They make us laugh. They make us cry. They thrill us. They entertain us. They disappoint us. They infuriate us. West Indies play their cricket with exuberance. Their supporters ride the roller-coaster. And tonight they broke several million hearts in the country that is playing host to them.
Darren Sammy has repeatedly told us that his Windies team is here to win. We’ve believed him - even when they somehow managed to lose to Afghanistan. Yet their victory in Mumbai on Thursday night was barely believable - and at crucial moments in this World T20 semi-final, events were scarcely credible.
India were the firm favourites. Seemingly recovered from their opening defeat to New Zealand - and building in self-belief from their great escape against Bangladesh — they’d demonstrated in their eliminator versus Australia that they were back, and they were still the team to beat. And in Virat Kohli, they had the tournament’s biggest match-winner.
Somehow though, it turned out not to be his night — despite early evidence to the contrary.
He arrived at the crease in the eighth over, after a decent foundation had been set by India’s openers. He began uncharacteristically skittishly, even jumpy — and remarkably managed to offer up no-less than three clear-cut run out opportunities in the space of just a single legitimate delivery.
The coat-of-stump-varnish misses of both wicket-keeper Denesh Ramdin and bowler Dwayne Bravo in throwing at the wicket within a second of each other — bizarrely, off a free-hit - indicated that the Gods were smiling on him tonight. When a further chance was spurned next ball most observers believed those were the failures West Indies would inevitably look back upon as costing them the game.
Kohli’s excellent 89 not out was surely destined to be the man-of-match performance. What no-one could have predicted was that those moments of good fortune would be secondary to the amazing luck enjoyed by an opponent, who stole both the award — and the match - from their clutches.
West Indies are, and have been all competition, a bowler short. Many Caribbean fans would’ve been worried that at the half-way stage their three reliable bowlers — Bravo, Badree and Benn— only had three overs left between them. Skipper Sammy, probably wisely, didn’t speculate with any bowling from either himself or Chris Gayle — but that left both Brathwaite and Andre Russell needing to bowl a full complement. Russell’s second over went for twenty; his third for nineteen. They haven’t had a wicket-taking cutting edge since dropping Jerome Taylor after one game; and today, they never looked like making a breakthrough that would slow India down.
All the while, Kohli and his partners were scampering like greyhounds — continuously turning easy singles into unlikely twos. This was not a surprise — Kohli and MS Dhoni had done this repeatedly against Australia to great effect. Yet Sammy had either learned nothing from watching that game, or chose to ignore it: keeping his field set deep, his men tight on the line, protecting the boundaries — incapable of preventing the second run.
The West Indies had retreated, and the batsmen were taking easy pickings. They were scoring points as easily as George Foreman had against Muhammad Ali in the famed ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ Heavyweight World Title fight of 1974 in Zaire — and the Windies outfielders spent as long as Ali hugging the ropes. And yet of course Ali eventually won...
India, apparently, only failed to score off 26 balls in their innings. West Indies, in contrast, are notorious for their dilatory running between the wickets. In the 2012 World T20 they had the highest average of dot balls per innings of any team in the competition. And yet of course they eventually won...
In retrospect, Indian fans could criticise. Should Kohli’s colleagues have put their foot more firmly on the accelerator, ‘upped the ante’ and sped the team to an unassailable total beyond 200? Should they have targeted more big shots, rather than merely helping themselves to the offerings?
A total of 192 would take some getting, nonetheless — but with Chris Gayle preparing to flex his muscles and uncoil, anything was getable; anything was possible. When he missed a swinging full-toss from Bumrah in the second over, everyone — except India — could be forgiven for thinking ‘game over’.
Gayle was quickly followed by the comedic dismissal of Marlon Samuels - cross-leggedly spooning a catch to extra cover. India were so obviously going to win that the folk on Twitter debated whether that’d be the last we’d see of him in maroon. No — we’ll be seeing him again on Sunday.
And that was thanks largely to the efforts of Lendl Simmons — ably assisted by Johnson Charles and Andre Russell.
West Indies are not a one-man team. Chris Gayle said it. Darren Sammy said it. And it was said by this correspondent on the pages of Firstpost. The entire squad are capable of turning a game.
Yet Simmons, until a couple of days ago, wasn’t a part of it. He was originally selected; but along with three others initially selected had to withdraw - in his case, because of a bad back. How fortuitous that he’d recovered in time to step in for the injured Andre Fletcher! But that fortune was nothing to what he’d enjoy now.
Having not played a match in the tournament; without a knock in the competition, he made up for it by having three innings in this game. Not once, but twice, he was dismissed - trudging half-way back to the pavilion, only to return — TV replays having revealed he’d been out off a no-ball.
Cricket can be a game of centimeters. Those agonising shies at Kohli’s stumps; the mere toe-end of Ravindra Jadeja’s boot as he touched the boundary when flicking back a ball heading for six for Kohli to catch. And the fraction that Ravi Ashwin over-stepped for Simmons’s first no-ball ‘dismissal’.
But the second, by the unfortunate Hardik Pandya, was a big ‘un — well-over the mark — and brought a flurry of invective and expletives from frustrated Indian supporters on social media. That was the crucial moment — and we all knew it. They’d blown it.
One feels genuinely sorry for them. And delighted for Simmons. He rode his luck, but it was a super display. It was his day. Pre-match billing had said it’d be Gayle’s or Kohli’s. But it was neither’s.
West Indies have had tough times in recent years, and we are told their cricket is in turmoil. And yet they won the Under 19 World Cup recently; and today their cricketers produced not one, but two major upsets. Not only did the men overcome the hosts in their own backyard, but a few hours earlier in the same arena their ladies beat a New Zealand side that had thus far won every game in the Women’s T20 tournament.
It was a day of upsets. No one will be more upset than India’s avid cricket fans. And no-one more euphoric than the Caribbean’s.
It was one heck of a day.