Not long ago, the West Indies had an assembly line that produced the BMWs and Rolls Royces of cricket. It was hardly surprising then that the West Indies dominated world cricket for a very long time in the last century. When it wasn’t at the top, it was always threatening to upset the applecart of stronger teams like Australia and England.
For the people of the Caribbeans, cricket was a mission. It was a sport through which they could express themselves and perhaps prove that they were equal, if not superior, to the ‘other’ people of the world. It was a social mission rather than a racial one. The cricket lover and spectator were also emotionally involved in this mission. Wasn’t it a writer from the Islands, CLR, James who wrote, “What does he know of cricket who only cricket knows?”
The Caribbean Islands had such a wealth of talent that they had to bench some excellent players; players who were good enough to be in the first elevens of most other Test playing nations. Someone then came along and stole the assembly line itself.
That assembly line had produced legends like Headley, Constantine, the three Ws — Walcott, Weekes and Worrell — Kanhai, Sobers, Hall, Gibbs, Lloyd, Roberts, Holding, Garner, Richards, Greenidge, Marshall, Walsh, Ambrose, Chanderpaul, Lara and many others who wore the West Indies colours with a lot of pride. These Hall of Famers would walk into any dream team of their times.
In the backdrop of such a legacy, and with it the physical and psychological attributes required for excelling in a game like cricket, it is surprising that the once world champions are now languishing amongst the also-rans of Test cricket.
One of the reasons, as pointed out by some great thinkers of the game, for the assembly line to go missing is that the mission has been completed; done and dusted! That achieved, perhaps, there is no longer that yearning for a place in the sun.
The ambition to prove that they are the best which no longer motivates youngsters has led to cricket followers feeling the same way. Lack of world class talent and great performances, save for a white-ball victory now and again, has taken the once emotional spectator too away from game.
Youngsters from the Caribbean Islands relate easily to the flamboyance and the fun nature of white-ball cricket. Test cricket is a different ball game altogether, literally. It calls for patience, technical skills and a tough mindset. It’s a different assembly line that produces players for the 50-over or T20 versions of the game. But then, a futsal world championship isn’t as good as the FIFA World Cup, is it?
Who hijacked the assembly line? One of the suspects is the growing popularity of basketball and soccer in the Caribbean Islands. Exposure to NBA and EPL on television has taught youngsters to love these exciting games rather than waste their time backing a bunch of losers. Recently, in a TV interview, Michael Holding said that the cricketing talent in the Islands is shallow. Selectors don’t have much to choose from and the reason is the growing popularity of basketball and soccer.
Another reason teenagers have stopped trooping to the cricket nets is that there are hardly any heroes in the present squad. Youngsters, in this day and age, don’t care much for history. They may know a Lara or a Chanderpaul. But they won’t take the trouble to know what a Worrell or a Sobers achieved, unless somebody makes it worth their while to know.
The second suspect is the West Indies Cricket Board. The West Indies isn’t one nation but a sporting confederation of different entities, including Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Windward Islands and Trinidad & Tobago. This arrangement worked well till the time the people of the Caribbean Islands were out to prove their superiority in world cricket. Once that was achieved, the differences started surfacing. The Board became complacent, behaved like a despot and kept the legendary players at an arm’s distance.
There are no systems in place and no backup plans for revival of the game at the first-class level. The Board is wary of the legends and has accused them of working with an ulterior motive.
The Caribbean flamboyance and extraordinary talent needed to be melded into teamwork for the West Indies’ mission to be successful. Great leaders like Worrell, followed by Sobers and Kanhai, made them into a great fighting unit. Lloyd, helped by some of the world’s best talent of the time, made them world champions. Viv Richards, with his charisma, was able to keep the players together for some time but then the rot set in. A distinct lack of good leaders in the last couple of decades, therefore, has hurt West Indies cricket badly.
Pundits in the West Indies, and outside it, have pointed a finger at the substandard pitches being meted out for first-class and Test matches. The Caribbean Islands which prided themselves on having the most fearsome battery of fast bowlers ever, now produce medium pacers. Except for a Gibbs or a Ramadhin, they hardly had any great spinners. What’s more, the new ball bowlers who are picked for Tests bowl a restrictive line and length. The fire and the intimidation are no longer there.
For many, many years, almost every County in England had a cricketer from the West Indies turning out for them as professionals. The time spent there, from April to September, playing under different conditions and a in a different culture altogether, sharpened their edges and made them better players.
Long ago, Vivian Richards had packed his bags to move over to New York and pursue a career in electrical engineering. A call up from Somerset changed his life and gave the cricketing world an exceptional talent.
For the average, happy-go-lucky cricketer from the Caribbeans, there is a lot of money available in T20 Leagues all over the world. The mercenary attitude has taken over and nobody really bothers about how the ‘confederation’ of the West Indies performs in Tests. Remember, the mission of ‘superiority’ united them, not patriotism!
The people of the Caribbean Islands need a new mission and new heroes. The Board, if at all and the legendary cricketers of yore have to put their heads together and find the will and the motivation for a quick comeback.
As much as the West Indies needs cricket, the world of cricket needs the talent and the character of the Caribbean Islands. It is time, therefore, for the people of the West Indies and from the other cricket-playing nations to introspect.
Story-telling plays an important part in keeping a legacy alive. This has been proven time and again, not only by Cricket Australia but by some of the baseball teams in America too. And what better stories could one tell than the exploits of a Sobers or a Viv Richards or any of legendary their fast bowlers?
Gary Sobers, on the wrong side of thirty then, had smashed a young, tear-away fast bowler named Dennis Lillee to all parts of the ground to score a brilliant 254. The occasion was the 3rd Test of the World XI versus Australia series Down Under in 1971-2. Lillee, after being subjected to some short stuff himself, had warned the legend, mixed with some expletives, that he would have to face chin-music when he came in to bat. And Sobers had replied, “I’ll look forward to it!”
Then there is this story about another legend. England’s fastest bowler at that time, Greg Thomas was bowling to him in a County match and beat him, first ball. “Hey!” said Thomas. “It’s red and round, and weighs 5 ounces.” The batsman, chomping on his gum, looked away and didn’t reply. The next ball was hoisted out of the ground and into a river close by. “Greg,” Viv Richards drawled, walking towards the bowler. “You know what it looks like? Go fetch it, maan!”
Richards’ boyhood idols were Sidney Poitier, Muhammad Ali, Don Bradman, Gary Sobers and the 3 Ws — Weekes, Walcott and Worrell.
It’s sure going to be a tough task, finding that assembly line and putting it back in place. For the sake of cricket, though, one hopes that the people of the Caribbean Islands will take some tough decisions!
Austin Coutinho is a former fast bowler turned coach. He is also a caricaturist and has authored several books including The Games, Goal, The Devil’s Pack, besides writing for several newspapers and websites.