T20 World Cup: A unique West Indies generation in search of a T20 treble
- Power hitters, Test players, freelancers and an ageing Universe Boss come together, despite the odds, to make an unlikely team who have what it takes to make history
Daren Sammy was not ready to let go of the World Cup. Well past midnight on April 4, 2016, at the corner of a shivering cold media lounge of Eden Gardens, Sammy was holding the trophy like his baby, almost talking to it, completely oblivious to the twenty-odd journalists milling around to extract a rogue quote out of the West Indies captain. He didn’t care to pose or talk. Was this victory a befitting response to an administration that had painted them as money-grabbing mercenaries? Sammy looked up, threw a blank stare before asking for some time to answer.
He spent that time bidding a silent farewell. To the trophy he had just won in a pulsating final against England that April night. To his team, friends and to West Indies cricket. “Now that the cricket is over we can focus on other things,” Sammy finally broke his silence. He didn’t get that chance. The casual brinkmanship hierarchically cultivated in the administrative circles of West Indies cricket ensured Sammy never played in their colours again after he was stripped of the captaincy in a "30-second call" from the chairman of selectors that August.
A leader had been allowed to fade away despite delivering a World Cup. Just like that.
That’s West Indies for you—high on entertaining and effective white-ball cricket but scraping the bottom when it comes to man management. We are familiar with the stories of mistrust, insecurity and rancour. Change the names and you would find yourself transported to the 70’s and 80’s, when West Indies was a superpower but also plagued with turmoil when players signed for the Kerry Packer series or went to South Africa during Apartheid. Before you jump to a conclusion, let’s get one thing out of the way. Red-ball cricket remains the ultimate test of skills. And that West Indies team was a world-beating Test side loaded with dependable openers, fearsome fast bowlers, the world’s best batter and a peerless captain that went undefeated for 27 consecutive Tests apart from almost winning three consecutive World Cups. They cannot be compared with this free-spirited bunch of T20 freelancers who voluntarily regrouped to win a treble. The formats don’t compare and may not even matter ten years down the line, given the rapid demise of one-day cricket. But the difference ends there.
“Voluntarily” is the key word here. Why would some ageing freelancers want to play a World Cup instead of putting their feet up after a backbreaking IPL? Even if they do, why would the cricket board agree to it? Let’s go back to October 17, 2014, when the West Indies board decided to call off the remainder of their tour of India in the middle of the fourth ODI in Dharamsala. Fallout over contracts was the given reason, with then captain Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard deemed the mastermind behind the rebellion. “Apart from one player, everyone signed on a piece of paper that they were all in support of leaving the tour,” Bravo later said in an interview to i955fm, going on to describe how several missives to West Indies Players’ Association President (Wavell Hinds) and board president (Dave Cameron) were met with either silence or confusing answers when they came to know of a 75% salary cut for players across the board. There were repeated warnings before Bravo & Co acted despite BCCI president N Srinivasan (who also happened to be Bravo’s boss at Chennai Super Kings) requesting them to continue, even offering to pay for whatever they were losing by way of contract. Bravo lost his ODI captaincy and his place in the ODI team along with Pollard. In October, 2018, Bravo retired from all forms of the game.
Now check the West Indies squad. Of the 15 selected for this T20 World Cup, only four—Kieron Pollard, Nicholas Pooran, Fabian Allen and Hayden Walsh Jr—were given white-ball retainer contracts by West Indies for the 2021-22 season. Jason Holder, the only player to get an all-format contract, is among the reserves. Pollard, 34, who hadn’t seen any action after 2016, was made captain in 2019 after West Indies didn’t qualify for the World Cup knockouts. It was under him West Indies slowly started to reassemble their older but wiser all-stars team. The communication started getting clearer. Chris Gayle, 42, stepped up. Bravo, 38, came out of retirement just for this World Cup. Ravi Rampaul, who last played in 2015, too was picked. So was Roston Chase, a Test specialist with no T20I to his name. Behind this free hand to find a winning combination is a more empathetic administration that has a new president in Ricky Skerritt who in turn brought Sammy as a member of Cricket West Indies’ (CWI) board of directors earlier this year. But it really was the belief in a bunch that has lifted the T20 World Cup twice that justified a radical makeover which didn’t include almost 90% of the centrally contracted cricketers.
Power-hitting has dictated most of the selections in batting but some are more instinctive than data-influenced. Like Chase, who was MVP at the 2021 CPL. “The type of cricket he plays fits right into our balance, right in the middle of our power-hitters,” said Pollard at a media interaction last week. “We need a guy who can manoeuvre the ball, hit the occasional boundaries, and keep the run rate going. That's an area we keep constantly working on, and we thought he was the right fit at this time. He hasn't played much white-ball cricket, and teams may not have that much data. Or maybe they do, there's an archive full of runs and wickets. We look forward to reaping rewards of his form from the CPL.”
Similarly, their miserable win-loss ratio since the 2016 title—0.66, the worst among the top-12—shouldn’t bother much because it was really since March 1 this year that they started being the West Indies we know, improving the ratio to 1.33. Pooran, Shimron Hetmyer, Evin Lewis and Andre Fletcher may be the future but in Gayle, Bravo and Pollard, West Indies have a core that has reinvented T20 cricket. “I think he has shown time and again what he brings to any team,” Pollard said of Bravo. “For Chennai to go on and win was a fabulous team effort, and for him personally to continue doing what he does at the back and to close out matches for teams was superb. There's no pressure on him, we're all looking to 'sir' to all that in this campaign.” Gayle’s inclusion was a no-brainer. “No words to describe what he has done for us in the T20 World Cups and in T20 cricket around the world,” Pollard said. “The guy with the most sixes, most runs, the fear he instils in bowlers.”
Rampaul’s inclusion too was a well-thought out one after he had topped the Caribbean Premier League table with 19 wickets with an economy of 7.96. And while Andre Russell was a risk worth taking purely because of his all-round ability, leaving out Sunil Narine despite a brilliant IPL bares the character of this West Indies team that owes its makings to the one that had landed in India in 2016 without their official kit. “We would have paid to play here,” Sammy had said then. It isn’t as dire now. But age is catching up with a bunch that is on the precipice of achieving something special by winning a treble. If they do that, we may have a new West Indies to narrate stories of.