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Monday, Sep 16, 2019

A West Indian resurgence is good news for Test cricket: Ayaz Memon

England were unceremoniously humbled by the West Indies, beaten in the first Test by 381 runs and by 10 wickets in the next. While the first result could have been an aberration, the second defies definition of being a fluke.

cricket Updated: Feb 07, 2019 13:11 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
New Delhi
Jason Holder of West Indies celebrates after leading his team to victory in the second Test.
Jason Holder of West Indies celebrates after leading his team to victory in the second Test.(AFP)

There’s been a surfeit of cricket in the past few weeks. While most attention has been on how teams are faring in ODIs, with the World Cup a few months away, the most compelling performance has come in the five-day format where West Indies have stunned England, winning two Tests to seal the series.

This was an unlikely result by any reckoning. England are ranked No. 2 by the ICC, the West Indies languish at No. 8. Joe Root’s team had only recently whitewashed Sri Lanka 3-0 in an away series (having beaten No. 1 India 4-1 at home) and were expected to romp to triumph in the Caribbean.

Instead, they were unceremoniously humbled, beaten in the first Test by 381 runs and by 10 wickets in the next. While the first result could have been an aberration, the second defies definition of being a fluke.

More pertinently, what bald figures don’t reflect is how well the West Indies played in the two Tests. The flair, panache, raw energy, athleticism - and most importantly pride - that described their cricket for the better part of six decades till the decline started in the early 1990s, was back in evidence again.

There was a freedom and brilliance to Caribbean cricket - not slave to orthodox thought on how the game should be played, a rebuke to colonialism and as expression of their racial identity – had given cricket a distinct dimension and brought untold joy to fans across the world.

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Rich Legacy

Consider the exploits of George Headley, Learie Constantine, the three Ws, Hunte, Kanhai, Butcher, Nurse, Alexander, Gary Sobers, Lloyd, Richards, Greenidge, Kallicharan, Rowe, Richardson, Valentine, Ramadhin, Gibbs, Hall, Griffith, Gilchrist, Roberts, Holding, Garner, Marshall, Ambrose and Walsh and one gets an understanding of the magnificent legacy of West Indies cricket.

The standout name among these is, of course Sobers of whom former Australia captain Richie Benaud said at a dinner in Johannesburg in 1991 at which I was present, “There is a magic about Calypso cricket that has universal appeal, and nobody has carried that talent or charm better than him. He was the best. The flair and character of West Indies cricket is unique, and Sobers was its epitome.’’

Sobers was the reason why I (like scores of my vintage and earlier) became a cricket fan, after watching his wondrous all-round skills play in the first Test of the 1966-67 series at the Brabourne Stadium.

My favourite West Indian then was the dashing Rohan Kanhai of ‘falling hook’ fame. But Sobers stole the show, picking up five wickets bowling fast and spin, and scoring two sizzling half centuries, the one in the second innings at scorching pace so that he could be at the horse races at Mahalaxmi on time!

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Rise and fall

What made a greater impact than Sobers’ all-round prowess, however, was him calling back Budhi Kunderan after the umpire had declared the batsman caught in the leg trap. Sobers indicated to the umpire that he had taken the ball on the half volley. I was 11 and impressionable. That gesture of sportsmanship made me a cricket tragic for life.

Over the next two decades, West Indies cricket went from strength to strength, reaching the acme under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards in the 1970s and 1980s, till the decline began in the late 1980s: almost imperceptibly at first, then alarmingly, reaching its lowest point in the last decade.

What caused this is difficult to pinpoint. Inter-island rivalry (cricket is the only sport all Caribbean islands combine for, every other sport they compete as independent nations) and the internecine politicking this inevitably leads to, and souring of relations between players and the administration are strong factors.

Poor management also meant inadequate financial rewards for players. A fractious relationship between administration and talent led to players leaving the fold readily. There was mass defection to the Packer Circus and later, many went to South Africa on a rebel tour.

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Path forward

The biggest problem, however, has perhaps been the lack of a robust grassroots development program that could supply quality players regularly. The reason why cricket in India, Australia and England thrives – despite issues of administration – is because this aspect has been superbly cared for.

T20 leagues, the bane of traditionalists, has seen some kind of turnaround in recent years. Prospects of a decent livelihood has seen youngsters in the Caribbean flocking back to cricket instead of deserting it. With money coming in, supply of more talent holds out hope that it will get better from here.

It would be premature to aver that West Indies cricket, struggling badly for the last 25-odd years, has been revived. But the signals emerging are delightfully encouraging for true lovers of the game. And if this form can be sustained, it will not only reconfigure the power matrix of cricket, but also invigorate the five-day format.

Fingers crossed!

(The writer is a senior sports analyst and views are personal)

First Published: Feb 07, 2019 13:08 IST