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Back to their winning ways
St Lucia never had a Test cricketer representing the West Indies until Darren Sammy walked in and booked his place in history on that little island. Last week, he once again entered history books. Under his captaincy, West Indies won their first International Cricket Council trophy in 33 years to be crowned world champions. Darren Julius Garvey Sammy would not have thought much about where he would start and end some day when he was still a naive, soft-spoken, always-smiling, first class cricketer around Beausejour nine years ago.
Nine years later, today, he's still the naive, soft-spoken and always-smiling gentleman. But now he is also an international cricketer riding high on success. The sight of Sammy clutching that World Twenty20 trophy after the victory in the final against hosts Sri Lanka will be etched in the memories of St Lucians for ever. And so will it in the heart of every Caribbean cricket fan, some who believed in Sammy, some who didn't and some more who never gave it a thought.
West Indies cricket has survived a real low these last 10 years. Lack of world class talent, turbulence in the administration of the game, too much pressure emanating from the cricketing history across islands and other similar factors had eaten into the sport. And there it was, the champion team of the yesteryears, struggling to stay afloat in today's highly monetised cricket culture where governance came with blinkers on and teams blurred lines of the proverbial spirit only to win at all cost.
The West Indies that you and I will remember was different. Sammy, if one ever got to meet him, is the team's aide-memoire.
Six years before he received the captain's armband, Sammy first wore his One-day International cap in 2004, though he didn't get to play that game in England, as it got washed out. Months later, he got lucky again when Champions Trophy beckoned but there wasn't much he could take or leave. In fact, it wasn't until his third Test match, this one against England too, that he celebrated a seven-wicket haul which also catapulted him into the spotlight. He was now the captain of St Lucia, crucial to the West Indies attack and an allrounder in the making. But his spot in the Test team couldn't be taken for granted and Sammy's performances for the next two years were split and peppered. What worked for him was that he, obstinate though he may not appear to be, kept going, on and on. In 2010, skipper Chris Gayle's contract with the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) ended. And that is when Sammy's career landed on the highway. All World Cup winning skippers in the past have been charismatic and talented in their own right. Clive Lloyd for the West Indies, Kapil Dev and MS Dhoni for India, Imran Khan and Shahid Afridi for Pakistan, Arjuna Ranatunga for Sri Lanka, Paul Collingwood for England and Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting for Australia. Compared to these successful men, Sammy may pale in status but the world has to give this genial being from St Lucia his due. He sits right there with all of them and has gone through a lot to get there.
Sammy's cricket statistics may not impress you at first go, nor his record as captain of a Test playing nation. But what is most likely to impress is the man himself, one who has never shied from taking defeat and criticism on the chin and smiling bravely when few could.
India's tour of the West Indies last year is an example. The Chris Gayle-West Indies board fiasco was at its height with neither side showing signs of coming to an understanding. Gayle accused the board of not supporting players. The board accused Gayle of arrogance and attitude. Caught in between was Sammy, paler to Gayle in terms of talent, less popular too perhaps, bearing the grudge that the fans bore after each loss the team suffered.
"Sammy is the West Indies board's puppet". "Sammy is just a dummy skipper". "Sammy doesn't deserve a place in the team". They ripped him apart and he quietly listened to it all, not reacting, not being provoked by any insinuation that kept coming.
He is still not reacting to his critics, not claiming any special reward or spare publicity for having led the West Indies to victory. He still remains the effervescent Sammy, standing quietly, smiling, letting everybody take equal credit for all that has gone into winning the tournament.
Many have observed in recent times, including the former Caribbean cricket stars themselves, that the road to West Indies' revival could begin with the Twenty20 format for starters. The shorter format, if it helps in players bonding well, can be used to target longer ones gradually. Sammy too believes in this.
"One at a time, " he kept saying each time the West Indies team did something interesting or innovating torelieve itself from its perennially low phase. Perhaps this St Lucian, not a big-talker at all, had a better idea of what he and many others had been saying.
But Sammy understands there's more work to do. The documentary Fire in Babylon talks about the great West Indian cricketing era of the '70s and '80s, stretching into the 90s, of a team that struggled with their cricket, refused to take it lying down any further, got together and built a world-beating team. That team did not lose a single Test series for 15 years (between 1975 and 1995).
And that is quite a bit of history to learn from. The point is whether West Indies can use this victory to fuel such fire once again and regain lost ground and glory.
The documentary is a treat for the eyes if you've grown up watching West Indian cricket. There are some amazing clips of gum-chewing Viv and his swagger, Holding and Roberts going for the "kill", Garner's arm coming down from almost 8. 5 feet, Lloyd moving like the big cat and Haynes and Greenidge unleashing terror.
Sammy admitted to getting goose-bumps watching this documentary back in Trinidad last year and says it did indeed bring a tear to the eyes of many who sat and watched it together. Winning this title could mean it helped in instilling a bit of confidence too.
Former West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding says "the younger generation needs to have the patience to learn and get better. " For that, hebelieves the administration has to first improve. "The improvement has to happen at the grassroots, " says Holding. He, for one, doesn't expect West Indies' fortunes to change overnight.
"No, it can't, " agrees former West Indies spinner Lance Gibbs. "It will take years to regain a bit of what has been lost and that is if we begin today, " he says.
The grassroot generation needs to be told about what happened in Sri Lanka last week. That West Indies will be returning home with a World Cup once again. There may be a flicker, a ray of hope - some young man living in an obscure little fishing town in the island of Barbados may take the ball in hand and run at a batsman fast enough to strike his knuckles. Like Malcolm Marshall did some 30-odd years ago.
If there is a chance, it is now. Today it does ring true. One at a time. The World Twenty20 now. Something bigger the next time. Gayle and Bravo, Pollard and Narine may have batted and bowled to the thrill and excitement of a desperate team and bailed them out, but let's also give Sammy his due. He was there doing that when few people bothered about the West Indies and its dream for revival.
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