Batting for a better game: Dr Akshai Mansingh is a sports medicine pioneer in the West Indies who lives for cricket

There are countries that play a sport; there are countries that define a sport and are themselves defined by it. If it’s football for Brazil, it’s cricket for the cluster of Caribbean island nations and territories. The roll call of world cricket superstars these small islands have produced over the decades is endless. Dr Akshai Mansingh, Dean of the Faculty of Sport at The University of the West Indies (UWI) and a long-time resident of Jamaica, has grown up with many of them, and counts several players among his dear friends, a bond forged by his own deep involvement in the game.

Dr Akshai Mansingh, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine Physician, has spearheaded bringing sports medicine to the West Indies. He is the Dean of the Faculty of Sport at The University of the West Indies (UWI) and a long-time resident of Jamaica. Photo: Connected to India

Talking to Dr Mansingh, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine Physician, who spearheaded bringing sports medicine to the West Indies, tends to make one quietly gasp in astonishment. Thoughts like these cross one’s mind: “He personally knows Viv Richards — the actual Viv Richards, the one who put swag into batting long before anyone even said ‘swag’. He probably met Brian Lara last week and is going to hang out with Courtney Walsh and Michael Holding next. Oh, wow!”

Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the Indo-Guyanese batsman considered to be one of the best-ever Indian-origin players for the West Indies, is “almost like a member of the family” for Dr Mansingh. 

“Well, you have to understand the Caribbean. We’re full of superstars, but none of them have any arrogance,” said the doctor, speaking to Connected to India. “So, be it [Jamaican sprint legend and Olympic gold medallist] Usain Bolt or be it any of our cricketers, everybody is expected to behave like a member of society.” Therefore, hanging out with them is “not a unique thing in the Caribbean”.

Through his profession and his passion for cricket, and being a person of Indian origin (PIO) — his paternal roots are in Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh; and maternal roots in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh — Dr Mansingh is also close to Indian cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar and is very good friends with Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, among others. Mahendra Singh Dhoni did a bit of net practice on the grounds of the doctor’s house when India toured West Indies in 2009.

Describing how life started in the Caribbean for his family, he said, “I’m actually what you call a Kingstonian, because I was born in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, but grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1973, my parents moved to Jamaica from Canada for what was supposed to be a two-year stint, because my father, who had lived in Canada for 13 years, had not seen cricket at any high level. But having gotten to Jamaica, a lot of things about Jamaica attracted us to it and kept us here. And I’m happy to say [that] I’m here now for 50 years.”

Dr Mansingh introduced two new programmes, Master’s in Sports Medicine for doctors, and Master’s in Sports and Exercise Medicine for physiotherapists. Over the past 14 years, these have produced 70 specialists for the Caribbean region. Photo: Connected to India

Decisions, decisions

Cricket is definitely one of those attractive things. Before he became Dr Mansingh, the young Akshai grew up playing the game and was talented enough to consider going pro, though his “academic love”, which was medicine, prevailed in the end.

He recalled making the tough decision: “To be honest, in those days in the West Indies, cricket was, as you can imagine, the pinnacle of the world. A lot of the people that I played with went on to represent the West Indies in a big way. So, I remember sitting down with a friend of mine and saying, ‘I think I’m going to have to give up cricket, because I want to do medicine.’ And I remember him saying that he wanted to give up studying because he wanted to play cricket.” When he graduated in medicine, his friend became the youngest person to play for Jamaica and then went on to play for the West Indies. “It was a choice you had to make. And medicine was it for me.”

However, cricket remained a big part of his life, and eventually, it led him to make a pioneering contribution to the field of medicine in the West Indies, of which 17 countries are represented by the UWI.

The newly graduated Dr Mansingh continued playing club cricket. “And while doing that, I was also adamant that I was going to be an orthopaedic surgeon. So I went on to do my orthopaedics, and two things happened. Number one, the day I became a doctor, my own teammates, with whom I had played cricket for 10 years, suddenly started treating me differently — any injury, any health-related things suddenly came to me. Number two, when I did orthopaedics, a lot of people started asking me about sports medicine.

“So, I decided that I’d specialise in sports medicine, which I did in Australia. At that time, I was getting more and more involved with West Indies cricket and the medical aspects of it. We didn’t have sports medicine as a speciality here.

“As soon as I came back from Australia, because I was with the University of the West Indies, I started my own programmes: Master’s in Sports Medicine for doctors, and Master’s in Sports and Exercise Medicine for physiotherapists. I’m happy to say that in the past 14 years, we’ve produced 70 specialists for the region now.”

The availability of homegrown specialists in sports medicine makes a big difference to Caribbean athletes, as they can get expert attention right when they need it. Photo: Connected to India

He was also the Chief Medical Officer of Cricket West Indies, “or West Indies Cricket Board, as it was called then”, and later the Caribbean Premier League.

Being bicultural

Deftly balancing sports and medicine, Dr Mansingh has expanded his association with cricket by writing, commentating, appearing for television interviews and so on. One of his sons plays professional cricket, having trained at the National Cricket Academy in India, headed by Rahul Dravid, while his wife is an academic. The doctor and his wife had a traditional Indian arranged marriage, and have lived a happy 32 years together now.

About Jamaica, he said that it was always the kind of place where “you could be yourself and still be accepted as a member of society”. The freedom this gave him made Dr Mansingh realise that “I was culturally as much Jamaican as I was Indian, or maybe the other way around, as much Indian as I was Jamaican”. He speaks fluent Hindi and so do his two sons.

On his frequent visits to India, people can’t really tell that he lives overseas. Sometimes, he visits Indian family members, sometimes he comes as a West Indian. “For example, I was with the Jamaican contingent to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi as the team doctor. I toured India as a team doctor for the West Indies team in 2002 and as recently as 2022.”

His next visit to India will be in November this year, when the World Congress of Science and Medicine in Cricket is held in Chandigarh, in alignment with the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023. The conference is always held every four years, alongside the Cricket World Cup.

“It’s a set of us cricket doctors who hold [the World Congress]… This is where the top brains around science and medicine and cricket get together every four years and discuss the latest happenings. I’m part of that organising committee,” said Dr Mansingh, who’s also on the ICC Medical Advisory Committee and was on the inaugural medical panel.

Dr Akshai Mansingh and his wife, Professor Gunjan Mansingh, Head Dept of Computing, University of the West Indies, had a traditional Indian arranged marriage and have been together for 32 years. Dr Mansingh’s son(to his right) Abhijai Mansingh was signed up recently by West Indies Cricket Board. The other son Atishai Mansingh is the founder and CEO of Tiki Taka Ltd, a company related to football. Photo: Connected to India

The fare quirks of international air travel mean that the ICC role often brings the doctor to India, sometimes just “for a cup of tea” — and he loves it. Besides sports, he has also been part of the Jamaican trade delegation to India. All in all, there are many stories to tell about his connection to the country of origin.

Heartbreak day

Straddling two cultures made June 25, 1983, an unforgettable day for Dr Mansingh. Indeed, a few days after the 40th anniversary in 2023, he spoke to Connected to India of that “sad day” — when underdogs India made history by defeating two-time Cricket World Cup champions, the West Indies — as if the match was being played in front of him just then.

Also read: 40 years on, India remembers its first ever Cricket World Cup triumph

Every detail of that final match was cited with astonishing accuracy; he even recalled the precise moment when he understood that the mighty West Indies might not be able to cross the measly total made by India.

Initially, the Caribbean spectators were preparing to celebrate a Cricket World Cup hat-trick by Clive Lloyd’s West Indies. It didn’t appear that Kapil Dev’s India even stood a chance. Dr Mansingh recalled, “India had been bowled out for 183, and it was a good performance by the guys. [The score of] 183, this was a walk in the park [for the West Indies]. I remember driving on the road at that time. Viv was on fire, and [victory] was a foregone conclusion for us. Well, Viv got out to this catch by [Kapil Dev], which was this fantastic running catch. And we still didn’t see any problem with it.”

But then, the Indian bowling tactic paid off — the West Indian batsmen, used to playing against fast bowlers, were repeatedly caught off-guard by the Indian medium pacers, such as Mohinder Amarnath (who would become Man of the Match after the final win) and Roger Binny, both masters of the swing. Wickets began falling.

Dr Mansingh’s former club cricket mate and key West Indies player Jeff Dujon “stuck his bat outside off stump and got a thick outside edge and then we realised that there’s a reality we might lose”.

“In the end, not only did we get bowled out for 130-odd, but we also had to stop the cricket that was being played [in the Caribbean] — a national league match — because there was just utter disbelief in the Caribbean. We just could not believe that we had lost the Cricket World Cup. Not that it was [to] India, but you know, this was something that belonged to us,” he said.

When a beaming Kapil Dev lifted the 1983 Cricket World Cup at the Lord’s Cricket Ground in England, making hearts race across India, it meant more than the loss of a top prize for the West Indies.

Indian captain Kapil Dev lifts the 1983 Cricket World Cup at Lord's Cricket Ground, England, as Man of the Match Mohinder Amarnath looks on. Photo courtesy: Instagram/ashrafengineer

From 1962, the colonised islands of the Caribbean had started winning their national independence from European powers — Jamaica was the first. Cricket was the instrument through which they announced themselves to the international community. Consecutive Cricket World Cup wins in 1975 and 1979 made the West Indies a formidable name across the globe. These triumphs were an intrinsic part of their identity “for a set of people who just hit the ball, bowled fast, and really took the world on”.

The jubilant West Indies cricket team with the 1979 Cricket World Cup. Captain Clive Lloyd holds the trophy, while star batsman Vivian Richards is at the far left. Photo courtesy: Instagram/officiallyvivian

Dr Mansingh added that the period of 1970s and early 1980s “was an important time for the Caribbean, because we were just about 10 to 15 years out of independence. For small nations, [cricket] was the only way that we were identified as a world power. And it was something that we believed belonged to us.”

Indian influence

The agony of losing to India in 1983 seemed to have jinxed the West Indies, as the national team has never reached a Cricket World Cup final since then. This year, the West Indies team has not qualified for the ICC World Cup at all, which certainly dims the joy for all fans of the game everywhere. Though the Caribbean greats reportedly disliked the term, the world looks forward to “Calypso cricket” as eagerly as it waits for “Samba soccer” during the Football World Cup.

However, the names of Caribbean and Indian cricket legends live on in the players who followed them. Dr Mansingh spoke of an interesting moment when Sunil Gavaskar asked Sunil Narine, the Trinidadian star of the Indian Premier League (T20), how he was so named, and the younger player said, “Well, sir, I was named after you.” Gavaskar himself wrote a letter to Rohan Kanhai, the Indo-Guyanese batting legend, for permission to name his son Rohan Gavaskar.

The doctor’s own parents came to the Caribbean for the love of cricket and then began to research the history of the original Indian arrivals on these islands. He has continued that research.

The first Indians came as indentured labourers in the mid-19th century after slavery in the Caribbean was abolished in 1834. “These were 90 per cent from Uttar Pradesh, some 10 per cent from Bihar, and very few from [Tamil Nadu],” said Dr Mansingh. More than 36,000 Indians “came between 1845 and 1917 to Jamaica, and they not only resurrected the sugar plantations here, but also introduced a lot of things like jewellery, rice cultivation, ganja (marijuana), and a lot of other things that they really contributed to the Jamaican fabric of society”.

The second wave of Indians, mostly Sindhi businessmen, came in the 1910s to the 1950s. Then the third wave began coming from the 1970s, and these were mainly teachers, doctors, accountants. Current arrivals include management executives and technocrats. Given the skill gaps that Indians could fill in the West Indies, the flow would be unabated, felt the doctor.

He admires the authenticity of the Indian culture preserved by the descendants of the earliest settlers in the Caribbean, many of them kidnapped from India and pushed into forced labour. “It says something about the strength of these people who are called illiterate, jungly, uncouth and unskilled and yet, seven generations later, their offspring have maintained that culture system.”

There’s a “very, very strong influence of Hinduism on the Rastafarians of Jamaica, the people who wear long hair and worship [former Ethiopian emperor] Haile Selassie”.

The Rastafarians of Jamaica embraced the early Indian import ganja (marijuana) as a part of their way of life. This photo is by Bill Sparrow, taken in 1978. Photo courtesy: Instagram/equator

Moreover, Indian food is intertwined in Caribbean cuisine now. “One of the biggest dal eaters is [Guyanese cricketer and former West Indies captain] Carl Hooper, and roti is a national dish.”

About the shared festivities, Dr Mansingh said, “When you have Diwali, which is a national holiday in Trinidad, it’s not just the Indo-Jamaicans, but also the Afro-Jamaicans who light diyas, etc. So, it’s a phenomenal sociological study of not only the strength of Indian culture but this assimilation in the Caribbean from a position of weakness, because [the first Indians] had neither power nor wealth.”

These observations, research, documenting and presenting the Indian history in the Caribbean is Dr Mansingh’s community involvement — “it’s very historical, it’s a bit of a think tank, but also it’s something which I think can contribute to the story”.

He summed up, “The Jamaican motto, by the way, even though 90 per cent of our population is of African origin, is ‘Out of many, one people’. We believe in that very strongly. So I’m happy to be part of that.”