Once upon a time, a young cricketer went up to two legends of the game for counsel. “Don’t hit the ball in the air and you will cut down the chance of getting out,” Everton Weekes is believed to have told him. Alternatively, Learie Constantine said, “There are no fielders across the boundary rope. If you always aim to hit it there, you will never get out.”
The youngster grew up to be Garfield Sobers, inculcating those words in his play several decades ago, adopting a style that became synonymous with West Indies’ cricket.
When T20 or Twenty20 came along five years ago, almost a rousing reminder of the words of Weekes and Constantine, you couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before the West Indies rose to power. That moment has finally come, bringing back memories of the flair of the 1960s and the dominance of the 1970s and 1980s.
“Twenty20 World Cup, 2012, Sri Lanka—West Indies champions,” roared skipper Darren Sammy at Sunday’s post-final press conference, a flag draped around him, never letting go of the silver trophy.
That night, only Sri Lankans couldn’t be counted among those willing the Windies to win. How could they? Their own team, as one despondent co-journalist put it, is “ever the bridesmaid and never the bride”, with four finals, four losses (the 50-over World Cup finals in 2007 and 2011 and the World Twenty20 finals in 2009 and 2012). Forget the ghosts that haunt them; this was a choke of unparalleled proportions even by South African standards—a team that’s always fallen short in big tournaments. The slightest hint of rain induced panic in as experienced a batsman as Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene, and the game was lost.
“You can sum up the whole match as a matter of two chances. We needed to get abreast of the Duckworth-Lewis score, we took a chance under pressure and it didn’t pay off. Marlon Samuels took a chance for them, it paid off,” said Jayawardene, seemingly dazed at the manner in which his team lost its grip on another major title.
Perhaps the only batsman in world cricket other than Virat Kohli to counter Lankan Lasith Malinga, it was Samuels’ assault on Twenty20’s most lethal strike bowler that turned the game and handed momentum to the Windies. Five of the six sixes he hit that night came off Malinga’s bowling.
“Preparing for the match, I was playing Malinga in my mind and decided to take him on. I only faced him one time in the IPL (Indian Premier League, against Mumbai Indians) and he got me out bowled,” said Samuels. “I was upset. This was my time to get back at him.”
Samuels’ success in this World Twenty20 was of paramount importance to the Windies’ plans, for everyone saw them as a one-man army. Chris Gayle was the danger man for every bowling attack in the competition. “If you can knock him over early…,” Australia captain George Bailey mused, ahead of their 5 October semi-final clash. Instead, that match became a reminder that this is a team replete with Twenty20 explosives. At least six of their first-11 players that evening—Gayle, Samuels, Sunil Narine, Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell—have earned rich experience from different Twenty20 leagues across the world.
“They were showing his (Pollard’s) Champions League innings that he played for Trinidad against New South Wales on TV and I said to him, ‘Tonight I need the old Pollard back,’ said Gayle, who shared a significant partnership with him in that match. “And he played that part.”
In the semi-final, opener Gayle faced only 18 deliveries in the first 10 overs. The runs were scored by Samuels and Bravo at a quick clip, and Pollard later hit Xavier Doherty out of the park. All Gayle had to do was stay there till the end, and he did. Five batsmen racked up a 200-plus total as Australia were shredded to bits on a pitch where 140 was deemed a good total.
But it was not just a strong batting show that won the West Indies matches in the tournament. Two days after scoring the highest total of the tournament in the semi-final, the West Indies defended 137 on a tricky pitch at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. Spinner Narine grabbed three wickets for nine runs and Sammy took two.
Earlier in the week, Pallekele Stadium had become a turning point—West Indies lost to Sri Lanka here by nine wickets in a group match. They then had to defend 139 against New Zealand and they did, qualifying for the semis. Their group games had been washed away. Until the final Super Eight clash, they had only one win to show, against England, who couldn’t counter the slow tracks anyway.
“We have a strong belief in God. He works in mysterious ways. He performs wonders. Every man believed that whoever was out there could do the job, see it to the finish line,” claimed Sammy.
“Of course, there’s the fun part,” he added, referring to the Gangnam-style celebrations that followed the final win. “Chris did it first and he didn’t really need to teach the rest of us. We believe in staying happy on the field and off it. Everyone in the squad, from the coach to physios to video analysts to the masseur, worked for one aim. Take it step by step and climb the mountain. This trophy isn’t just for fans back in the Caribbean. It is for everyone who takes joy from West Indies’ cricket.”
The West Indies are the quintessential “team of the neutrals”, and this has always held true. It didn’t matter if your country was in contention or not, as long as they won it. There was as much thrill in the 1970s and 1980s in the deadly pace of the awesome foursome—Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft—as a petrolhead finds in the revving of engines. Vivian Richards’ swagger brought forth orgasmic joy, and these are just some names from that famous all-time great team.
There are now more reasons to celebrate. “This is a great achievement, for past cricketers and for these cricketers who have bonded together to form a strong unit,” said Samuels. “We will celebrate as long as possible. This is a moment to cherish, and cherish forever.
“But there is still a lot of cricket to be played before the year is over. Yes, this is T20, and we bring a lot of fans out to watch us play. The sky is the limit for what we can achieve.”
Fun, fearless, fierce, and for the good of the game, hopeful.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains.