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West Indies players on the first day of the Test match against India in Antigua. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP
West Indies players on the first day of the Test match against India in Antigua. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP

Garry Sobers as a metaphor for West Indies cricket

Bereft of vision and plagued by dissent, the decline of West Indies cricket is a great loss for the game

Garfield Sobers’ 80th birthday is being celebrated in Barbados on Thursday. Several former players, West Indian and others—including Sunil Gavaskar—are expected to attend.

The occasion will undoubtedly be one of great joy, but it will also be heavy with nostalgia—and some melancholy, I presume. Willy-nilly, the current state of cricket in the Caribbean will be discussed, and it will not make for pleasant conversation.

In the first Test in Antigua, which ended on Sunday, India beat the West Indies by an innings and 92 runs. And it was not just the margin of defeat, but the manner in which the home team surrendered, that would have disappointed their supporters.

There was little sparkle and no great sense of purpose. This is not to take away from India’s superb effort. But the substandard quality of the home team can hardly be disputed.

For Sobers, the capitulation in the first Test would have been even more painful. For he has been witness to the slump in West Indies cricket that started more than two decades ago, and continues. A far cry indeed from his playing days.

I am using Sobers as a metaphor to provide perspective to the decline of the West Indies, for he represents the epitome of Caribbean cricketing excellence, which captured the imagination of fans all over the world.

This was extraordinary talent meshing with intrinsic athleticism, flair and an instinctive sense of joy on the field. The West Indies became the most loved and most feared side.

At an individual level, the Caribbean expression of cricket reached its pinnacle in Sobers, a true-blue genius with his multifarious, all-round ability. Many believe him to be the greatest cricketer ever. I have no doubt he is.

Before and under Sobers, the West Indies played with a beguiling amateur spirit, where results were deemed less important than fair play and fun. This was transformed into hard-boiled, ruthless ambition by the teams under Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards, which decimated opponents everywhere, and with astonishing frequency.

All told, the eras leading up to Richards’ tenure add up to a brilliant, matchless legacy. Think Learie Constantine, George Headley, Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine, Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith, Lance Gibbs, Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse, Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner…

Or perhaps just a shade longer, till Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Brian Lara were still around as doleful reminders of a fading superpower. If you want to stretch it some more, add Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo in the contemporary game.

These names roll off the tongue in breathless wonder; and then you wonder what’s gone wrong. Why hasn’t the situation been corrected all this while?

Teams do hit a trough every now and then. But if a turnaround doesn’t appear even as a blip on the horizon, it is considerably more serious than the usual swings of fortune.

The West Indies Test record in this millennium tells its own story: 30 wins, 46 draws and 85 defeats. Moreover, most of the wins have come against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, which explains their current world No.8 One Day International ranking.

There is some explanation for this abject situation. There is a drought of talent and finances, and everybody knows how strongly interlinked these two are in the development and sustenance of sport.

Ironically, the West Indies are the World Twenty20 champions. This leads to the travesty that even while the West Indies are engaged in a Test series against India, some of their best players—Gayle, Bravo, Andre Russell and Sunil Narine, for example—are participating in the Caribbean Premier League.

Last October, when he was invited to Sri Lanka, where the West Indies were touring, Sobers was moved to tears by how badly Caribbean cricket had been affected by the approach of players and their non-participation in key contests.

“I have always played for the West Indies team, and it was such a pleasure and joy to be able to do what I did. Records meant nothing; the team was important," Sobers said. “I don’t think we have that kind of person today. We might have them in different countries; we might have them in Sri Lanka, we might have them in England, in Australia, but I don’t think we have that kind of person in West Indies any more who is quite prepared to play and to give it everything for their country.

“That hurts, and until we can get people who are willing to play for the West Indies in the right way, I think we’re going to be struggling for a long time. Other countries are going to come and surpass us."

As a former player, Sobers has vented on this disdainful attitude of modern West Indies cricketers. But it has also been established that the fault is not entirely theirs, for the administration in the Caribbean too has been bereft of tact and vision.

The conflict between the players and the West Indies Cricket Board has been so protracted and debilitating that it is a surprise that the International Cricket Council (ICC) hasn’t deemed it fit to facilitate détente, if not a solution.

Long derided as a toothless tiger, the ICC must now act speedily: save West Indies cricket, and salvage the sport.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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