For those above a certain age, the West Indies have represented the finest in cricket; their players so naturally gifted and so charmingly laidback that they seemed to play the game without a thought of winning, but merely expressing themselves. Not even the harsh realities of bones broken and international careers brought to an end by their fearsome fast bowlers have quite erased that excessively romantic picture. There was a time in the 1960s when the tiny island of Barbados (about a third the size of Gurgaon) could have beaten most Test-playing countries.
CLR James, the chronicler of cricket and politics, once wrote a letter to Frank Worrell, the captain who moulded a world class team, thus: My dear Frank, I have nothing to write except that I perpetually wonder that a little scrap of West Indian territory has produced Garfield Sobers and you.
But it isn’t just Worrell and Sobers. An all-time Barbados XI might read (in batting order): Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Frank Worrell (capt), Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Garry Sobers, John Goddard, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Wes Hall, Sylvester Clarke. That would leave no room for Conrad Hunte, Seymour Nurse, Charlie Griffith, Wayne Daniel, Fidel Edwards and many others.
The current West Indies team would give anything to have players of that calibre. From 1976 to 1991 they won 59 and lost only 16 of 122 Tests played. From such heights have they fallen. The true lover of cricket will be saddened by their decline. Today Bangladesh is the only team below them in world rankings in both forms of the game. Both officials and players have contributed to this. “When there is rubbish at the top you will get rubbish at the bottom,” said Michael Holding recently, summing it up.
There has been talk of the ‘West Indies’, the only Test team which is not a single nation, breaking up into Jamaica and Trinidad and Barbados or worse, collapsing as a cricket unit altogether.
It is important to world cricket that the West Indies climb out of the hole they have dug themselves into. The pool from which cricketers arise has become smaller as other sports and other distractions take away the youngsters who begin with great promise. The grounds that produced Sobers and Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards and Brian Lara have been lying fallow for too long.
Over a decade ago, one of Trinidad’s best known sons, VS Naipaul, said to me, “You will not enjoy the West Indies. They are a bunch of small islands in every sense...”, and more in that vein. Yet Trinidad has produced two Nobel winners in literature, Naipaul himself and Derek Walcott.
Although “the West Indies” is a single cricketing unit, the Trinidadians, the Bajans, the Jamaicans and so on are distinctive, as Alec Waugh commented in his book on the West Indies, A Family of Islands. “I have come to recognise their separate identities,” he wrote of the islands. “When I began to write their history, I felt I was engaged upon a family saga that covered a succession of generations; I was tracing the fortunes of the various branches of that family, with first one branch in the ascendant, then another.”
Naipaul’s reaction tells us about the man, Waugh’s about the place. Throwing a bridge across the insensitivity of the native and the objectivity of the outsider are the works of CLR James, a Trinidadian who campaigned for the elevation of a Bajan, Worrell, as captain of West Indies, and wrote Beyond a Boundary, surely the greatest book on cricket.
Just how much of all this is common knowledge among Suresh Raina’s men now touring those islands is difficult to tell. Few modern cricketers prepare for a tour by reading about the country they are about to visit. Nor will too many be conscious of the historical cricketing ties with India. The West Indies were the first team to tour independent India and but for an umpire’s stupid mistake India might have squared that 1948-49 series.
The first three Tests were drawn, the West Indies won the fourth by an innings. At one stage in the decider, India, chasing 361 to win, looked so threatening that the rival skipper John Goddard resorted to leg theory bowling. Vijay Hazare made 122, and India came within six runs of a win with seven balls remaining when the umpire, caught up in the excitement, called ‘over’, and also the end of play.
India had to wait another two decades — till 1971 — to record their first-ever win against the West Indies. That was then a frontier of sorts, India having beaten all the other teams much earlier.
That 1971 tour gave birth to the legend of Sunil Gavaskar, duly immortalised in a calypso. Five years later, the player’s reputation was enhanced when he added two more Test centuries to the four he had made on his debut tour. In 1983, at Berbice, Gavaskar made a sparkling 90 as India beat the West Indies for the first time in a one-day international. It was a precursor to the win at the World Cup a few weeks later that denied the West Indies a third straight triumph.
A whole generation in India has grown up in the years when the West Indies no longer ruled world cricket. Raina, born three years after India’s first World Cup victory, played a crucial role in their second a couple of months ago. Neither he nor his teammates will carry the kind of baggage into a West Indies tour that some of the earlier tourists did. In 1987, skipper Dilip Vengsarkar accused his batsmen of running from fast bowling. It wasn’t until 2006 under Rahul Dravid that India were able to repeat their 1971 series-winning effort.
The West Indies cliche was established early. In 1950, they beat England at Lord’s and as the last English wicket fell, “there was a rush of West Indies supporters, one armed with an instrument of the guitar family,” wrote Times. The guitar man was Lord Kitchener, the calypsonian from Trinidad whose words and music, according to Brian Stoddart “led the celebrations in honour of a new cricketing power. (Soon), the name ‘West Indies’ began to evoke images of rum, calypso and exciting play.” The rum remains, as does the calypso. But exciting play has been missing for a while. My generation weeps.