23 Jun 1979:  Viv Richards of the West Indies at bat against England during the Prudential World Cup at Lords in England.  Richards finished at 138 not out and retained the cup by deafeating England by 92 runs. Mandatory Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive
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West Indies – champions then, champions now


The West Indies are something of an anomaly. They are to borrow a phrase from Churchill “no more a country than the equator”. A collection of dots on the map that were somehow brought together into an artificial construct. Born out of the misplaced British hope that these numerous islands and territories would coalesce into a single independent nation, the political entity that was the West Indies Federation lasted for all of four years. Established in 1958. Gone by 1962. The independence came, but the federation failed.

The federation was a doomed idea from the start. There were far too many differences to overcome. Too many independent identities that could not be reconciled. Bajan. Vincy. Trini. Yardie. But there was no one ‘West Indian identity’. There was for reasons of historical baggage, one cricket team. As Michael Holding himself told Simon Briggs “We have different flags, different currencies, different accents and different national anthems. Cricket is the only thing the West Indies do together.’

Outside in though, the world saw the West Indies slightly differently. As one patchwork quilt, the biggest thread of which was ‘a common race’. A sentimental nod to the Africa that a majority of the Caribbean thought of as home and the common urge to throw off the colonial yoke and assert themselves. And through all that a collection of ‘happy stereotypes’ that it is the curse of the tropics to inherit. The sun, the sand and the sea. Swaying palm trees. Rum and coke. Jerk, Plantains and Pelau. The lilting patois.  Steel drums, Reggae, Quimbe, Ska, Soca, Parang, Chutney, Cariso and Calypso (among others). And of course cricket.

In 1976, a West Indies cricket team landed in Australia on the back of being champions of the world. Nothing had quite prepared them for what would follow. Over a period of the next three months, they weren’t so much beaten as battered. Physically intimidated by aggressive fast bowling, greeted by chants of ‘Lillee Lillee, Kill! Kill! Kill!’ told to go back to the trees, jeered and taunted and above all humbled by sheer pace. This sneak preview of what would later become ‘mental disintegration’, also prompted a somewhat bittersweet self-realization.  That the world viewed them as “Calypso cricketers” – a somewhat offhand, patronizing and offensive label that hinted at a bunch of happy go lucky entertainers. Naturally gifted, affable, eminently likeable and good athletes. But somehow lacking the will, discipline or professionalism that makes ‘champions’. The fact that the world wouldn’t take them seriously was a painful one to stomach. And it was a realization that hurt.

In 2016, Darren Sammy and his men travelled to the T20 World Cup in India. Unlike their counterparts forty years ago, this team had its realization fairly early on. In their case the skeptics were their own board and administration. The WICB and all its umbrella organizations viewed the current team as little more than glorified entertainers. Their (ostensibly fair) demands for better wages and a share of the pie were nonsensical. The realization that your own won’t stand behind you perhaps hurts more than any other.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

When confronted with extremes of violence and stress, humans resort to a very highly primitive and binary ‘Fight or Flight’ response. The West Indies of 1976 chose to fight. In the Nick Fury-esque figure of Clive Lloyd, they had the right man to rally them. Lloyd would set in motion the tentative steps to assembling his Avengers. All they needed was someone to provide just cause. Tony Greig obliged. As he sat sipping a cup of tea at the pavilion at Hove, he told the world that he ‘wanted to make the West Indians Grovel’. To the West Indians, ‘grovel’ is a dirty word. That Greig was South African didn’t help. Alea iacta est. The end result was that the dominant visuals of that summer were that of the West Indian team steamrolling the English – a montage of ‘African individuals moving to African rhythm’, flying stumps, bruised bodies and broken bones. Accompanied by a sickening soundtrack of Calypso sung from the stands as ball met body. The climax fittingly unfurled on the open stands on the Harleyford Road side of the Oval – as Greig got on his hands and knees – bringing an overwhelmingly West Indian crowd to its feet. Tony Greig groveled.

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A week before the T20 World Cup kicked off Mark Nicholas in a throwaway description said this West Indies team were ‘short of brains but had IPL history in their ranks’. The article was not so much an objective assessment as much as a paean to the hosts. With everything else and particularly the West Indies reduced to an afterthought. As insults go it wasn’t much of an insult. Plenty of people have said far worse. A bit like Greig, Nicholas just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But for Darren Sammy and his men, that was enough. And at the end of a World Cup triumph that had ended in triumph, with the gift of hindsight Mark Nicholas apologized.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the 1850s, the American author Horace Greeley exhorted the young men of Africa to “Go west and grow up with the country”. For the people of the West Indies in the post war years too, the obvious message was to go abroad in search of their name and fortune. The unwritten rule was that for someone for the Caribbean to truly succeed he must go to Blighty. And return in triumph. The West Indies of those years was a tinderbox. Issues of race, issues of exploitation by colonial masters, issues of ideology and lifestyle. All tied inevitably to cricket. Set to a soundtrack of protest music and celebratory Calypsos. Bob Marley telling his boys to “Get up Stand Up”. And so the cricketer like his fellow West Indians, was obliged to go abroad and make a fist of it. To provide and to reinforce loaded metaphors. Cricket as surrogate for struggle. Bat as sword. Ball as weapon. Even the humble Rasta sweat band tinted with symbolism – green for the land itself, gold for the resources that were stripped away and red for the blood that was spilt. The alternative was to stay back and end up being a part of the ‘Belly full but them starving’ that Garnett Silk described. Mercifully, there was no shortage of idols. CLR James. Learie Constantine. George Headley. Frank Worrell. Bob Marley. Jimmy Cliff. As for opportunities – the leagues, the counties and a few years down the line Packer. So a generation of West Indian cricketers left those shores – fueled by the urge to become better and to fight for a cause. Embraced with open arms and open hearts by the diaspora.

Many decades on much has changed in the Caribbean. Economics has trumped politics. Fueled by tourism and a steady influx of dollars, there is a greater desire among the people to look inward. This is a cycle that most colonies have gone through. A gradual erosion of the urge to ‘go out’. The West Indies is no different. And as a consequence, the youngsters of the West Indies have widened their gaze beyond cricket.  Football. The NBA. Track and Field. A newer set of heroes. Usain Bolt. Shelley Ann. Anthony Bennett. Dwight Yorke. Even the music is different. Rihanna. Usher. Tupac Shakur. The Calypso is somewhat muted. Instead there is R&B, hip-hop, house and a gazillion other alien genres.

Cricketers still continue to go out of course. There are leagues, there are bashes and there are carnivals of cricket. Old timers decry that there is no more ‘pride’. As a consequence, there isn’t always love lost between the past and the present. The older lot tend to be dismissive of this next generation. The youngsters in turn tend to class the older generation as old fogeys.  Somewhere in trying to transplant a set of values from one age to the other – there is a fundamental disconnect. Old causes have given way to new, battles today are personal. The only cause the cricketers of today are fighting for is their own. The rest is history.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

29. The number of Test series that the West Indies played between March 1980 and May 1995. Without losing a single one of them. As sporting streaks go it is staggering. A one of a kind, once in a millennium cosmic event. A coming together of talent, will, circumstances that would be near impossible to replicate. A team that has ‘good, solid, respectable numbers’ at the individual level. When put together, transformed into a collective juggernaut. Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Lloyd, Gomes, Dujon, Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Garner. A team built on a simple philosophy – train hard, play harder, party harder still. Keep things simple – bat aggressive, bowl quick, field like your life depends on it. When one man doesn’t get going, someone will raise their hand and be counted. Bowlers on dying legs will squeeze out one more over for their captain. They will always play together. One for all, all for one.

2

1995 is an inflection point. It is the beginning of the end. Fittingly enough it comes against Australia. From then on, West Indies cricket is transformed and not for the better. The golden generation has hung up its boots. A newer generation comes and goes. The list of names is long – Hooper, Arthurton, Simmons, Sarwan, Bishop, Rose, Dillon.  Unfulfilled talents that still produce isolated staggering numbers from time to time. A small band of brothers that soldier on. But will not get the support they always deserve. Lara, Chanderpaul, Ambrose, Walsh. As a consequence, they have become a team of players playing within themselves and for themselves.

Above everything, the golden generation of the West Indies is a team that has forged its own brand of cricket. Forced the creation of new terms.  A core of cold steel underneath is belied by the goofy grins and smiling faces. But cometh the hour and this is a team that engages a deadly kill switch. Seemingly at will. A team that at the slightest hint of being cornered, will never be short of a response. That manufactures its own moments on the field. A team that struts and swaggers with good reason. A team of poetry in motion – even when doing seemingly mundane things like high fiving each other. It is a team of gold chains, creaseless whites and endless grit. A team that didn’t beat you into submission so much as pulverize you. That didn’t break your body out of malice, but only as a way to crushing your spirit. This is a team that doesn’t need to shoot their mouths off. Content to let their sport do the talking. Winning matches on the field and hearts off it. It is impossible to hate them. It is only natural to fear them. This then is a team that fought the stereotype of Calypso cricket by embracing it and enhancing it. Staring down the world that dared take them lightly with angry West Indian eyes.

66. The number of test series the West Indies have played since 1995. They have won 18 of these. Tellingly, the only ones they have won outside the West Indies are against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Even more tellingly they have lost 39. The cricketing cupboard is bare. Even allowing for the fact that the Golden Generation was a once in a lifetime event, there is a sadness to West Indian cricket that is hard to reconcile with. Another series. Another obituary. Another nail in the coffin. And yet through all this, the goofy grins, the smiling faces, the body language is intact. But like B B King said, the thrill is gone. More often than not this is a team that is short of a response. Well not the right ones anyway. A team that forgoes simple philosophies for more complicated approaches. Approaches that their cluttered minds won’t quite let them pull off. When one man doesn’t get going (more often than not Lara), the rest simply wither away. This is a team that talks more and does less. The stereotype is alive and kicking. The prototype is broken. The bling is there. The zing is gone. They are still eminently likeable. They are far less watchable. Grits, perseverance and military medium pace. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? Where once the eyes burnt red with smoldering rage and passion, they now have a vacant look of submission. Like the spirit has been beaten out of them.

3

Darren Sammy’s men come into the World T20 embodying West Indian cricket post 1995. A team of clichés and little else. Big Units. Power Hitters. Natural Athletes. Entertainers. But with very little chance of success. Too much of a one-man team. Made of too many moving pieces. And most likely to self-implode sooner rather than later.

Strangely though, throughout the tournament, they played like the West Indies teams of old. As one team. Sammy more than once talks about dealing with disrespect. Occasionally, they go back to the new stereotype. Still smiling. Still dancing. Even in defeat to a minnow. But there is that old core of cold steel. This is a team that is capable of punching. As shown against South Africa and Sri Lanka. And counterpunching.  As shown when England set them 182. When India set them 192. And when seemingly on the verge of being picked apart by England in the finals. Throughout the tournament though and most of all when Carlos takes them home with a deafening sequence of 6666 – the angry West Indian eyes are back. In the dugout with King Curtly and good old Phil – the angry West Indian eyes are back. When Marlon Samuels sits up with his feet on the table and gives it back to Shane Warne – the angry West Indian eyes are back. And when Darren Sammy, moments before he would hold up the trophy, speaks at length about uncertainty, about the fear of not ever playing for his country again and the urge to prove themselves that has brought him and his men so far – the angry West Indian eyes are back.

Forty years ago, a gangly bespectacled 30-year-old stood in his whites on the balcony at the Home of Cricket, holding aloft a trophy that he and his men had earned. It was a seminal moment in their history. 40 years and two World Cups later, another gangly 32-year-old and his men danced the night away to the beat of a song one of their own had written. To call this a new ‘Fire in Babylon’ is premature and absurd. But as Clive Lloyd joined Sammy and co. in dancing the night away, though somehow it seemed that life had come full circle. The West Indies were champions then. The West Indies are champions now.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Image Credits:

  • Allsport Hulton/Archive
  • dailymail.co.uk/
  • p.imgci.com/

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