No, it’s not always about memories of CLR James’ famous book of early 60s and nor about the nostalgia for Caribbean dominance in most of the 70s and 80s – a period that also saw West Indies lifting two consecutive World Cups in 1975 and 1979. There is something else that excites you about the prospects of West Indies putting up a good show in the ongoing World Cup.
Earlier this week former Australian skipper Steve Waugh called the current West Indies team the “most watchable team” at the World Cup and the one which “every side in this tournament will be wary of playing”. What, however, is more important is Waugh’s second point. Even in its steep descent from past glory, the team retained a measure of distinct attraction because of the natural flair and approach it brought to the cricket field. But, now what’s more heartening is the fact that it is again emerging as a formidable opposition for any top team in the world cricket.
That change in its self-perception as well as how other teams view West Indies in this World Cup is significant. Even after winning two world tiles in the game’s shortest format, T-20, in the last seven years (2012 and 2016), it was difficult to imagine even its one-day team (leaving aside test cricket) more than a ragbag formation of T-20 freelancers. With such a unit made up of mercenaries playing T-20 leagues around the globe for different franchise teams, it became difficult to see the team replicating its success beyond its T-20 exploits.
To draw an analogy from the different independent islands that constitute the Caribbean team, its playing eleven in test cricket and one-day games looked like islands adrift. To some extent, this year has weakened such perceptions. Early this year, they won a test series at home against England and are looking good in the early stages of the World Cup. While Waugh still identifies the team’s one-dimensional game against quality bowling and fielding as obvious weaknesses, he reckons that the team is equipped with “a batting line-up that can kidnap any bowling attack with brute force” and is seeing revival of their “fast-bowling depth”.
The team’s batting strength, not always brute force, is visible in the seasoned Chris Gayle, Lewis, Sai Hope and of course Andrel Russel, who had a sensational IPL this year. However, it’s the approach of the pace battery that has made the team’s bowling a revelation in the early days of the tournament. Writing in the The Daily Telegraph, Scyld Berry has identified aggressive short-pitched bowling by Windies pace bowlers as one of top trends in the early part of the tournament.
“Oshane Thomas, Sheldon Cottrell and Andre Russell. The three of them reduced Pakistan to 62-4 (to be dismissed for 105) and Australia to 38-4. It is doubtful whether any previous World Cup has seen such aggressive short-pitched fast bowling,” Berry writes. Moreover, as Waugh wondered, that attack could be menacing considering the fact that Windies were without their current best — Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel.
The evident potential of a rejuvenated Jason Holder led-Windies team can be good news for competitiveness in world cricket, though their notoriety for self-destruction and unpredictability would still not convince many.
The immediacy of this need for competitiveness probably best explains why many want the team to get back to its old winning ways but in a very different cricket world today. That, however, does not completely rule out the other more talked-about source of its persistent appeal: nostalgia for what once was the very idea of dominance in world cricket and the natural flair the Caribbean heroes brought with a very distinct brand of cricket.
To remember that era is to remember Clive Lloyd — the bespectacled captain who was closer to your idea of a school principal than that of an elegant left-handed batsmam. It means recalling the feared pace quartet of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft (later making way for other legends like Marshall, Ambrose and Walsh), and of course revisiting the incomparable batting legend Vivian Richards giving company to stalwarts like the Greenidge and Hayne opening pair.
It was an era, with varying degrees of success under Lloyd and Richards, when Windies team went on to conquer most of what it surveyed. They, for instance, didn’t lose a test series for 15 years. The downhill journey from the mid-90s has the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. But, the winning percentage might be an unjust measure to gauge the team’s appeal. If you are stuck in counting wins and losses, you perhaps don’t understand the Caribbean brand of cricket. The team had (and to an extent, continues to have) so much to offer beyond the binaries of wins-losses and numerical fetishes of records.
The era might have missed the great prose of cricket writers like Neville Cardus or Trinidadian historian CLR James. But it has found some late favour with visual arts. For people who might not even be following cricket and for cricket fans in their teens or even in their early twenties, Stevan Riley’s 87-minute documentary film Fire In Babylon (a British production released in UK in 2010 which came to India in September, 2012) could provide a historical narrative of those high noon years of Caribbean cricket. Within the tale of a team’s journey, Riley’s documentary had woven together the subtexts of identity politics, the undercurrents of racism in post-colonial sporting rivalries, and the distinct cultural appeal of calypso cricket.
Something, however, wasn’t complicated back in the islands. The calypso milieu of Caribbean cricket sets it apart and even makes the results of the games redundant. It’s refreshing to know how generous and rhythmic the grounds and streets can become in these islands in praising as well as remembering the great performances of even the visiting teams. Sample this: In 1971, India achieved a historic 1-0 series victory in West Indies (with a win in second test at Port of Spain), and the series also witnessed the emergence of Sunil Gavaskar as a world-class batsman. In what is considered one of the greatest pieces of cricket calypso, Relator put the Indian team’s achievement and Gavaskar’s masterly batting at the centre with a composition which had lines like:
“It was Gavaskar
De real master
Just like a wall
We couldn’t out Gavaskar at all, not at all
You know the West Indies couldn’t out Gavaskar at all”.
However, from a cricketing point of view, the most endearing aspect about Caribbean cricket is the natural flow of things they displayed on the field – “elegant power” perhaps describes the impact of their approach. That’s how you could describe the blend of grace and force that marked the strokeplay of Sir Sobers, Sir Vivian, Greenidge, Brian Lara, the unsung Hooper, and more recently Samuels too. This was well-complemented by relentless attack from the pace battery and that natural athleticism of fielders and legendary wicketkeepers like Dujon. The most valuable asset of West Indies cricket has been its distinct way of going about its cricketing reflexes. It’s interesting to note that even the least flamboyant of its contemporary greats, namely Shivnarine Chanderpaul, had the tenacity to bat long hours with a technique that defied all manuals.
Irrespective of the reason, any sign of renewed interest in the West Indies cricket is great news for world cricket. It’s even better that the interest isn’t about its past laurels but what the team is promising to do in the 2019 World Cup. A strong West Indies can light up the tournament in a way that no other team can.