Growing up as a cricket enthusiast in the early 2000s, I watched the mighty Australians demolish opposition teams. With the formidable batting and bowling line-up, the Australian team was unbeatable across formats and venues. However, my father told me that the term “unbeatable” was originally coined for the boys from the Caribbean – West Indies. Hearing about Vivian Richards’ elegant strokeplay, Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge’s opening salvos and the jaw-breaking bouncers of Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and later Malcolm Marshall, I could just imagine the carnage caused by these players.
Statistics highlight their dominance between 1976 and 1995, which coincided with their golden era. West Indies won 71 of the 137 Tests they played in that era, losing only 18 – a win-loss ratio of 3.89. In the 80s and until the mid-90s, the Calypso Kings played 31 Test series, winning 21 and losing only one – surprisingly to the Geoff Howarth-led Kiwis. The team’s pace battery did not concede more than 26 runs per wicket, with bowlers like Marshall and Garner boasting of a bowling average of less than 21.
In the shorter format of the game too, the Windies were unstoppable. Apart from winning the 1975 and 1979 World Cups, the Windies were consistent performers in One Day internationals, winning 173 of the 270 matches played between 1979 and 1995 – a win percentage of just over 64. In the 1980s, when One Day cricket was emerging out of the shadows of Test cricket, Vivian Richards’ fearless “stand and deliver” approach took the Windies team to new heights.
West Indies’ romance with cricket is fascinating. Nowhere in the world would one see a tiny group of sovereign Island-nations coming together under one banner for one sport. Three factors however link all the constituent nations of the West Indies: Black race, British colonialism and cricket.
Cricket began to be played in the British-ruled territories in the 1860s but was largely restricted to white British clubs, which forced the black majority to form their own clubs. With the passage of time, racism mellowed and inter-racial matches became common. In 1928, West Indies became the fourth Test-playing nation.
However, the constituent territories comprising West Indies were still under the colonial rule. And call it racism but the captaincy of the team remained with white players till the late 50s. George Headley – popularly called the “black Bradman” – was denied captaincy just because of the colour of his skin. He then played under Jack Grant who later admitted that he was made the captain just because he was white.
In Globalising Cricket: Englishness, Empire and Identity, Dominic Malcolm wrote that cricket became a part of the black culture as a “constructive past time”. However, racial policy dictated that black players could become bowlers, but rarely batsmen and captain. Perhaps, it explains why West Indies later achieved supremacy in the fast bowling department. This, however, did not mean black players weren’t good batsmen. Sample this:
Between 1928 and 1960, white players only hit 25 fifties and no centuries versus England. On the other hand, black players scored seven double centuries and 29 centuries. Racial policies, nevertheless, protected the white players from being dropped for poor performance.
While cricket was a tool for the white colonialists to show their loyalty towards the British crown, the natives saw the game 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 of the constituent island through the common thread of black equality.
Perhaps, cricket’s impact on the Caribbean psyche could be gauged by this quote of "whispering death" Holding:
“I have five million West Indians depending on me to perform at my best so they can walk the streets and be proud.”
Social commentator CLR James – popularly called CLR – is considered a legend in the West Indies. One of the few cricket writers to look at the game beyond its technicalities, CLR was instrumental in helping Frank Worrell become the first black captain. For CLR, Worrell’s appointment was a major step towards black empowerment in the Caribbean.
Nevertheless, while individual performances of Worrell, Garfield Sobers, Alf Valentine, Everton Weeks and Wes Hall grabbed people’s attention, the team remained an underdog.
The 1975 tour to Australia was a major turning point for the islanders. The Clive Lloyd led-West Indies were trashed 5-1, and ridiculed – often with racial overtones – for their inability to withstand bouncers. Learning his lessons from the debacle, Lloyd encouraged his bowlers to exploit their impressive height to bowl lethal bouncers. The strategy worked wonderfully against India and England.
The late Tony Grieg unwittingly helped consolidate black pride in the constituents of West Indies. Days before the 1976 tour, Grieg mocked the West Indies’ bowling attack, vowing to make them “growel” – an apparent reference to the slavery era. Driven by a sense of revenge, the West Indian bowlers targeted Grieg, as the all-rounder failed with the ball and could score only 51 runs in eight innings. The West Indies won the series 3-0.
The world took notice of the fearsome four and the cricketing world changed forever. The “perennial underdogs” had begun their journey to achieve ultimate glory. When the West Indies trashed England 5-0 on their own turf in 1982, the black man’s revenge was complete.
As Virat Kohli took the rudderless Caribbean bowlers to the cleaners in the final ODI, West Indies looked a pale shadow of their former self. After dominating world cricket for nearly quarter of a century, the Windies team now seem to be a bunch of uninspiring, inconsistent and directionless youngsters.
The decline in West Indies’ fortune started in 1995, when they were finally beaten by a Mark Taylor-led Australia. However, the individual brilliance of Brian Lara, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose helped West Indies delay their downfall.
From the 90s onwards, cricket – especially One Dayers – turned more and more into a commercial sport. India especially was in the forefront of the “gold rush”, owing to its large population and the vast economic opportunity that the newly opened economy offered.
The commercialisation of the game coincided with the rise of Jagmohan Dalmiya, a Kolkata-based businessman who was elected as the ICC chief in 1996. Dalmiya was instrumental in bringing the World Cup back to the subcontinent in 1996, and it turned out to be a major commercial success.
Dalmiya emulated what the Calypso Kings had already done on the 22 yards – ending the white man’s hegemony. With India becoming the single-largest revenue generator for global cricket, the non-white Test-playing nations rallied around the BCCI for raking in the moolah.
As commercialisation set in, cricket increasingly became a professional sport. It is here that the West Indian Cricket Board lost the plot. Cricket had always been an emotional affair for the black community in the Caribbean, but the game did not pay well. In fact, Holding once admitted that he had joined the rebel World Series Cricket (WSC) out of financial considerations.
The failure of the WICB to adapt to the changing times began reflecting in the mid-2000s, when the contract disputes between the players and the board threatened to derail international tours. With monetary considerations taking precedence, the idealistic notions of restoring black pride and racial equality became the thing of the past.
One can say that the rise of BCCI as the big daddy of international cricket spelt doom for the tiny WICB. A by-product of the BCCI further hastened the downfall of West Indian cricket: Indian Premier League.
With inefficiency and corruption plaguing the WICB, financially-struggling players looked towards the cash-rich IPL. Players like Chris Gayle – who has hit two triple centuries in Tests, Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard and Darren Sammy became IPL stars. IPL’s success prompted other boards to launch their own T20 tournament. One can now watch the likes of Gayle and Bravo in PSL, CPL, BPL and the BBL too. West Indian cricketers have turned into “T20 mercenaries” – those who prioritise clubs over national duties.
Did the West Indian team become self-indulgent and complacent after reaching the top? This may very well have been the case, as Peter Roebuck argued while summing up the downfall of the team.
“And champions have further to fall than anyone else. West Indies did not have a strong structure to fall back on, and therefore relied mostly on the talent and leadership qualities of the players. Once they fell into laziness, the game was in trouble because there was no back-up. As a result of these attitudes West Indian cricket is in a pretty pickle.”
While the Windies have been fairly consistent in T20s, their Test and ODI performances have gone down the drain. The team failed to qualify for the Champions Trophy which speaks volumes about the quality of their cricket. In the longer format of the game, the team is ranked at the bottom, along with Bangladesh and Zimbabwe – who hardly play Tests.
However, when the West Indies folded a strong Pakistani batting line-up for just 81 to win the second Test of 2017 series by 106 runs, my hopes of a West Indian revival were rekindled. As an enthusiast, I expect more such performances from the West Indies – a team whose story needs to told to many generations to come.