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Hope springs afresh in West Indies
February 20, 2007 10:26 IST
Appraising West Indies' cricket, even in its present depressed state, induces a sense of awe that so much talent has flowed from a scattering of small, mostly impoverished tropical islands.
The disproportionate contribution from the Caribbean islands, which host the World Cup for the first time this year, goes to the heart of West Indies' life and society.
"Cricket in the West Indies is a metaphor for cultural, political and social change," enthused Wes Hall, one of the greatest in the line of incomparable Caribbean fast bowlers, in an interview with Reuters. "There is a great passion in the West Indies."
Before and after attempts at a West Indies' federation faltered and then failed in the 1950s, cricket has been the one unifying force in the English-speaking Caribbean.
But after the glory years between 1980 and 1995 when the West Indies went undefeated in a test series, the state of the sport has approached crisis level. Which is why the 2007 World Cup is so important to both the West Indies and the wider cricketing community which needs a vibrant, successful Caribbean side.
Hall was speaking at a trade congress in London where the Caribbean regions were individually represented. The former Barbadian senator was accompanied by Garfield Sobers, knighted by Queen Elizabeth and one of the Wisden almanac's five greatest cricketers of the 20th century.
Antigua presented Viv Richards, also a knight and also one of the elite five. Jamaica fielded Courtney Walsh, the first bowler to take 500 test wickets. Unnoticed on the Guyana stand among the hubbub of visitors and television crews was Rohan Kanhai, the most electrifying batsman of his time.
Hall, Sobers and Kanhai were members of the 1960-1 West Indies side in Australia who helped to transform test cricket, starting with the incredible tied test in Brisbane. By the end of the tour, when a quarter of a million people poured on to the streets of Melbourne in tribute to Frank Worrell's men, it could be argued that they were respectively the best fast bowler, best all-rounder and best batsman in the world.
Kanhai was a supreme quick-footed, quick-witted improviser, specialising in a pull shot which concluded with the batsman lying flat on this back.
He, as much as anybody, demonstrated the essence of West Indies' cricket, always looking to dominate and entertain. It was fitting that in 1975, by now silver-haired with a luminous pate, Kanhai played the anchor role in West Indies' victory over Australia in the first World Cup final, linking the golden 1960s with the genesis of the team who were to take Caribbean cricket to new heights.
The final day of the tied test and the 1975 World Cup final are two crucial dates in West Indies' cricket. A third was that astonishing day at Lord's in 1950 when West Indies defeated England by 326 runs for their first test victory in England.
Calypso king Lord Kitchener led an improvised dance by West Indies' immigrants around the hallowed turf to the disbelief of the denizens in the Long Room.
"To the Caribbean, the victory was more than a sporting success," wrote former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley in his "A History of West Indies Cricket".
"It was the proof that a people were coming of age. They had bested the masters at their own game on their home turf."
Caribbean cricketers, denied opportunities at home to earn a guaranteed income, had flocked to the Lancashire leagues since Learie Constantine's pioneering days in the 1930s. League cricket, played on a Saturday afternoon often in indifferent weather on unpredictable pitches, was a fine academy. So too was county cricket and its various one-day competitions when the rules on overseas players were relaxed in the 1960s.
Clive Lloyd's side in the 1975 Cup final contained several players, including the captain himself, who played regular Sunday one-day league matches. The experience showed at the first and second World Cups which West Indies won through the class and consistency they were simultaneously demonstrating in test cricket.
One-day cricket admirably suited the Caribbean batsmen with their willingness to swing across the line and take calculated risks. Their fast bowlers, although forced to bowl a fuller length in one-day cricket with its restrictions on short-pitched deliveries, yielded little. Above all their fielding was consistently brilliant either at slip or in the outfield where Viv Richards and Collis King were electrifying.
The long, sad decline in West Indies' fortunes from the start of the 1990s coincided with the rise of Australia as the world champions in both forms of cricket. The protracted slump has engendered profound pessimism in the West Indies.
"With the team doing so poorly, kids are turning their attention to other sports," broadcaster and writer Tony Cozier told The Wisden Cricketer magazine. "It's a vicious circle, a good West Indies side would make kids want to take up the sport but as it gets more unpopular, fewer kids will come through."
If a revival is to come, and Wisden editor Matthew Engel is one good judge who believes it will, the one-day game may be the catalyst.
Under Brian Lara, like Kanhai in 1975 a cricketing genius in the final stages of his career, West Indies won the Champions Trophy, the mini-World Cup, in 2004. They reached the final last year before losing to Australia. Now they host the World Cup.
"Our history suggests that we will do very well," said Hall. "We have played about 60 players in a matter of two years. That takes a lot of doing, to mature them. I believe we have now reached that stage."
Sobers agreed. "I think the West Indies have a very good chance of winning the World Cup," he said. "West Indies look more powerful than two years ago."
Richards said that although no World Cup hosts had won the tournament the present West Indies side could break new ground.
"I can say it over and over again, it is my feeling that this team, when they do get it right on the day, can beat any team in the world," he said.