Darren Sammy and his West Indies band played some exciting music during the recent Twenty/20 World Cup, but right to the end most people around the world probably thought that success in the final would be beyond them. After all, West Indies have been beaten over and over again, in all forms of cricket, for quite some years now. Overcoming Sri Lanka in the final on Sri Lankan soil loomed as quite a challenge. But they were up for it, and their triumph seems to have pleased most of the global cricket “brotherhood”.
The question now going the rounds is: Is this the start of a genuine cricket revival for this regional team? Is the painful squabbling between the Caribbean islands (and worse, between players and administrators) now over, and is the powerful united effort back on track?
It is eight years since the flags of victory were last waved, when West Indies won the ICC Champions Trophy with a thrilling comeback in the final against England at The Oval in September 2004, stealing the 50-overs match by two wickets with seven balls to spare. Only Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo remain from that team, together with Ramnaresh Sarwan who today lurks in the wings, available but apparently disapproved at present.
The younger men who helped West Indies to victory in the World T20 final are classified as specialists in this shortest form of the game. How many of them are batsmen capable of batting for five or six or seven hours? How many can become bowlers with stamina and concentration sufficient to see them through long gruelling days in the field during a Test match? This will be the acid test, for the explosive power and adventurous strokeplay demanded for T20 can look ridiculous when this approach fails in a five-day contest.
Test cricket will always be the ultimate test for a cricketer. In the longer game, a fifty off 30 balls seldom adds to the cause. The high-risk reverse sweep is frowned upon when it leads to dismissal. A dropped catch or missed stumping can never have such profound consequences as in a Test match when it results in the lucky reprieved batsman go on to make a double-century.
Perhaps in the winning of a 50-overs or 20-overs international tournament there is sufficient joy to keep everyone concerned contented. Perhaps West Indies’ recent success will restore some of the lost interest across the Caribbean region. Perhaps the winning of Test matches doesn’t much matter any more. But I doubt that.
We hear much today about the 15-year period — 1976 to 1991 — of West Indies domination of world cricket. Might the recent Twenty20 victory be a platform for a return to that sort of world domination? In two words: extremely unlikely.
One needs to examine the reason for the dominance of Clive Lloyd’s team and of that which he handed over to Vivian Richards. There was an awesome batting line-up, from Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes at the top down through a strong middle order. Where it stands in history doesn’t concern us here. It’s analysing the reason that that side won series after series all over the world. And the driving force was principally an on-going production line of fast bowlers. They were among the greatest the world has seen, and they came in abundance.
They were also allowed to get away with four or five vicious bouncers an over. That would not be permitted today. And they conserved their energy by dawdling through the day’s play at 10, 11 or a dozen overs an hour. Front-foot shots against this armoured division were hardly ever possible. The charms of spin bowling were almost completely extinguished. Fifteen years of domination? Yes, unquestionably. Attractive cricket? Time and again it was anything but (unless you were a West Indian, of course). It was the Test umpires who let the game down, though they mostly seemed to feel that authority would be reluctant to back them should they try to curb the fusillades of intimidatory bowling.
To those who lived through those years and can remember still much of the detail – such as Viv Richards’ difficulties when trying to bat on spin-friendly pitches at Sydney and Faisalabad – it is easy to acknowledge the dominance, but impossible to forget the wretched spectacle of a fast-bowling assault which was constantly allowed to indulge in excess. Experienced watchers such as Jim Laker, John Woodcock, Richie Benaud and Jack Fingleton occasionally spoke out against it, and this writer himself drew fire after editorialising passionately as a lover of pure cricket.
Clive Lloyd has continued to protest that the criticism was unjustified because the umpires had not stepped in. He had a point, but that doesn’t mean they should have allowed four or five throat balls every over, and a miserably meagre input of overs in a day’s play of over six hours.
Given, then, that this old strategy has at last been outlawed, can we now look forward to a West Indies revival in the five-star form of the game, Test cricket? Well, if there is to be a return to the attractive cricket played by Frank Worrell’s and Garry Sobers’ Caribbean combinations, I for one would welcome it. All that Darren Sammy and his boys need to do now is channel the flashing talent we saw recently in the shortest form of the game into something more solid and lasting for the ultimate test of all: Test cricket.
Victories are obviously important, but for true cricket lovers something is equally important, and that is the means of achieving it. Sunil Narine is a fascinating bowler, with all the mystery of Sonny Ramadhin. Modern batsmen can’t simply pad him away in the fashion that Peter May and Colin Cowdrey did in 1957, before the lbw law was revised. TV referrals also help modern spinners. Then there is Darren Bravo, who has the class of his cousin Brian Lara. Chris Gayle remains the pantomime figure and a killer of bowling when his luck is with him. And that irritating little left-hander, Chanderpaul, the ultimate “never get me out” Test batsman. With the blossoming of Marlon Samuels, I’m now beginning to think that a return to No. 1 might well be a possibility over the next, say, 18 months.
Within the past year or so we’ve seen three different number ones atop the Test match table: India, England and now South Africa. Nobody knows better than the West Indians how much work lies ahead for them if they are to take the most meaningful trophy of all, the Test cricket mace. It’s up to them now.