“Cricket needs the West Indies to do well!”, screamed the papers at the start of the 2012 T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka. It was as if the fortunes of the game were tied to the success of the cricketers from the Caribbean. And toddlers and teen agers playing cricket in the maidans of the sub-continent would wonder why those men in maroon might matter any more than cricketers from New Zealand, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or any of these other often honest but hardly ever spectacular cricketing teams. Yes, the West indies have Chris Gayle, but take away the last two IPLs and what exactly do you remember of his greatness?
Almost on cue, arrived Stevan Riley’s ode to West Indian cricket, Fire in Babylon. This award winning documentary film lasted no longer than a week in theatres in Delhi, but the few who did catch this film would have come to know why West Indian cricket is so valuable for world cricket.
Every sport needs champions, to inspire the fans; to create history, glorious history; to draw the spirit of young heroes to be; to sell cars, clubs, TV rights; but most of all, a sport needs heroes to define itself, to survive, to capture the imagination of generations, so it continues to be played, for years, decades and centuries. And cricket has not had taller heroes than those that walked the green ovals of the game in the 70s and 80s, than those men from the happy islands in the West Indies.
When I was just beginning to play and read about the game, in the early and mid 80s, cricket was a battle for second place. The crown rested well beyond reach, on a beautiful black head that turned only if you called out “ Hey Viv! Is that a bat or a battle axe yer holdin’, maan….?!”
Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards had just taken over the captaincy and inherited this legacy of invincibility from Clive Lloyd. Sachin Tendulkar is respected for his class and sublime mastery and Jacques Kallis for his guts; Inzamam-ul-Haque for his power and Brian Lara for his silken grace, and Ricky Ponting, Allan Border and Sunil Gavaskar may have attained greatness through their sheer prolificacy, but never has a man walked on to a cricket pitch and combined the brutal and raw savagery of a vengeful Samson with the imperious swagger and elegance of a man born to rule. No batsman before or since has inspired such knee-quaking fear in captains and bowlers around the game.
Richards was a great batsman not just because of his power and balance, his innovative strokeplay or even the sheer courage and skill that made him hook a superfast bouncer from Jeff Thompson or Andy Roberts from front of his nose and deposit it in a gutter outside the stadium while wearing just his maroon cap and crest for protection. No sir, for what made those eyes burn with passion was that furnace of black pride that burnt in his heart.
But though King Viv was the master of all he surveyed, West Indian supremacy wasn’t built on just his massive shoulders and the flair and brilliance of his fellow hardhitting willow wielders alone. Four tall, strong men, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft , menacing hunters who hunted in a pack, scalped batsmen with the hard red cherry hurled at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour. They were called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, and wherever they went, destruction followed. Wherever they stood, batsmen fell, to the ground, clutching a head or a limb, spitting teeth and blood, writhing in agony. And these four men walked on, leaving splintered willow, wood and bones in their wake.
I remember my friends and their brothers and uncles speaking in hushed tones about the West Indian pace battery, the kind of tone they use in fairy tales to speak of dragons and ogres and other supernatural agents of fear and mayhem. Cricket had been elevated to another level. Hitherto, it had been a game for gentlemen - aristocratic batsmen, working class bowlers and reluctant fielders - who went along with the English garden tea script, and except for the odd Bodyline series or a mercurial Compton, Miller, Trueman or Sobers, had remained an expression of class, race and existing post-colonial socio-cultural values instead of a truly athletic sporting endeavour.
Clive Lioyd’s boys changed all that. The natural athleticism that their fathers brought with them from the shores of Africa was honed into sublime skill on the sun-kissed beaches of the Caribbean and was then forged into winning steel during the Packer-series (where they became the first real team to have a fitness coach) that eventually cut through all opposition for nearly two decades. For 20 years, this team dominated the game through pace and power. But suddenly, it all changed. The first brigade had retired by the mid 80s. Roberts, Lloyd, Holding and Garner… But there were eager titans waiting to take wing. Desmond Haynes and later Richie Richardson joined Vivian Richards and Gordon Greenidge to keep the batting as formidable as ever while the pace juggernaut now looked even more formidable with the fearsome Malcolm Marshall who delivered hissing mambas and cobras that spit, swore and bit the batsman hard, sharing demolition duty with two lethal assassins, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose.
In the 90s, all seemed well on the surface, but as these warriors aged, so did that aura of invincibility that had cocooned West Indian pride for so long. Black power, the pride of a once-slave fighting for dignity and then for vengeance, redemption and then glory, for himself, his race, his team, and for the right to look his white master in the eye after whipping him blue and telling him, “I am black, and I am better than you!”, had been the flame that had set the game ablaze in the islands. For a people torn away from their history and culture, cricket was war that gave them their history and their pride. It gave them the right to say, “we are children of men who ruled the world”. But in the 21st century, that legacy was lost on a generation born free that sought not equality but opportunity. Economics and a culture that drew its influences from its closest neighbor, the United States, far more than from its old colonial past led to an exodus of talent into other richer sports. Athletics (Usain Bolt, need I say more) and basketball (Patrick Ewing, Al Horford) became the sport of choice for the next generation of Holdings and Garners.
Without their pace battery, the attack lost its teeth. The West Indian pacers, now a motley bunch of fast-medium men like Merv Dillon and Cameron Cuffy, had become human again. With the bat, they still had a cricketing giant amongst them in Brian Lara but that old fire was just a pile of smoking ashes now. A loss to those babes-in-the-game, Kenya in the ‘96 World Cup was followed by a series of losses at home. Pride was dead and had been put to rest in the islands. An decade and a half of excruciating ordinariness followed until last week, when almost like a prophecy that needed to fulfill itself, The West indies touched glory and a World Cup again.
But will this glorious new chapter in their once rich history of triumphs set the tone for the near future. Will the West indies win back their legacy of global dominance in World Cricket? Well, I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, because West Indian cricket has found a new hunger and new pride and no, because it will perhaps never be the same again. And that is so, because the last dawn of West Indian cricket happened during an era when Africa and the black African man outside his continent were both looking to be free from prejudice, were rediscovering pride and were fighting for dignity, for rights, for equality. There was fierceness in those times that these times can’t match. And secondly, though champions, this team has a very different colour and character from that team of yore, and that colour is more brown than black, and the character more Indian than African.
Indo-Carbbeans had always been a part of the West Indian teams of the past. Rohan Kanhai and Alvin Kallicharan were preceded by the diminutive Sonny Ramadhin. The Indo-Guyanese pair of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan were the only glimmer of hope for West Indian fans during the dark decade of 2000. But you know that the world is changing when not only is their most consistent batsman (Sarwan/ Chanderpaul), wicketkeeper (Denesh Ramdin) and of course the traditional mystery spinner (Sunil Narine) from Indian stock, but even the leader of the West Indian pace attack happens to be of Indian origin. Take a bow Ravi Rampaul…
So what if India could not make it to the semi-finals, there would have been celebrations yet, from Delhi to Darbhanga. And so they will win more games and pride in the hereafter, but not with African rhythm and power but with sub continental grace and craft . Here’s to a new tomorrow, for the West Indies, and for world cricket…!