I must confess to being besotted by West Indies cricket, which is why I am also dismayed by their decline over the last two decades. In many ways, this has robbed this great game of its elan.
In West Indies, cricket is the smell of sweat, surf and sand; of sinew, speed, power and deft touch; the rhythm of dancing waves and mind-boggling unorthodoxy; the sound of conch shells to go with willow on leather; the gaiety of Calypso music and the metaphor-laden reggae songs talking of the joys of revolution and living.
The West Indies have provided a flavour and dynamism to the game that is unique and overflowing with brilliance. Imagine the fourth season of the Indian Premier League (IPL 4) without the pyrotechnics of Chris Gayle and then imagine IPL 4 with 8-10 players of the same calibre to get some idea of what West Indies cricket stood for in the not-too-distant past.
Un-hooked: Rohan Kanhai failed to make it to Wisden’s Top 100 list in 2001. Getty Images
In circa 2000, when the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack asked players/critics/writers from all over the world to draw a list of the 100 greatest cricketers of the preceding century, Garfield Sobers and Vivian Richards featured in the Top 5 along with Donald Bradman, Jack Hobbs and Shane Warne.
Incredibly, the Top 100 did not feature Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Rohan Kanhai, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and, believe it or not, Brian Lara. Yet despite a much shorter history than Australia and England, 10 names from the Top 100 were from the West Indies, which shows the huge impact they’ve had on the sport.
I became a diehard fan of Caribbean cricket when their team toured India in 1966-67. As a 10-year-old at the Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai, I was transfixed as I watched Kanhai play his famous “falling hook shot” in a cameo innings, Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith made the Indian batsmen tremble with their long run-ups and searing pace, Clive Lloyd made a spectacular debut and Sobers brought his genius into play in all its dimensions.
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What truly won me over, however, was the West Indies captain recalling Budhi Kunderan after the umpire had given him out caught close in, Sobers signalling that he had taken the ball on the half-volley. The West Indies not only played the game brilliantly, they also played it in the best spirit. I was hooked.
When I made my first tour of the West Indies in 1989, it was the culmination of a lifetime ambition. Dilip Vengsarkar was captaining a fairly strong Indian team, the only notable omission being a precocious 15-year-old who had made hundreds on debut in the Ranji, Duleep and Irani trophies that season.
The late Raj Singh Dungarpur was to explain that the selectors were concerned Sachin Tendulkar could suffer some injury from the dreaded West Indies pace bowlers and bear the trauma for life. Perhaps it was just as well for India were thrashed 0-4, with all the batsmen having either their bodies or egos bruised by Messrs Malcolm Marshall, Ian Bishop, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose.
Though the era of Lloyd had passed, the West Indies then were still the best side in the world. Richards was admittedly a lion in winter, but fellow Antiguan Richie Richardson was in peak form. Great fast bowlers still seemed to be around aplenty. Moreover, there was a young left-handed batsman called Lara whose century in a tour match against India suggested that he was of the great lineage that defined Caribbean cricket.
Beneath this veneer, however, there were also some signs that all was not well. England was no longer considered the best destination for young boys from the Caribbean; America was the new El Dorado, and no cricket was played there. Moreover, the West Indies Cricket Board was broke.
Players were unhappy over pay and run-ins with authority were becoming frequent. There was not enough being done at the grass-roots level to nurture the sport, talent was drying up. All this led to Caribbean pride in its cricket being eroded, precipitating a slump that has since become the universal lament of the sport.
It’s amazing how rapidly empires and legacies can wither once the rot sets in. When I went to the Caribbean again in 2006 with Rahul Dravid’s team, the West Indies were feeble and eminently beatable. In the years since, their position has not improved even if it has not become worse, the rise of a player such as Gayle and the occasional win being a sad reminder of what once was.
As India tour the West Indies now, a new documentary, Fire in Babylon, hopes to reignite the pride that made Caribbean cricket the most powerful, entertaining and engaging in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a real tough task, but one for which good wishes will not suffer from any partisanship. Just about everybody wants a revival of West Indies cricket. For there is nothing comparable.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at email@example.com