Batting for Windies
A powerful West Indies team is essential
for cricket and now efforts are on to revive the lost glory of this Carribean
nation on the field.
West Indies flattered to deceive. Jason Holder’s team created a flutter with an emphatic win in the first pandemic Test match at Southampton. Countless West Indies fans wondered if this was the beginning of a new dawn in cricket. The euphoria was short-lived. They surrendered meekly in the next two Tests. They, like the sides since 1995, were in sublime form one day, crashing to the depths the next. Suddenly the swagger was gone, the brilliance lost.
There are reasons why I like the Windies. It was the first team I watched ‘live’ in a stadium, I have watched them at close quarters many times, seen the greats in action and even managed to interact with some of them…I have sunk with them, celebrated their occasional success and hoped for a resurrection. For, a powerful West Indies is essential for world cricket.
A generation of fans has grown up watching Steve Waugh’s ‘invincible’ Aussies of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But if you flip the pages of history you’ll find that West Indies under Clive Lloyd (1974-1985) and Vivian Richards (1980-1991) dominated the game like no side ever did. Since then we have seen several false dawns and wildly fluctuating form.
1967 Test Series
I had the great opportunity to watch the fifth day’s play of the Third Test match with West Indies held at Madras in 1967. Sir Garfield Sobers led the Windies along with Hunte, Bynoe, Kanhai, Butcher, Lloyd, Nurse, Henriks, Griffith, Hall and Gibbs. My cousin brother, a true cricket buff, had tickets for the match. He went, along with his friend, and came back with stories from the stadium. For the fifth day’s play he promised to take me.
Memories of that day in Chepauk are blurred. What remains vivid is India smelling victory after West Indies were struggling at 193 for 7, needing 322 runs for victory, the excitement, noise, in the stands. Gary Sobers was out there with the tail-enders. He dug in with Charlie Griffith and saved the game going on to win the series 2-1. I turned a West Indies fan that day.
In the last decade and more the side has
not given fans like me much to cheer about. Yet there is an unabashed romance
about their game which holds us in thrall. This is what we saw when Holder’s
men beat England. The celebrations on social media and unbridled joy were
testimony of the love for this side. The fans were looking for a light at the
end of a tunnel. But sadly there was no change in the script. The pandemic
series was a glimpse of a false dawn indicating that it was too early to wax
eloquent on the much-awaited renaissance.
Rise and Fall
The rise and fall of the Caribbean cricket is often actively debated. Of course, it would be unfair to expect West Indies to ignite a fire like it did under Lloyd and carried on by Richards. But there seems to be something rotten at the root of their cricket system.
This rot began after their shock defeat to India in the 1983 World Cup final. That’s when they lost the ‘unbeatable’ tag. It was not just a landmark win for India, but the beginning of the fall of the mighty Windies.
Between 1983 and 2019, West Indies won precious little except for the World T20 title in 2016. Here again the decay in their cricket was evident amid the victory. Skipper Darren Sammy retired from international cricket and like many of his contemporaries started crisscrossing the world as a T-20 mercenary. Team spirit and the pride to wear the West Indian colours seemed to have vanished.
Yes, West Indies did register a series win against Steve Waugh’s Aussies in 1999, defeated India in 2002, and got the better of England in 2009, and New Zealand in 2012 — all home series wins. The scenario has been similar in the shorter formats as well, with the 2004 Champions Trophy win in England and the 2016 World T20 triumph in India being their only successes. Barring these wins, there has hardly been anything else for them to show.
I remember the two matches West Indies played in Thiruvananthapuram. The first was a two-day game against India Under-22 in December 1983, which was immediately after the World Cup loss. They were distinctly hungry for revenge. The Windies had already wrapped up the six-Test series winning three, drawing two and one to go in Chennai. And they had thrashed India in the ODI series 5-0. Led by Richards the side included Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson, Larry Gomes, Gus Logie, Michael Holding, Roger Harper, Wayne Daniel…The match ended in a tame draw but their fury at that World Cup loss was evident in the way they behaved. There was no camaraderie; they were just mechanically brutal on and off the field.
West Indies played in Thiruvananthapuram
for the last of the seven one-day internationals during their 1987-88 tour.
They crushed India by nine wickets with some explosive batting by Gordon
Greenidge and Phile Simmons, the present coach. Some of the sixes they hit flew
a long distance out of the ground. They were so formidable, dominating, winning
that ODI series 6-1.
There are many reasons for the decline of West Indies cricket. Several of their top-ranked players and the West Indies Cricket Board are at loggerheads over contracts. Many players were declined central contracts, while some high-profile cricketers remain unavailable for national duty even as they turn up for cash-rich T-20 leagues across the globe.
Replacing these players has proven to be difficult. No wonder the West Indies appear as a team perennially in transition. Occasionally one saw brilliant talent emerge but there were also cases when the players chosen did very little to justify their position in the team. Take Shai Hope and Shimron Hetmeyer. Hope was seen as the Caribbean’s next big hope . He scored back-to-back centuries in Headingley in 2017 to orchestrate a sensational win for the West Indies. But since then Hope has not managed to cross the three-figure mark, and his averages are abysmal. Hetmeyer, the graceful left-handed batsman, has not been able to translate his potential in Tests though he is much sought after in the shorter formats and T20 leagues.
Historically, in the West Indies, the
natives saw cricket as a means to fight against the racial colonialists and
outplay them in their own game. Cricket became the vehicle for forging a
‘national cause’ which transcended political divisions and bound citizens
together through the thread of black equality. As Michael Holding said, “I have
five million West Indians depending on me to perform at my best so that they
walk the streets and be proud.” This
legacy of national pride held aloft by Frank Worrell, the first black captain,
was carried forward by successive skippers and their proud teams.
Today, cricket is no longer a passion in the Caribbean. The game has turned professional and the organisers seemed to have lost the plot. The emotional bonding of the black community has turned purely commercial. The cricket board has failed to adapt to the changing times. With monetary considerations taking precedence, the notions of restoring black pride and racial equality have become a thing of the past.
West Indies never had a strong structure to fall back on but their consistent success, a flow of natural talent; a couple of excellent leaders helped them tide over this deficiency. They became self-indulgent and complacent after being at the top for decades. When the team began losing, cricket began to lose its popularity. Once youngsters took up other lucrative sports like basketball and soccer, cricket fell into the pickle it is now.
Surprisingly, many of the greats have not ventured into mentoring the team. I have felt that generally the West Indian cricketers are happy go lucky guys, who enjoy their cricket, taking their fans along on that joy trip. Their brand of cricket was exhilarating and this rubbed on to the fans. This is lost.
Some of the cricketers were different. I
always felt that Richardson and Hooper were distinct. I found them serious,
thinking cricketers, compulsive readers and well-informed. I had the
opportunity to talk to Hooper while Windies played against Mumbai in a 3-day
game. Windies failed to use such talents.
After retirement he went to Adelaide, where till recently ran a restaurant. He
often expressed his willingness to coach.
Amid the gloom there is some hope. The Windies have a seasoned coach in Simmons, and with the appointment of Jimmy Adams, the former captain, as the director of the Board, they have emphasised on the importance of Test cricket and even to integrate some of the senior pros back into the system. The appointment of Holder as captain was the first step in that direction. He took over when there was so much of confusion around. To be fair to Holder he has, in an understated manner, managed to get a bunch of cricketers from diverse backgrounds to play as a unit. They have a potent pace quartet, some very talented batsmen and it is a matter of time that they will bloom.
The University of West Indies (UWI) is quietly on the job of reviving West Indies cricket. Holder and eight others are from the University. Prof. Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of UWI, in his book Cricket Without a Cause: Fall and Rise of the Mighty West Indies Test Cricketers outlines how he and his university team has set out to ‘build a whole new cadre’ of cricketers who understand the need for a ‘rescue strategy for Caribbean society’.
The wait is on but surely it will be worth it.