They were Gods. They floated on air, they glided on the green turfs; they were finesse and they were powerful: they were black, wore whites and were beautiful; you had heard all their names long before you ever saw them; they were in your dreams and deep in your consciousness; they were the cricketers from the West Indies.
As a kid growing up in the 1980’s India, there weren’t many options for entertainment; you played cricket with your friends in the neighbourhood and when the sun was too hot or it was too dark to play, you stayed glued to the television or the radio that brought the incredible cricketing deeds of players from around the world.
For many, not just in India, West Indies was their Number Two team. Their own national side came first, in most cases. The sheer quality of the players in the sides that the West Indies could assemble as an eleven on any given day, the remarkable athleticism they displayed making the impossible look normal, the apparent casual ease with which their skills were showcased on the cricket field and the swagger with which they carried themselves were all too irresistible for young and impressionable minds immersed in cricket, but the adults weren’t immune to it either. One tried to stay awake as long as possible to follow as much of the action as possible at night for the cricket that floated in from many oceans away.
It is hard to tell, and recall, what came first — the obsession with the West Indies and hence their players, or the fascination with the players that then transferred to their collective. Either way, watching, listening and reading about West Indies and its players was a favourite amongst many; I can still remember when impromptu trivia questions were posed by the teacher in grade school, one of the questions used to be: “What do the initials IVA stand for?”, and we would burst out of our benches to blurt out very proudly, “Isaac Vivian Alexander!”
When one breathlessly discussed the exploits of Viv and (Malcolm) Marshall, the elders of the family were quick to chime in with their own childhood heroes and memories to assert cricket of their times was superior. “What Richards, What Marshall? You should have seen Sobers and Kanhai! And oh, that West Hall!”
Clearly, the love affair of cricket fans in India with West Indies went back a ways.
They were clearly the best. They had beaten all comers. They had won two World Cups. They had the greatest fast bowlers and the most brilliant batsmen. And thus, any time India played the West Indies, it was a BIG deal. This was the chance for your team to show how good they were. What better way to prove to the world they too belonged at the top than beat the best?
West Indies did not lose to India in Tests in the 1960’s, but the 1970’s began with India winning the series away in 1971, thanks to debutant Sunil Manohar Gavaskar. Who wouldn’t know the significance of the number 774? The 1974-75 tour to India which Windies won 3-2 also saw the debuts of Cuthbert Gordon Greenidge and the aforementioned IVA. Rest of the decade (10 Tests) would see the Windies tied 2-2 with India.
The 1983 World Cup final was a major watershed moment; India could not only compete but beat the West Indies on the biggest stage. A six-year-old in a no-name town in the Southern part of India did not realise the magnitude of it but only saw the elders of the house filled with glee and pride.
Every contest here on would begin on equal footing in the minds of India fans even though on paper, it was obvious the gulf between the sides. But this is sport — anything can happen. It was that supposed unpredictability and the knowledge of that summer day in London, kept the Indian fan coming back to the contests with the West Indies.
But the tour of West Indies after the high of becoming the new owners of the Prudential Cup, would be chastising and would set the pattern for the rest of the decade. The Windies climbed greater heights and India slid, holding 9-1 win-loss ratio in 19 Tests, and yet, one eagerly looked forward to the contests. There would be imagined and real terror of hearing and watching Patrick Patterson unleashed. Amidst all the gloom, India fans were treated to the masterful 236 by that man Gavaskar again — in a draw, and Narendra Hirwani’s 16-fer on debut, a win. I still recall the memories of listening to both these matches on All India Radio, in commentary both English and Tamil, as the matches were in Chepauk, for it was the school holidays!
Even as the greatest players left the game, the thrill and expectations of India-West Indies contests held fort through the 1990’s. Brian Lara, Curtly Ambrose, Ian Bishop and Courtney Walsh fueled the fire of West Indian greatness and India were still falling short, no more cruel than the heartbreak of 81 all out at Barbados. Watching an opportunity to win a series in the West Indies in the most soul-crushing way imaginable, broke the heart into a million pieces. One also recalls, with fondness tinged with a bit of sadness, headlines like “A Rose is a Rose is a Rose” of the time when Franklyn Rose ran through India.
By this time though, Australia had supplanted West Indies as the top dog of international cricket, and India had its champion in Sachin Tendulkar. The echoes of 1992 series Down Under — though lost — and the mauling of the Aussies in 1998 at home and the Sandstorm knock meant, for a majority of the Indian fans, the contest was now with Australia.
It did not help that West Indies began to find it hard to replace their retired greats even as there were some household names that kept soldiering on. The miraculous comeback of Kolkata 2001, and the drawn series in 2003-04 in Australia meant the West Indies-India contests receded further into the background. Now the expectation was that, since India were going toe-to-toe with the Aussies, they ought to beat the West Indies, and that took further shine off.
The loss of the relevance of India-West Indies encounters reflected in the number of Tests that were between the two in the first decade of the millenium — just 12, of which only three in India. A series that India should have won in 2002 was lost but masterful batting by Rahul Dravid would put one across in 2006.
The decline in the quality of West Indies as a Test side sort of paralleled the rise of T20s, and they became masters of that format of the game — the shortest and the most TV friendly. As the names Gayle, Narine, Bravo, Russell hung on the tips of cricket-watcher’s tongues, the fascination of India v West Indies was well and truly over. Nothing could be more emblematic of it than the rushed invite for the West Indies in November 2013 to play a two-Test series that would serve to be Tendulkar’s retirement parade.
The one-sided nature of Tests between the two sides this decade — India has won nine of the 14 played, the rest draws — has meant that Test series between the sides isn’t even an afterthought in the Indian fan’s consciousness. India have been near the top in all formats while West Indies wallow near the bottom of the table fighting off newcomers to the international scene.
There are no more Gods, just mere mortals that represent West Indies. For a fan that, despite the enormous chasm between the sides, looked forward expectantly to every encounter in the 1980’s and 1990’s, this Test series could be that moment that the tide turns. After all, an eighth-ranked West Indies obliterated the second-ranked England not too long ago. Perhaps, this would start a love affair with the West Indies for a seven-year old somewhere in India.