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Cricket in The Caribbean: Kings of Calypso, where art thou?

The current state of West Indies cricket is tragic but sadly, its sorrows are taken very lightly by people who matter. The greats of Calypso cricket speak in monosyllables or at times even refuse to talk cricket. How much it must rankle them to give even an inch to the current lot of players whose ineptness has caused almost complete embarrassment and distress to West Indies cricket. What was witnessed in the recently completed Test series against India provided further evidence for the hard-liners within the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) that the present situation cannot be allowed to continue.

 

The tale of West Indies cricket resembles a book; a story which evokes joy and pathos equally and leaves one spellbound. One almost fails to understand how the people from a group of Caribbean Islands came together to form one united team to play under a maroon flag with a crest (a palm island with 3 stumps). All round the world, sport and especially cricket fanatics have been awestruck by the tale of how this lot turned into world beaters, passed into Cricket’s Hall of Fame and to the current state where they’re a hopeless bunch of players.

Any mention of West Indies cricket is not complete without their early players, who were the driving force behind their meteoric rise in the sport. Going back to the 1930’s when Australia and England were the dominant sides; West Indies had just begun their foray into the cricketing world. The Windies learnt the finer aspects of the game from their British and Australian counterparts and didn’t just turn the tables by beating them fair, but at times humiliated them to such an extent that it makes you wonder whether the current lot have any sort of ancestry with those mighty players.

A mention of some of the key players is necessary as without them, the Windies would never have reached the heights they once did. George Headley, one of the finest batsmen to have graced the 22 yards, had his career cruelly cut short by WWII. He scored 10 hundreds in his first fourteen test matches and it’s a pity that the man who was at that time considered to be the ‘Black Bradman’ couldn’t play more than he did. Had he got the opportunity to continue in the same rich vein, he might have even surpassed ‘The Don’. That he was almost equal in batting genius is beyond doubt.

When you think of the West Indies, you picturize a cavalier, an almost I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude on the pitch which was pretty much the way those guys were off the cricket ground as well. The style of cricket that they brought with them can never be matched. People in the Caribbean islands used to eagerly wait for sides to tour, just to watch the home eleven take the field. Watching them play was a joy to behold. It was like music, only, to the eyes in this case. No wonder they were called the “Calypso Kings”.

Take the case of the great Sir Garfield Sobers, who in a short period of time transformed from a batsman to arguably the greatest all-rounder to have played the game. Jacques Kallis does surpass him in stats but domination wise, Gary was a master. He was dropped from the side for taking a team to what was then called Rhodesia, thus possibly denying the world a chance to see him perform at ODI World Cups. That he would have been super-successful is beyond doubt. Clive ‘Super Cat’ Lloyd and Sir Vivian ‘The King’ Richards were two players whose names were enough to send a chill down the spine of opposition bowlers. One with a loose posture and drooping shoulders was unassumingly swift and would pounce on the ball, whether with the bat or in the field. The other, well he is one of the few players to have people come to the ground to watch him bat or even field. Legend has it that once a ground that was chock-a-block with people while Richards was batting turned almost barren when he departed. After being mauled by the Australians in 1975, Lloyd made it a personal battle against the Baggy-Greens and for the next 20 years, West Indies virtually dominated World Cricket.

The fearsome foursome; L-R: Roberts, Holding, Croft, Garner

Lloyd, with batsmen like Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Rohan Kanhai set out to thrash and rip apart bowling attacks; while a fearsome pace battery of Joel Garner, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, Malcom Marshall, Michael Holding was deployed to bowl out sides or at best ‘knock them off’. Fanatics would recall Kingston, Jamaica, when 5 Indian batsmen refused to bat citing risk of injury, forcing Bishan Bedi to declare the 2nd inning at 97/5. No bowling lineup before or since has made any team take such a drastic step.

Of course trying to emulate the “Pace like Fiyah” will be a futile exercise, for modern cricket has changed so much.

Under Lloyd, they played 29 tests and did not lose even one! Such was their supremacy. Even after Lloyd, the likes of Richardson, Lara and Walsh, Ambrose continued the batting and bowling traditions respectively.

It would have been safe for one to assume that this would go on forever. Calypso cricket was here to stay. With there seeming to be no dearth of quality cricketers on these islands, West Indies were set to be the undisputed rulers of the cricketing world for years to come. But then, something went wonky. The code written for the future of Windies cricket was probably erroneous. At the beginning of the new millennium, West Indies cricket suddenly went into reverse gear. That morphed into a virtual freefall from which there seems to be no chance of a re-rise. That the team is not able to come back from this state is more down to the poor system/management than the skills of the players. Of course, the players being brought into the side are nowhere near the old lot. Just think of it, how many of the current pace bowlers; Jerome Taylor, Fidel Edwards, Ravi Rampaul and the kind are fit to even lace the shoes of the fearsome quartet that once ruled the bowling world? Would Kirk Edward, Ramnaresh Sarwan (for all his skill), Brendan Nash, Adrian Barath et all even be allowed to carry drinks for Lloyd, Richards, Kanhai and Lara? Garfield Sobers is someone that this incompetent lot shouldn’t even dream of coming within 100 miles of.

Those were the days: 1975 Prudential Cup winners celebrate

The decline of cricket in the region could be out down to various factors, some even extending to outside the cricketing world. But we’ll stick to sports here. In the early days, young players had a chance to hone their skills at the English Counties. England had become a land for Caribbean lads to hone their skills. The irony is that those same players mauled the Poms later on.

After the golden generation of players disappeared and there seemed no kind of rebuilding in sight, cricket began to lose its value on the Caribbean islands. Other sports like Basketball, Football and Athletics gave cricket very stiff competition. Football and volleyball have almost banished cricket from the Caribbean beaches where rich tourists visit every year. There is definitely more money to be made from these sports than cricket. Youngsters in the region have found new sporting icons in Usain Bolt, LeBron James and Didier Drogba. The older generation, who has grown up watching Calypso Magic, may still show up in the stands to watch the likes of Gayle and Pollard thump the ball, but with nobody like ‘Mickey’ Holding to knock ‘em over, you can’t blame them if they find it lame.

A major factor here is that the cricket enterprise has been mismanaged by the WICB. Their lax attitude towards developing a youth pool to choose new players from has led to a dearth of quality youngsters who have turned their heads away from the 22 yards. But what cannot be overlooked is that the current lot of young players does  not have even an iota of national pride in them. As a cricket fan, it makes you cringe to see a Kieron Pollard, who earns millions playing in the IPL and plays in the Champions League  not replicate anything close to that level of performance for the national side on a regular basis. As it is very righty said, if you want to dominate any sport, you need to win consistently. You cannot want to win once in a while and be content with your performance. The content smiles on the faces of Sammy and co. after the recent Test Series ended were a clear indication that something is amiss.

Smile all you want, it doesn't make you better

Consider Chris Gayle, who by his lofty (no, not just his height/big hits) standards had a wretched World Cup and wasn’t really performing upto international standards over the last few Test Matches/ODI’s. But as soon as Mr. Mallya’s dollars came calling, ‘Gayle Storm’ hit the IPL and he almost single handedly took his side to the latter stages of the tournament. Gayle then had a meeting with the WICB and with come contract issues pending, was dropped from the national side for the India series as punishment for his behavior towards the country.

Rebuilding a team needs a combination of experience and some new blood. Great football teams like Manchester United have done that. Even the once mighty Australian side is now struggling to live up to the high standards without the backbone of an experienced squad that led them to their glory days. Very honestly, nobody in the current West Indies team shows any semblance of mentoring skills, or influence over the players for that matter. A look around doesn’t reveal too many prospects. There’s a player here and there with a couple of the attributes required to make a good leader but nobody who could actually be considered the complete package. At times like this, when a captain with a swagger being the need, Chanderpaul, Ganga, Sarwan etc. are being looked at.

A sorry state: Celebrating their first win in 2 years

Darren Sammy,the skipper, is still learning the ropes and has certainly not yet developed the confidence that will comfort the newbies. Face it, he’s not sure of a permanent spot in the team in the first place and is there just because nobody else wants to be the captain. Dwayne Bravo, by far the best player in the team might have all the confidence in the world, yet he is but a transient figure in the test match squad today. Nothing except for the WICB’s declaration that he and Keiron Pollard (also off to the IPL) remain “committed to West Indies cricket and will be available for future selection to the West Indies in all formats” show that any of Pollard, Bravo or Gayle would ever feature in a Windies test squad ever again.

In the immediate context, if the IPL happy players had made peace with WICB officials and played for the national side, the Test and ODI series against India might have been a more closely fought affair than the Indians made it to be. That is surely a happy thought for the maroon brigade which will continue to be the sentimental favorite as long as cricket continues to be played – in any form, and any part of the globe.

It seems that the players are going to have their way and the board can do nothing whatsoever to curb player arrogance. As far back as the early 1990s, Rohan Kanhai and Andy Roberts complained of players with attitude problems. They were sacked and the players stayed on. Viv Richards was removed as selector when the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) wrote to the WICB complaining that he and other selectors had “verbally abused and threatened” some players in public.

Then came the issue of players’ strikes. Players realized that they could bully the board for whatever they wanted and that the board would either bow down to their demands or then reluctantly so, sack the officials who went against the players. The agenda for the strikes that took place in 2005 and 2009 was set in 1998 when the players remained ensconced at a London airport, refusing to proceed to the tour of South Africa until their demands were met. The WICB dismissed captain Brian Lara and vice-captain Carl Hooper and fined the remaining players, only to back down under pressure. It was a decisive blow to its authority.

The WICB is doing something wrong and it needs to set it right soon, else Calypso Cricket will die.

As Tony Cozier very rightly puts it,

“Given recent experiences, the repercussions are obvious. A change is overdue.”

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