The West Indies cricket team is here, and my mind goes back more than five decades when I first saw the magic of Caribbean cricket unfold. This comes with some regret at how their standards have slumped in the last 20-odd years, but of that, after a detour into nostalgia.
The first Test of the 1966-67 series was played at the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay. Cricket was the new passion in my life. The prospect of seeing some of the greatest names in international cricket had me all agog. I won’t get into the details of the Test here. The wonders of modern technology enable this at the click of a mouse on any of the many cricket websites that have archived such material. My favourite overseas player then was flamboyant Rohan Kanhai. He was reputed to play exotic strokes, and was of Indian origin, too. Favourite among Indian players was Nawab of Pataudi. By the time this match ended, Garfield Sobers had leapfrogged over both.
Tall and lithe, he stalked the field with the feline grace of a panther. His strokes packed punch, he could bowl fast and spin, and his extraordinary reflexes made him pick up sensational catches. One catch he took standing close-in was of India’s wicket-keeper Budhi Kunderan. Except that it wasn’t a catch! The umpire declared Kunderan out, but Sobers signaled that he had taken the ball on the half volley and recalled the batsman.
This was an extraordinary gesture of sportsmanship that left an indelible impression on my mind: More so, when it became known that Sobers, a keen punter, wanted to be at the Mahalaxmi racecourse on the last day.
His innings salvaged, Kunderan thrived to make 79, compelling play the next day. It appeared that Sobers might not make it to the races, but Sobers came and thrashed a half-century to ensure his visit to Mahalaxmi was not stymied.
In the match, Sobers scored 50 and 53 not out, took 5 wickets in the two innings, and two catches. By the time the Test ended, I didn’t need any convincing that he was the world’s best player. I have dwelt at length on Sobers not just because he was an exemplar of cricketing brilliance, but also as metaphor for what West Indies cricket used to be.
Paramount in this pursuit of excellence was the desire to establish racial identity. Like India, most Caribbean countries were former colonies. Cricket provided a medium for this self-assertion, so evocatively expressed in Marxist philosopher C L R James in his seminal work, Beyond The Boundary.
For almost half a century starting from after the second World War, West Indies cricket was the toast of the sport. A brief roster call of players in this period reads like a who’s who of cricket:
Weekes, Walcott and Worrell, Ramadhin and Valentine, Sobers, Kanhai, Hunte, Butcher, Nurse, Hall, Griffith, Gibbs, Lloyd, Richards, Kallicharan, Greenidge, Haynes, Dujon, Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Garner, Walsh, Ambrose, Lara, Chanderpaul, Gayle….Phew!
This sadly leads to the unhappy aspect of West Indies cricket: the decline from the mid-1990s as the world’s best Test side to its current ICC ranking of 7 after the boost from by recent wins over Bangladesh. In ODIs and T20 cricket, the ranking is even lower, 9 and 10 respectively.
What explains this fall? It doesn’t stand to reason that the talent supply in the West Indies would have been suddenly shut off. What it does reflect, and is object lesson to all cricket playing countries, however, is how an ill-prepared administration can virtually destroy the edifice.
Caribbean cricket, for all its charm and brilliance, had some serious handicaps: West Indies cricket was made up of different countries, leading to power struggles in the administration. This mitigated forward planning with disastrous consequences. Given the sparse population of these countries, and economies which depended heavily on tourism rather than manufacturing, there was never enough in the kitty even when the West Indies were at their best. Unless the finances were astutely managed. It wasn’t. This led to a fractious relationship between the administration and players.
My surmise is that once globalisation set in, and professionalism replaced the amateur joy of playing for very modest reward, youngsters in the Caribbean started migrating to other sports and interests for better returns. The West Indies board was caught napping.
Meanwhile, other countries － notably India － improved by leaps and bounds because of more robust administration, creating better facilities for young talent, spending time, money and attention in building up massive fan base and keeping the bottom line healthy.
It’s been an uphill battle for the West Indies to measure up to these demands. Some relief has come in the form of T20 leagues which afford players opportunity for livelihood. But the glue and purpose that established the wonderful legacy of Caribbean together seems to be lamentably still missing.
Everyone in the cricket universe believes that without West Indies at full tilt, the sport is poorer. Can they stage a comeback? It’s difficult to make a prediction, but all cricket lovers are praying that they do.
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.