Free fall

Vijay Lokapally | Updated on October 27, 2018 Published on October 26, 2018

Cup of woe: In its ongoing tour of India, the Windies were handed two debilitating losses in the two Test matches, both under three days   -  KR DEEPAK

The Windies are a heartbreaking shadow of their invincible former self. The crushing defeats in the recent Test matches against India reinforced this bitter truth

Lester Arumugam was a passionate supporter of West Indies cricket. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the shipping magnate from Trinidad would travel the world with the team. He was considered a lucky mascot, though the West Indies hardly needed divine support to dominate international cricket. The team, in turn, would honour him with an annual accreditation that gave him free access to all the stadiums in the Caribbean. He personified West Indies cricket — lively and entertaining.

Caribbean cricket though has lost the fervour and the style that separated it from the rest. The West Indies team, which once ruled world cricket, has been in turmoil for more than a decade. It has, however, hung on to its reputation in the shortest format of the game. Winning the 2016 World T20 title in Kolkata was a pleasant departure from its slide. The 2004 Champions Trophy win at London was the last international crown that came its way. For 12 years, the team frequently became the butt of jokes, leaving supporters, both within and outside the Caribbean, a dejected lot.

The Windies continued their losing streak in the ongoing tour of India. The hosts handed it two debilitating losses in the two Test matches, both under three days. The visitors, however, put up a decent show in the first two one-dayers, finishing the second at Visakhapatnam in a tie. It was a welcome throw-back to the glorious days of a team which won the World Cup in 1975 and 1979.

In its heyday, losing to the Windies was not considered humiliation because the team was superior in all aspects. Back then, jokes routinely did the rounds about how players from the opposition did not mind cooking up excuses to miss a match against the West Indies. Today, that would prove to be a mistake — after all, a match against the Windies is a sure-shot at going one up for the opposition.

In the dedication section of A History Of West Indies Cricket, author Michael Manley raves about players such as Learie Constantine, George Headley, Frank Worrell, Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd for their stellar roles in shaping cricket in all those islands which played under one flag. In later years, Viv Richards and Brian Lara joined the ranks along with the dreaded fast bowlers of different eras.

It was universally felt that world cricket needed the West Indies. Their athleticism and fearlessness placed them on a rung above competitors. Manley had written, “The first West Indian cricketers caught the imagination of the cricketing publics of England and Australia because they brought to the game a free-moving, free-stroking, lithe athleticism which was all their own.” At the end of the first India-West Indies Test at Rajkot recently, India star Harbhajan Singh had questioned the credentials of the visiting team. “With all due respect to West Indies Cricket, but I have a question for u all... will this West Indies team qualify for Ranji quarters from the plate group?” he had tweeted.

In stark contrast, I remember the frenzy with which fans greeted the West Indies team at airports from the 1970s to the 1990s. Players such as Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith, Alvin Kallicharran, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Patrick Patterson were household names in India, and were perhaps more popular here than back home. The place of those legends has since been taken by the likes of Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo, players known essentially for their exploits in the limited-overs format and the Indian Premier League (IPL).

The decline of West Indies cricket has been rapid. Lack of talent is obvious, but poor administration has also impacted the game. The youth is lured by football, athletics and basketball, games which promise better money than cricket. The players have also been locked in constant squabble with the West Indies Cricket Board over payment. When players opt for private leagues rather than turn up for the national team, it only highlights the changed priorities.

The empty galleries that greet players at Test venues in the Caribbean are a sad commentary on the state of the game in the islands now. Music in the stands, and dancing and singing, which were an integral part of cricket-watching in the West Indies, now seem lost forever. The cricket calypso is shorn of rhythm as the West Indies lose frequently, and most embarrassingly for their great players of the past, Test matches often get over in three days. The West Indies have come to experience the agony they once inflicted on others.

When noted commentator Tony Cozier fought back tears as he watched the team get pulverised, he symbolised the heartbreak West Indies cricket has come to embody. There was a phase when Holding declined commentary assignments involving the West Indies team. Indeed, cricket has lost its appeal in the West Indies, though the game once grew strong roots there. Manley had observed, “Cricket (for the peasants) was a pleasant way to while away the hours to sundown, either as participant or idly gossiping spectator. At the same time, there was a leisured class and a colonial bureaucracy which did not work over the weekend. Hence, the social organisation of the typical Caribbean territory created the time for cricket while the community’s need for distraction created the appetite.” All of that has changed.

Gayle and Bravo prefer the private leagues because they earn in millions. The returns for playing Test cricket are meagre in comparison. It matters little to the current generation of West Indian cricketers if they lose without a fight on the field. It obviously must hurt players such as Lloyd and Richards, who were at the helm when the West Indies were invincible. The West Indies, sadly, have also lost their spectator base, especially the passionate kinds such as Arumugam. He would anyway find himself out of place in the current scenario.

Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor, Sports, The Hindu

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Published on October 26, 2018
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