To state that the once-mighty West Indies Test, and one-day, side is in the doldrums, or the abyss of its existence, unless a miracle of a turnaround happens, would be an understatement. It’s a poignant story, or clipped commentary, on how things have changed — more so, when the county’s futuristic talent bank, which was once taken for granted, has almost dried up. Not suddenly, but over a period of time, in spite of a Chris Gayle, or a Darren Bravo’s intermittent gust of calypso flourish.
To gaze at it — differently. West Indies, despite its phenomenal downslide in the recent past, has had its own image — God’s own cricket country. Something cricket enthusiasts, wherever they are, would love to lap up, or hold on to, whatever the argument. A game as charming as its people — enchanting, mercurial, naturally athletic, and more than just ethereal. Cricket is, quite simply, a West Indian identity.
The willow game runs in the calypso blood; or, DNA, or call it what you may. Cricket, to any West Indian, is not just a game; it is a genetic element. Or, so it’s till this period of time. If only Charles Darwin, or Gregor Mendel, had access to the biological framework of Caribbean cricket — until the emergence of Clive Lloyd and his blazing team of world-beaters — the world would have been witness to specialised corollaries of Origin of the Species, and the theory of heredity vis-à-vis the willow game, or so one would have thought.
West Indians, by nature or nurture, have always been colourful cricketers — as charming as the beautiful sun-baked island beaches where they come from. So, whoever doesn’t believe in this Act of God ought to change one’s mind, thanks to a celestial, classical imagery of the game in the Caribbean. Besides, cricket is a wonderful poem, a theme, and a philosophy. A festivity to behold — the sound of cymbals, drums, pipes, oboes, bugles, and so on, including calypso, or reggae music. Reason? One who breathes the air in this cricketing Shangri-la is conscious of the wind of the heights: a superabundant display of vitality. Cricket has always been a way of life, and the vital principle, in this land of a host of truly great cricketing names.
A case in point. Ever since the Windies embarked on its first visit to India, 68 years ago, where its players were treated as demi-gods, millions of Indians have often been bowled over by the multifaceted, hypnotic brilliance of Caribbean cricket, as in any other part of the cricketing world, and beyond. A tour, either way, was a mind-heart-and-soul booster. So much so, cricket fans buried their jingoistic tendencies and rooted for the foreign team to bring victory to the game — and, not the two respective teams alone.
The West Indies metamorphosed into a well-knit unit under Sir Frank Worrell, cricket’s own Scott Peck. The first-ever black to lead the Windies Test side, Worrell was a cricketing Zen master — good, positive, no matter the end result. Worrell was a great competitor, yes. He wanted to win every game — by means fair and bright. That was his legacy — a springboard from which Windies cricket took off to blossom — and, prosper. Not that the West Indians did not lose matches then; but, what was important was they’d bounce back with added vigour and purpose — something that is not resonant in them today.
Worrell was a cricket Solomon too, far too famous for his principles of accommodation and justice, not to speak of fair play. He was educated, suave, and articulate. An original article, who welded the flamboyant West Indian stars into one, fighting unit, that became, at once, effective and a hugely exhilarating combination than any other side before in history, Worrell’s understanding of his players’ mind was such that the happy-go-lucky calypso players held back nothing in reserve for their leader and the team. As Wesley Hall, a giant among ‘fast’ men, put it: “For Frank mun, I’ll give anything. Even my life.”
Worrell had no cliques. He did not allow them to exist. He was good at talking to batsmen and bowlers in such a way that they did not feel that they were being criticised. He made suggestions to them about what they should be doing — in a given situation. And, this he did with a joke, or a smile. In command, but not an authoritarian skipper. He treated all men as equals like Jesse Owens, the legendary Olympian. Race, origin, colour, and ideology, for Worrell did not mean anything so long as human beings behaved responsibly.
He even rejoiced when the opposition would win a Test match. Too godly a pursuit for a human being? Not really, because Worrell believed that sport should be pursued without emotional factors getting the better of logical denominators. A case in point: Worrell lost the 1960-61 series to Australia, which included the first-ever ‘Tied’ Test match, but he won the hearts of all Australians, who stood up as one entity to bid a tearful farewell to a losing side and its great captain. It was a unique occasion — one without a simile.
Conservatism has long held the upper hand in the West Indian psyche: money wasn’t important; playing the game for the West Indies was just about everything. So much so, the average West Indian played too much cricket. They had nothing else to do. As Lloyd said, not too long ago, “We’ve played a lot of cricket, including county cricket. We’ve undertaken tours because the grounds back home are small and the game does not generate much revenue.”
It was Kerry Packer who changed the face of West Indies cricket, though the basic fabric of the game in the Caribbean has remained unchanged. Money has now, understandably, slowly and surely become important, with the players having realised its commercial import well. This has rubbed off on the stars too. Flashback: Brian Lara and Carl Hooper’s ‘coup’ before their team’s ruinous, but historic, tour of South Africa — not to speak some of the big players and their ‘payment rift’ with the Windies’ Cricket Board in the recent past.
Yet, the fact remains. West Indies cricket, after the mesmerising epoch of the insuperable Viv Richards — and, to a certain, albeit limited, extent under the legendary Lara — is not in the best of health either way: on the field, or off it. In the arena, the team has been pounded, and off it gate collections are nothing to write home about, because the tickets are often highly priced. What’s more, funds are hard to come by, in spite of sponsors’ support. Add to it yet another new facet, and you have big trouble, a definitive threat, in the form of baseball, the American craze and big business. It’s simple analogy too. Any West Indian lad, given his natural penchant for sport, especially something close to ‘pitching’ and ‘hitting’ like cricket, has it in him to write his own cheque, or success story, in baseball.
There are other (dis)advantages too. There is more to baseball than what meets pitching: phenomenal TV coverage and commercial fervour, where players earn in millions, each year, if they make it good. Young West Indians, possibly, have been swayed by the images of such possibilities, notwithstanding the success of IPL and other events, at cricket’s expense. Cricket seems to have, perforce, taken the backseat. This is bad news, a major worry for West Indian cricket — a traditional game with the calypso tag. Add to it the gloomy portent of 81 loses and just a paltry 14 Test victories against the top-eight cricketing nations in contrast to its undefeated record in 29 Test series (1980-1995), you are witness to a deplorable augury, or lament song for Caribbean cricket.
Is there hope, notwithstanding the quagmire? Possibly, yes, although there are no quick-fixes. One realistic antidote that could, perhaps, spur Caribbean cricket to reclaim its lost ground is a whole new prescription — one that is keyed for the long-term and also replete with ‘good’ side-effects.