to the question posed by the great West Indian cricket writer, C L R James, who had asked “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” in his book, Beyond A Boundary (Publisher Stanley Paul & Co.,1963 (ISBN 978-0-224-07427-8).
The West Indies, by playing so well against England, in England, were proving to the English people with action, not words, that notions of racial superiority and inferiority were bunkum. I, “a West Indian” (to the pub regulars) was therefore a “full” human being who could be befriended. Cricket had won for me, in a few hours, the “social acceptance” that would probably not have come my way were I to spend a whole year drinking at the pub.