The West Indies team just reached the ripe age of 21. The achievement of the number 21 is special as it marks the coming of age of a person, male or female. Our West Indies team reached 21, the same number of test matches played between India and the West Indies where the West Indies have not registered a victory.
For the past 20 years, the West Indies have been making the record books for the wrong reasons. We have changed boards, administrators, moved the board’s headquarters, changed coaches and coaching personnel, changed players with distressing frequency. We have not found the fix to correct what may now be called the terminal decline in performance of this once proud team that made opponents sick with fear when playing us.
Cricket was once considered a religion in this region. Young boys became men playing this game. It tested your reflexes, your eyesight, fitness, patience and most importantly, your courage when facing a ball bowled at you in excess of 90 miles per hour. In short, this game tested one’s character. So what has happened over the last 25 years that led to the steady decline at first and now the rapid decline in the West Indies team performance?
The late C. L. R. James captured the true essence of what the game of cricket means to the people of the region in his book Beyond a Boundary. As part of the British Empire, the British West Indies people observed and accepted much of the British culture, and part of this culture were the games that imperial Britain transferred to the region. Cricket became very popular amongst the masses, who saw it as a means of proving their equality with those seen as better off in society and finally with the British overlords.
This became particularly true during the rise of West Indies nationalism during the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, our cricket team triumphed in England, and we became world champions for the first time when we defeated Australia in 1965. The region produced world class players at an astonishing rate; for a region so small, we produced cricketers of such quality that they were highly sought after by the English counties. This fact, I believe, helped to transform the West Indies cricket team from one of talented individuals, to a team whose core consisted of hardened professionals that went on to dominate world cricket.
What happened thereafter? Well, from about the mid-1980s, English county teams stopped contracting our players, particularly our batsmen. Our fast bowlers were consistently contracted but even this stopped, eventually. The English realized that they were turning our talented cricketers into tough professionals, who then turned around and defeated them with alarming regularity as, at one stage, England had not won a series against us for 35 years of cricket from the mid ‘70s to the early 2000s.
More importantly though, the business of cricket changed. The advent of World Series Cricket from 1977 changed the game from that of the preserve of sporting associations to that where private individuals could make money, and lots of it; cricket is now a global game televised via ESPN, the US sports network. As a result, countries decided that it was best that they developed their own talented players as opposed to other players from other test playing countries. The West Indies administrators who may have been of the view that we would continue to produce outstanding players apparently failed to take notice of these changes.
In addition, social changes were occurring domestically. Most males in my age range would have grown up playing village cricket in the public road or on playing fields in their villages. I noted the absence of this activity as I matured. One hardly sees young boys doing this these days. This is where most West Indies batsmen and bowlers learned the game. There was no real formal coaching. Most learnt just by watching, and regular constant practice, during school holidays, before school, during lunch and after school. This loss resulted from the growth of the middle class and the loss of young adults from the villages to the developments, an unintended consequence of economic growth.
At the same time, England, Australia, South Africa and the Indian sub-continent appeared to have increased their investment in player development. These aforementioned areas also have well developed first-class cricket systems to further hone the skill sets of cricketers.
This intense coaching, practice and playing in a professional league structure can transform average players into good players and good players into very good or even great players. More importantly, it transforms players into hardened professionals. Most of the players who make it into the test teams in these areas have played a significant amount of cricket at a relatively high standard. As a result, when they make their test debut, they are basically ready to perform at the higher level.
West Indies, on the other hand, having lost England as the base for further player development, find our players with a significant gulf between our standard of first class cricket and that at the test level. Our first class cricket structure is weak and does not properly prepare our players for the test arena.
We do not see the economic benefits of investing in sports and hence lack the finances to create a sustainable professional league system. This would prepare our players for the next level of competitiveness at test level, in addition to employment for support staff. The lack of a professional league results in our inconsistent performances at test level where the demands are greater, where poor batting techniques are cruelly exposed, and where poor bowling is similarly punished by good teams.
Unless the policymakers of our beloved game take a long hard examination of the challenges facing the game in the Caribbean, come up with a set of strategies to rescue its future, one can only see the continued under performance of our teams at test level.