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By Ben Crome
Ben Crome dispels three commonly-held assumptions about the Caribbean cricket side, and explains why the future is bright for Darren Sammy’s team.
The all-conquering West Indies sides of the 1970s and 1980s are probably the most eulogised in the history of cricket. Supremely talented, charismatic and entertaining, the team’s records – going over a decade without losing a Test series, for example – speak for themselves. Even more evocative are the stories of fans, players, and commentators, of chin music, the calypso atmosphere, and tyros with nicknames like Big Bird and Whispering Death. Anybody watching the film Fire in Babylon gets just a hint of the admiration cricket lovers have for Sir Viv Richards, Malcolm Marshall, Gary Sobers, and many more legends of the game.
For fans of my generation, further exploring the West Indies’ marvellous history only emphasises the gulf between the team that won the first two World Cups and that which has represented the islands in recent years. Despite Brian Lara’s record Test innings of 400 not out in 2004, the past two decades have been a period of steady decline, characterised by selection inconsistencies, falling crowds, sponsorship disputes, and simple mediocrity.
Nowadays at tournaments the West Indies normally share with New Zealand an awkward gap between the teams with a realistic chance of winning the competition and the complete no-hopers, so it was something of a surprise to see them lift the ICC World Twenty20 trophy in Colombo this month. In fact, it shouldn’t have been surprising. Cricket’s newest format has given West Indian cricket some welcome invigoration during the past few years, largely as a result of the IPL. Playing among cricket’s elite has allowed established Test players like Chris Gayle to hone their Twenty20 skills, as well as offering more inexperienced talents like Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine the chance to impress the national selectors.
Their performances in Sri Lanka were well polished, disciplined, and destructive, and their capacity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat was proven in the final. After a horrible start against the hosts, Marlon Samuels’ imperious 78, including six sixes, helped the West Indies to a respectable total, expertly defended by a Narine-led bowling attack. Now facing Darren Sammy and Ottis Gibson is the challenge of improving their current seventh place in the Test and ODI rankings. The talent to do so is available, but firstly it is necessary to dispel three commonly-held assumptions about West Indies cricket:
Their players do not function together. The squad is full of personal grudges and inter-island disputes. Nobody who saw the players’ Gangnam Style celebration after winning the final would doubt that this is a united squad whose members enjoy each other’s company and enjoy the game. The contractual disputes which forced the West Indies to play a Test against Bangladesh in 2009 with a team of reserves, retirees and youth players look to be over. The only remaining issues are ensuring fixtures do not clash with the IPL – and this problem does not only affect the West Indies – and the continued absence of Ramnaresh Sarwan. But the Guyanese batsman’s best days may be behind him in any case.
Their Twenty20 specialists cannot adapt to Test cricket. When Twenty20 first became a fixture on the international calendar, people feared that ‘proper’ cricketers would have no place in the new format. The phenomenal form of Jacques Kallis, among others, has dispelled that myth. Then, when so-called Twenty20 specialists began to emerge, people doubted they could transfer their skills to the longer game. Australia opener David Warner is another convincing counterweight. Talented players are adaptable players. It is pointless to write off the likes of Narine as Test players before they have been given a chance.
The West Indies cannot keep producing talented cricketers when cricket is losing popularity in the Caribbean. Cricket remains the most commonly-played sport in the West Indies. Football and basketball are the biggest spectator sports, but their popularity hasn’t translated into on-pitch success; there are only three Caribbean-born players in the NBA, and no current footballer with the reputation of the former Trinidad and Tobago and Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke. Low attendances are troublesome, but a flourishing team will surely help to attract crowds.
After a lengthy and worrying malaise, the return of the West Indies as a powerful force in world cricket may be approaching. The work is not complete, but the foundations are present: the likes of Gayle, Samuels, Darren Bravo and Ravi Rampaul make up a nucleus of multi-disciplined, talented and committed players, while, at Test level Shivnarine Chanderpaul is still a world-class batsman. One of cricket’s proudest cultures now has an ideal opportunity to reassert its strength, and if it is taken, the current players can provide future generations with memories similar to those bequeathed by their predecessors.