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Flip Side by Kunal Pradhan: Windies revival – An elusive dream

What does a West Indies renaissance really mean? The glory of West Indies cricket in the 1970s and 1980s was not just about victories and defeats. It was about race, culture, music, and the significance of lives lived on tiny islands figuring like dots on a world map

columns Updated: Feb 16, 2019 18:19 IST
Kunal Pradhan
Kunal Pradhan
Hindustan Times
West Indies,Windies,Cricket
The West Indies cricket team with the World Cup trophy in 1979.(Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Like reports about Mark Twain’s death in 1897, exhortations about the revival of West Indies cricket are greatly exaggerated. Twain, 61 then, eventually died of a heart attack 13 years later. The theory about a West Indian resurgence is likely to be more short-lived.

Sure, the Windies won a major series after 10 years by defeating England 2-1 this month, with handsome victories at Barbados and Antigua. This led statisticians and commentators to point out how, over the last 23 Tests dating back two years, they have beaten England three times, Pakistan twice, and Sri Lanka once. That, in turn, prompted them to first wonder if the team was slowly getting back on the rails, and proclaim how, if it happened, it would be a wonderful thing.

The problem is that the West Indies revival story has become a recurring event. For, what does a West Indies renaissance really mean? Or, to put it another way (with a nod each to Rudyard Kipling and CLR James), what do they know of West Indies cricket who only cricket know?

The glory of West Indies cricket in the 1970s and 1980s was not just about victories and defeats, centuries, five-wicket hauls, and World Cup trophies. It was an articulation of a philosophy, an expression of personality, a statement of individualism, a fight against oppression, a chime of freedom, and (as the 2010 documentary reminded us) a fire raging in Babylon.

It was about race, culture, music, and the significance of lives lived on tiny islands figuring like dots on a world map — about green, for the land itself; yellow, for the gold that was stripped; red, for the blood that was shed. Students were marching on the streets, Bob Marley & The Wailers were composing rhythms, and Viv Richards was chewing gum — all at the same time. It was a rare confluence of events that pushed them across barriers hitherto not breached.

The reason why people so desperately want the West Indies to rise again is that there has never been a force like it in world cricket, or perhaps, in world anything. Here was a team made up of people collected together just because they were all part of the same Commonwealth; not only sport, an entire make-believe identity was thrust upon them overlooking their own nationalities.

When they lost matches, as all colonies did in the early years, it fitted perfectly into the larger colonial narrative of introducing civilisation to the natives but showing them that the English were superior; and when they started to win, it was their “natural” ability as big-built slow-witted people that allowed them to bowl lightning quick and bat with abandon. Hours spent honing skills, getting fitter, achieving technical perfection, were sought to be summarily dismissed.

The Windies overcame these odds and prejudices to not only change perceptions about themselves, and their race, but also alter cricket forever. The concept of a pace quartet, of batsmen who took the attack to the opposition, of fielders who glided across the outfield, were all brought to us courtesy the Caribbean.

Cricket has never had such an underdog turned top dog. Australia, in the 1940s and the 2000s, may have been as dominant as the West Indies were in the 1970s and 1980s but theirs wasn’t half as good a story. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India threatened at various times over the last three decades, but could never hit either those game-defining levels or that consistency.

Seventeen years ago, when West Indies won their last series against India, I was there. It was a battle between a golden generation of Indian cricketers slowly hitting top gear and West Indian lions in the winter fighting to stay relevant. It was Sachin and Dravid vs Lara and Chanderpaul, Sourav and Laxman vs Hooper and Sarwan; the last time a Windies line-up passed muster in the half light.

India won the second Test at Port of Spain, the West Indies hit back at Barbados in the third. We went into the fifth and final Test at Jamaica’s Sabina Park, the ground where five Indian batsmen had chosen to be absent hurt rather than face Michael Holding & Co in 1975, with the honours even.

India lost on the fifth morning, and about 10 minutes later, it started to rain. It rained so hard that it barely stopped for a few hours over the next week. If only India had hung on for three more overs, they might have returned with the series level. The Windies savoured the victory. Pundits said a revival was just around the corner. But it was clear even then that something was not right: the exhortations were greatly exaggerated.

Kunal Pradhan’s column, Flip Side, appears every fortnight

First Published: Feb 16, 2019 18:19 IST