“Can forgive Kapil anything just for that one catch he took." So remarked a friend, referring to the catch that dismissed Viv Richards in the final of the 1983 World Cup—perhaps the turning point of the match.

We were waiting for Kapil Dev to deliver the annual Tiger Pataudi Memorial Lecture in Kolkata a couple of weeks ago. And as he spoke, in his lilting, gentle way, in that curious patois that he never bothered to “improve", it struck me that Dev was a true West Indian. His style of play, his attitude to the game, his bearing, his speech, his unaffected joie de vivre like a fresh breeze amid the stuffiness of the Bombay Marathi mob and the various aristocrats and big-city schoolboys that dominated Indian cricket at the time. And so that catch at Lord’s couldn’t have been a more fitting turning point to the match.

It was also a turning point of greater significance than the piece of silverware Dev held aloft that June evening; it was the first sign of India’s emergence as a cricketing power and the first, too, of West Indies’ decline (or, to put it more accurately, of their fallibility). India’s arrival at the summit of world cricket would take a further two decades; by that time, West Indies’ fire had been largely extinguished, to the extent that anyone who began watching them in the new millennium would wonder what the fuss was all about.

Yet for around a decade the West Indies ruled the world like no other before or since—winning hearts and minds with the brilliance of their play as easily as they won matches. It remains the best team I have seen and, through the eras of Allan Border, Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Andrew Strauss, Dwayne Smith and M.S. Dhoni, no team has come even close to knocking them off their perch.

Ironically, I didn’t see them win the World Cup; the tournament was not broadcast in India before 1983. But I had read about their exploits, seen the pictures and grainy footage on the half-hour weekly sports show. My brother had seen the first shoots of greatness when West Indies toured India in 1974-75, a tour that blooded three of their greats—Richards, Andy Roberts and Gordon Greenidge. And his enthusiasm rubbed off on me; our “book cricket" teams—the homespun predecessor to today’s fantasy leagues—would feature one all-Caribbean XI.

I followed their exploits through the Kerry Packer years to the 1979 World Cup win, listening to the final on the radio as first Richards and Collis King, and then Joel Garner, tore England apart. For me, it was a bonus birthday gift. I remember being struck by one radio commentator’s description of Garner’s bowling—he was so tall the ball was delivered from way above the sight screen. West Indies were a breed apart; only Imran Khan’s Pakistani team could match them for mystique and machismo.

Vivian Richards never wore a helmet on the field. Photo: Hindustan Times
Vivian Richards never wore a helmet on the field. Photo: Hindustan Times

“The message that I sent is that I’d rather die out there," he said in Fire In Babylon, the film about those glory years. “The only way I’m gonna be not here is if I’m knocked out." He could walk the talk too; hit in the face by Australia’s Rodney Hogg in 1979 and discovering he’d busted his jaw, he stayed on the field and hooked the next ball to the boundary.

Much of the romance surrounding that team stems from its exploits in Test cricket but that’s a function of the importance given to Tests in those days. The West Indians were made for One Day cricket. Their bowling could strangle batsmen (if not bounce them out), the batting could take apart any attack, and their naturally aggressive and attacking mindset fit the format like a glove. These strengths tended to overshadow their fielding, which combined their natural athleticism—the same genes that made Michael Holding such a graceful bowler—with high fitness levels.

One of the highlights of their first World Cup win in 1975 was Richards’ performance as a fielder in the final, effecting three run-outs. Their record speaks for itself: In a 10-year span beginning with their defence of the World Cup in 1979, they won around 75% of all their ODIs (One Day International matches), and nearly 67% of all matches (ODIs and Tests).

I saw that great team once, at the Eden Gardens Test in Kolkata on their India tour immediately after that World Cup loss in 1983. I’d waited almost a decade for this and they lived up to every expectation. Lloyd scored a century before Holding, Roberts and Malcolm Marshall (6/37) obliterated India’s batting and, eventually, West Indies won easily. The abiding memory is of the almost impossibly fast bowling; one didn’t see the ball once it left the bowler’s hand. That team won 13 of their first 14 ODIs—including all five in India—after the Lord’s final. Talk about bouncebackability.

But the greatness of that West Indies side didn’t lie in statistics alone; it lay in what they represented and what they fought for, why they played. Richards’ attitude, and that of his teammates, was fuelled by their past; just as Australian cricketers drew their grittiness from the circumstances of their country’s birth, so too were Lloyd’s men products of a sharp cultural and historical context. As the writer C.L.R. James noted, paraphrasing Shakespeare, “There is more in West Indies cricket than is dreamt of in contemporary cricket philosophy."

All the Test-playing nations were former British colonies but the West Indies was different—the colonization there included large-scale slavery, with the result that ethnicity and identity acquired immense significance. Cricket was a release from this; till the 1960s, it offered one of the few level playing fields for black West Indians, and cricketing greats became folk heroes. Lloyd and Richards were merely successors to George Headley, the “Black Bradman", Lord Learie Constantine, the first black member of the British peerage, Frank Worrell, the first black captain of the West Indies, and Garry Sobers, the greatest all-rounder of all.

As the West Indian nations attained independence in the 1960s-70s, the sense of national pride became even more acute. By the 1970s they were playing for more than the win at hand; inspired by the feats of Muhammad Ali and other African-American athletes, they were playing to right the wrongs of the past. When England’s captain Tony Greig—born and raised in apartheid South Africa—said in 1976 that he would make the West Indians “grovel", he lit a fire that consumed him. That one word, with its connotations of slavery and oppression, spurred the team to destroy England and laid the ground for the years of domination to follow.

Their successes fed, and in turn fed off, popular culture back home—though “home" was not one country but a collection of independent nations with often fractious relations. There was no West Indies outside the cricket pitch; it was as artificial a construct as Saarc (the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) or Asean (the Association of South-East Asian Nations). The cricket team didn’t even have a “national" anthem till 20 years ago. And yet the crowds thronged Sabina Park and the Bourda to watch them; their aura resonated from the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados, to the Kennington Oval in London. So how could a young boy growing up in Communist Kolkata, where footballers struck an early blow against colonialism, brought up on stories of revolution and class struggle, resist? I didn’t even try.

In those few years the West Indies team became the sport so much so that they are still seen, despite every possible recent effort to undermine this, as the keepers of the game’s soul. Much as the All Blacks stand for rugby and the Brazilian Seleção for football. That was the time of Liverpool’s dominance of English football; who knew then that Liverpool would not win the league for 25 years (and counting), or that Williams and McLaren, which had won 14 out of 15 constructors’ titles between them since 1984, would not win a single season after 1998? Or, indeed, that the West Indies would decline so spectacularly and seemingly irreversibly?

In my head, though, that West Indies team is still out in the middle. Richards on strike, Greenidge or Desmond Haynes at the other end. The ball is short and is hooked. Kapil Dev runs to catch it. The patriot in me sees the catch taken; the West Indies fan would have forgiven Dev if he had dropped it.

Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo. He writes the column Extra Time in Mint.

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