The West Indies have known greatness. They've also known despair. The Caribbean's older cricket fans will never forget the former glories, but they've struggled to come to terms with the subsequent disappointments.
With failure came dwindling interest. But recent success, and a genuinely positive expectation of more in the ICC World T20 is galvanizing the region. And hope is once again alive.
The breathtaking Under-19 World Cup triumph in February has been a beacon of light in what's been a Stygian gloom, and there is now belief is that the 'Fire in Babylon' can once again burn bright.
It's only four short years ago that West Indies skipper Darren Sammy led his men to the trophy in Sri Lanka, and many of those same winners, older (certainly), but wiser (possibly) feature in the 2016 squad.
Of that 2012 Champion XI, only Ravi Rampaul and Johnson Charles weren't selected in West Indies' initial squad of 15 for this competition. Charles has since been added, replacing left-hander, Darren Bravo, who withdrew citing a preference to concentrate on first-class cricket - although somewhat mysteriously he hasn't appeared subsequently for Trinidad & Tobago in the regional 4-day competition.
His quality in the middle-order will be missed, but St. Lucia's Charles has had an immediate impact in team's warm-up matches. Thus, he has made a claim for a place back at the top of the order alongside Chris Gayle, which was penciled in for Grenada's Andre Fletcher (who also serves as back-up 'keeper to the reliable Denesh Ramdin).
However, Bravo junior's withdrawal was not the only one: and the other two absentees are tougher shoes to fill. Kieron Pollard's knee, which foreshortened his Big Bash journey in Australia, will keep the Mumbai Indians star out of action from the World T20; while Sunil Narine's problematic bowling action, which has been a constant source of scrutiny, has yet to be re-modelled sufficiently to satisfy either officials or the player himself.
Much as we'll miss the mesmerizing presence of the number one-ranked T20 bowler, it's perhaps a mercy that we'll be spared what could've been a very public 'trial and execution' on a world stage in front of millions — perhaps hastening the end of what's been an enthralling career.
Ashley Nurse replaces Narine, and while the Barbados off-spinner and lower-order batsman is a bright and capable cricketer, he won't tie batsmen in knots and stifle scoring — and is likely only to feature as cover for fellow Bajan, left-armer Sulieman Benn and former No 1 T20 bowler, leg-spinner Samuel Badree.
Pollard's absence, though, will be keenly felt. One of the world's best T20 batsmen, a fast scorer and huge hitter as well as a useful, nagging slow-medium seamer, and one of the world's finest outfielders. Young all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite, who impressed in his debut Test series in Australia recently, has his chance to display his talents to a wider audience. He was, in his own admission, shocked by his valuation at the IPL auction when he was snapped up by Delhi Daredevils for just over Rs 4 crore.
Despite those absences, West Indies go into the tournament as one of the favourites. Ranked ICC No 1 T20 side not so long ago, they're full of seasoned campaigners — familiar faces, popular, and dangerously explosive. All opponents know a score in excess of 200 is in their capabilities, and that in Chris Gayle the West Indies still have T20's greatest match-winner.
36 now, and with a body that rarely allows him to play anything other than short-form cricket, the Jamaican remains the format's most feared batsman, a crowd favourite and arguably T20 cricket's biggest draw-card — all this despite the colossal blunder of his well-publicised comments to Mel McLaughlin during the Big Bash League. The furore may even galvanise him into greater determination to underline his assertion of the title 'World Boss'.
Gayle's not alone in feeling there's a point to prove, fuelling additional motivation for success. He may be fired up to respond to the perceived widespread public condemnation — but the whole squad shares a sense of grievance with their own board, who they feel have literally short-changed them.
The latest contract dispute after the squad's selection cast a renewed shadow and briefly threatened the possibility of yet another West Indies strike, signalled by captain Darren Sammy. But common sense prevailed, and the players will seek to resolve the pay issue after the competition. The triumph of the World Cup-winning Under 19s may also have helped Sammy and his team focus on what for several of them may be a last tilt at international glory.
Three things suggest that for the majority this is their last hurrah: firstly, their age; secondly, the continued exclusion of a number of the T20 specialists from the 50-over team for a variety of reasons; and finally, the very real likelihood that the contract dispute will see a parting of the ways from the WICB for many.
Collectively, they know this is their big chance. Those global stars of the format, the likes of Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Lendl Simmons, Sammy have an opportunity to prove they're the world's best, and lay down their legacy.
West Indies' batting is their obvious strength. Even without the injured Pollard, and the out-of-form and omitted Dwayne Smith, they're still a powerhouse of T20 big-hitting potential. Despite the fact that his powers seem to have deserted him, Marlon Samuels proved in 2012 he has it in him to play great innings.
West Indies' fielding fluctuates from the brilliant and exhilarating to the indolent and grossly negligent; and wicket-keeper Ramdin is an under-rated gloveman, who played an important part in their triumph four years ago.
But bowling is their weakness and a genuine concern. Jerome Taylor is the only identifiable strike bowler, and his powers have waned markedly in the last twelve months. His team-mates need him to be firing on all cylinders. The rest of the attack could be ripe for the picking.
Dwayne Bravo is a canny performer and his contribution with the ball is crucial; Badree is still useful, but his exposure in world T20 leagues has reduced his mystery. Benn is enigmatic. Samuels, like Narine has been under the 'suspect action' microscope for some time; Sammy, sadly, has declined into fodder; Jason Holder and Carlos Brathwaite have promise, but as yet limited impact. Andre Russell, as both bowler and batsman, is an exciting and explosive talent. The news about his apparent failure to fulfill mandatory drug-testing requirements placed a cloud over his participation in the tournament, but reports indicate he will feature in the tournament.
This competition promises much for the West Indies, and with such an exciting group of players their matches will be keenly contested and viewed by millions.
And for those back home in the Caribbean, the expectation is sufficient for the population to stay up late again, 15,000 miles away, hoping to witness a second world title within a few weeks.
First Published On : Mar 10, 2016 13:20 IST