The contrast has been too stark to escape notice. Over the last few weeks, the cricketing gaze has largely been at the evenly-matched, intense game seen , between archrivals England and Australia. At the same time, the touring Indian team’s 1-0 test series win against West Indies in the Caribbean has hardly caused any ripple. Keeping aside the overkill factor in the round-the-year cricketing calendar, the reactions to the Caribbean tour, or rather the lack of it, is one more telling sign of the definitive fall of the Caribbean team – from being the past giant to joining the list of minnows in world cricket.
Far from discussions on what was seen as a foregone conclusion, the chatter in the series was more about some individual performances, and some experiments that the Indian team did with the batting slots and the pace bowling battery. That meant that test debutants, Yashasvi Jaiswal and Mukesh Kumar, did evoke sporadic interest. But the lack of contest on the field was hard to compensate for. In fact, by the end of a short test series, bemoaning the decline of the West Indies as a strong force in world cricket became the subtext to the commentary on the series. In fact, such lament over a languishing side became the defining emotion for the few who kept an eye on the series.
As in the rest of the world, the legendary West Indies team of the 1970s and 1980s is stuff of lived memory for older generations of cricket lovers in India – and folklore for the current generation. One may see the current dismal state of the Caribbean team as the debris of once proud empire, a pale shadow of its former self. It seems that its present somehow is in a haste to shake-off the formidable legacy against which it’s being constantly measured, and lamented. It’s a legacy that evokes powerful imagery of its once fearsome pace attack, the great flair of its batting stalwarts and a distinct approach which carried an aura of an invincible winning machine.
In many ways, the somewhat melancholic tone – with which the cricketing world now chooses to talk about the West Indies team – has meant that nostalgia about its past glory creeps in somewhere.
This is often a 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 game.
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 batsman. 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 opening pair of Greenidge and Hayne.
It was an era with varying degrees of success under Lloyd and Richards, when the 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.
In terms of chronicling the era, the past decades might have missed the great prose of cricket writers like Neville Cardus or Trinidadian historian CLR James. But it 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 the 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.
From a cricketing point of view, the most endearing aspect of 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 stroke play 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.
Coming to the Caribbean team’s present descent to the margins of world cricket, the decline hasn’t been limited to the longer format but also its performances in the shorter version of the sport. Nothing tells it more strikingly than the fact that the team failed to qualify for the World Cup scheduled later this year. The team’s decline has been steep not only in test cricket, but also in shorter formats of the sport. The failure to even get an entry into the tournament leaves a grim note for a team which was the champion in the first two editions of the premier event in limited overs cricket. In the instant genre of T20 cricket also, it seems to have lost its way after showing initial spark in the formative stages of the format’s emergence.
The Caribbean team is one for which the international cricket wishes to get back all its fierce competitiveness and distinct flair. The rebuilding can take long, but it must find a way out of nostalgic recall, and a brooding sense of law, to add to the formidable corpus of its glorious history and appeal.