Among all the cricket tours in the world, the one to the West Indies is always the most prized. Every itinerant cricket writer would give an arm to do a Caribbean assignment for multiple reasons; the alluring beaches and the jamming and liming outings, the brass band and the rum-and-coke sessions, and then the cricket — pure and entertaining. The spectators enjoy the cricket and back their team fully in its bid to destroy the best. Nothing can match the West Indian way — lyrical and joyful. Even if they lose, there is music in the stands. When they win, the celebrations echo worldwide.
Watching the West Indies demolish India in the ’70s and ’80s was not that painful. Of course it hurt when Michael Holding snared Sunil Gavaskar or when Viv Richards bludgeoned Kapil Dev. But your heart did not bleed because Holding and Richards were your heroes too. Watching them in action was admiring athleticism at its zenith. Cricket was the best sport in the world when the West Indies dominated the game in a throwback to Don Bradman’s ‘The Invincibles.’
The recent triple triumph that embraced West Indian cricket has been acknowledged overwhelmingly even by their opponents. Carlos Brathwaite’s four sixes in a row that buried England in a stunning avalanche at the Eden Gardens now belong to cricket folklore. In four strokes West Indies was put on the highest pedestal by a carefree cricketer, who knew just one way to make his point.
The positive trait that marks West Indies cricket came to the fore that glorious night and Brathwaite walked into history as a match-winner of rare quality.
Some people mock at the term, ‘When West Indies wins, it is cricket that wins’. It is true because West Indies signifies the game as no other.
It assembles the best from a group of islands which otherwise compete as individual teams. The title triumphs at under-19 World Cup, and the men’s and women’s T20 World Cup have once again established the West Indies as a team to watch. It perhaps triggers the imagination of a generation of cricket lovers who have not known the Caribbean charmers to be excellent on the cricket field.
Chris Gayle epitomises the West Indian style. He regales you with shots, some of which land at your feet. His appeal is global. His batting has an infectious impact on his colleagues as well as the opponents. His bat speaks and we have seen it on many occasions. The current West Indies team may not have a star like Richards or Garry Sobers but it has performers who play to win the hearts of their fans.
Allow me to make a point worth illustrating the state of a West Indian junior. After the junior World Cup win over India at Dhaka last February, skipper Shimron Hetmyer prayed some of them would get to play first-class cricket as a reward for the World Cup win. The Indian squad, incidentally, included six first-class cricketers.
That was the difference between the teams — the West Indies had players with fire in their belly. The Indians were obviously satiated.
From the days of Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes, the West Indians have given the world a steady stream of classic entertainers. They played to win. If they did not win, they graciously acknowledged their defeat. Of course, Clive Lloyd differed. Richards too boasted of a long memory and both came hard at their opponents, in case of Lloyd, brutally. But the West Indies remained the most popular cricket team on earth even when they slayed their opponents mercilessly.
There lay no embarrassment for the loser because you were flattened by the best team in the world.
West Indies is not winning a world title for the first time. It won the first two editions of the World Cup in 1975 and 1979 before losing the 1983 final to India. The 2004 Champions trophy win at The Oval was hailed as a revival of West Indies cricket and it culminated in the T20 World Cup title in 2012. But things went awry when the players repeatedly fell out with the cricket administration before reaching its lowest point in 2014 when the team called off the tour to India midway on issues related to match fees.
Fire in Babylon is a superb tribute that documents the spirit of West Indian cricket through extensive research and thought-provoking interviews with legends of the game. It traces the rise and decline of cricket in the Caribbean. Once a land of fearsome fast bowlers, it was ironical to see the West Indies open its attack in the T20 final with a spinner. It was a reflection of the times; West Indies had come to terms with the demands of the day and adapted quickly. In the process it had also regained the reputation it had surrendered — it is now a team to reckon with.
It may take a while for the West Indies to reclaim its space as a Test team. The recent successes may not amount to a complete resurgence of cricket in the Caribbean, but the champion song is a pleasant reminder that happy days are back in the West Indies. Cricket unites the islands and the cricket anthem perfectly portrays the state of the game in the West Indies. It is time to “Rally Round The West Indies”, as David Rudder proclaims. And world cricket is rejoicing with this distinct set of cricketers who, like the rest, play to win but also entertain. Even when they lose.
(Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor (Sports), The Hindu)