Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Whither West Indies?

Now that the test series is over, the predictable noises about the decline of West Indies cricket have cropped up again. It’s a refrain we’ve been hearing for quite a while now – decline of a great team, attitude to play well, developing a winning habit, consistency, commitment, where have the quickies gone… Jonathan Agnew bemoans the West Indies’ fate here, Daren Ganga spouts brave-but-hopeless words here. Pitiable really.

Without denying the truth of it all, is there hope for the West Indies? Are the players interested in winning at all or are they just turning up for their pay cheques? The way Marlon Samuels and Chris Gayle celebrated yesterday after getting Kevin Pietersen out, when the horse had long bolted, told a depressingly insightful story. Are these cricketers playing for irrelevant, personal, cameo victories alone? Is that all they are capable of?

These are questions that are not easy to answer, there probably aren’t any answers even. And while we leave the worthies to sort out the mess, it may be worthwhile to just take a step back and examine what made the West Indies a world-beating team in the 1970s and 1980s.

To begin with, they had a great bunch of players. A lot has been said about the West Indian fast bowlers of that age, and without doubt they defined the West Indies of those days. Superbly talented, relentlessly aggressive and wonderfully complementary, they were able to take on all comers.

While one half of their cricket was taken care of by the fast bowlers, the West Indies also had a great set of batsmen. They were fortunate to have as contemporaries, batsmen of the stature and durability of Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharan, Sir Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Roy Fredericks, Desmond Haynes and Larry Gomes, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few others. Intersperse these with the short-term exploits of batsmen like Collis King, Lawrence Rowe and Faoud Bacchus, and you have a batting line-up that will have any bowling attack queuing up – in the opposite direction. Some longstanding glovemen like Deryck Murray, David Murray and Jeff Dujon (with their more-than-useful batting) did not hurt either.

While the fact that the West Indies had such great players is well-known, what were the other differentiators that the team had?

For one, I think the fact that they (specifically Lloyd) ushered in the era of the all-pace attack took a lot of the opposition off-balance. This remorseless pace barrage was an innovation of the highest order, and it took West Indian cricket to the next level. You look at Australia’s dominance today – it’s a function of an all-round aggression on the field in every act – openers scoring at close to four runs an over in test matches, fielders pouncing on the ball like hungry lions on scampering prey, captains playing mind-games with brittle opposition captains or star players, spin bowlers with the face cream and aggression of fast bowlers – total cricket, anyone? West Indies cricket perhaps needs to bring in an innovation to change the way the game is played. Do they have it in them? Well, if they do, it is a very well hidden secret, indeed.

A second aspect that differentiated the West Indies of the halcyon days was that almost all the worthies in it played full-time English county cricket with a passion and commitment that saw them perform as well there (if not better than) as in the international arena. Be it the batsmen or the pace bowlers, they are as much legends in the counties they played for as they are in their native isles. Greenidge was (more than) half an Englishman with Hampshire, Richards and Somerset, Lloyd and Lancashire, Marshall and Hampshire, the list is endless. This drive to play cricket through the year is what characterized them. They earned their keep, did those West Indians. How many of the current crop play English county? And with what degree of success? The West Indies don’t have much of a domestic set-up and are unlikely to, so why not utilize the cradle of English cricket?

One final sobering thought: the great West Indies teams of the 1970s and 1980s did not emerge because of any great cricketing system in the islands – it came out of some great cricketers who came together at the same time. So duplicating their success is not likely to happen at a systemic level. That is where a mature, organized cricketing set-up like Australia looks more likely to stay on top at a more sustainable level. As for the West Indies, I suppose they can sit and pray. I fear they will disintegrate.

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