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CRICKET

West Indies in freefall

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The story of West Indies cricket is essentially a tragedy, but the cricket world refuses to take it tragically. To borrow DH Lawrence's immortal lines from Lady Chatterley's Lover: "The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. "

It is remarkable indeed that when read in isolation, Lawrence's observation on the state of affairs in early 20th century-Britain in his path-breaking novel, penned almost one hundred years ago, is a touching epilogue to the most endearing cricket - and indeed, all sport - story of our time from the land of Caribbean legends.

It is a story that evokes pathos and joy in equal proportions and leaves us with a sense of disbelief. For, it is hard to fathom how natives from over a dozen Caribbean nations, bound together by their passion for cricket, came together under a common maroon coloured flag (with an insignia depicting a palm tree and three stumps on a sunny island), to represent the West Indies way back in 1928 - the year Lawrence published Lady Chatterley's . . .

That was just the beginning of an amazing tale that one never tires of telling to awestruck audiences across the globe. Their transformation into world beaters and their subsequent passage into cricket's Hall of Fame is the stuff of legends, but the hubris that brought about their downfall borrows heavily from Greek tragedies.

No story about West Indies cricket can be told without highlighting the role of the protagonists who, having learnt the nuances of the game from their English masters, not only turned the tables but also often made them 'grovel' on a cricket pitch. It is a pity that George Headley, the first and foremost among Caribbean legends, had his career rudely interrupted by World War II, for had he continued in the same vein - that saw him score 10 of the West Indies' first 14 Test centuries - the 'Black' Bradman, would have certainly given the Don a run for his money.

Headley may have been the first black man to lead a predominantly white West Indies team, but it was not until the dynamic Frank Worrell assumed charge that the group, which also included the other two 'Ws' (Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott), became a major force in international cricket.

Garfield Sobers leapfrogged Conrad Hunte in the race for captaincy after Worrell left the scene, and it was his versatility that brought heady success to Caribbean shores. West Indies' cricketing fortunes dwindled briefly under Rohan Kanhai, a supreme stylist, after Sobers left, but it was not long before Clive Lloyd made the hot seat his own.

'Super Cat' Lloyd and his bravehearts survived a battering at the hands of the marauding Australians Down Under in 1975-76 before regrouping and laying siege to world cricket. It marked the beginning of a 20-year period during which the West Indies team dominated the sport. A battery of fearsome fast bowlers - Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh - revelled in knocking over rival teams, while their batsmen perpetrated carnage with the bat. Between 1980 and 1994, when the West Indies were led by maestros like Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes and Richie Richardson, they played 29 Test series, but didn't lose even one.

It was a calypso carnival that looked like going on forever. It probably would have, for the Caribbean region boasted rich cricket talent, but somewhere down the line, it all started to go wonky for the mighty West Indies, which by the turn of the new millennium had slipped into a semicomatose state. If there has been no noticeable improvement in the patient's health thereafter, blame it on the spin doctors who have failed to make a clear diagnosis of the ills that afflict West Indies cricket. There are, of course, many theories on the decline of cricket in the West Indies, the latest and the most interesting one being propagated by Sir Hilary Beckles, the principal and pro vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies.

Speaking on 'Nationalism and the Future of West Indies Cricket' at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination last year, Beckles was scathing in his criticism of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB). "Any time a society loses an extraordinary level of excellence, then there ought to be explanations for this. . . the performance of West Indies cricket has mirrored our Caribbean performance in the global society as a whole, " he said.

Beckles strongly felt that the key to reviving West Indies cricket lay embedded in the following 10 compelling reasons for its decline: 1. The rise and fall in cultural excellence in all societies;2. The loss of technical skill within the contemporary youth mentality;3. The loss of opportunity in English county cricket, which served as a finishing school to Caribbean cricketers for decades;4. The decline in popularity of cricket among the youth;5. Competition from other sports (basketball, soccer, athletics) for sporting talent;6. The mismanagement of the cricket enterprise by the WICB;7. The end of the nationalist paradigm;8. The rise of new strategies among competitors;9. The educational backwardness of players;10. An inadequate professional pool from which to draw talent.

Beckles may have left us with plenty to ponder, but what can be said without an iota of doubt is that the current generation of West Indies players lack national pride. Cricket is no longer the common passion of a few sugardominated economies. Cricketers from the West Indies in the seventies, eighties and early nineties were driven by their passion for the game and took pride in winning laurels for the region.

It is also not about black pride any more. Fire in Babylon is an interesting documentary that seeks to unravel the enigma that is West Indies cricket. The film focuses on West Indies' ill-fated tour of Australia in 1975-76 when the team, led by Lloyd, was left bruised and battered by the hostile pace duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. The battlehardened Aussies came at the Caribbeans so hard in the six-Test series that 21-year-old Michael Holding sat down on the field and wept in despair. It was from the ashes of the 5-1 humiliation that the West Indies rose like a phoenix and black power held sway over the world of cricket for the next 20 years.

These days, it is merely about making a living out of the game and only a few benefit from it. Unlike in India, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa, you cannot eke out a living from just playing cricket in the Caribbean. "There are only about 15 people in the entire West Indies region that make their living from cricket and that is the West Indies team, " Beckles quite rightly points out.

It is no wonder that cricket is facing stiff competition not only from other sport like basketball, soccer and athletics. Soccer and volleyball have all but elbowed out cricket from Caribbean beaches, where there is more money to be made from cash-rich tourists in a season than can be earned in the course of a whole year by playing cricket.

Thanks to cable television, youngsters in the region have found new sporting icons in NBA's Kobe Bryant, Jamaican sprint champion Usain Bolt and Chelsea's Didier Drogba. The older generation may still show up in the stands to watch Chris Gayle whack the ball into the stands, but with nobody like 'Mickey' (Holding) to knock 'em over, you can hardly blame them if they find the pace pretty pedestrian.

It is the flamboyance and uninhibited style of West Indies cricket that crowds so dearly miss these days. The WICB has a lot to answer for the loss of the 'Caribbean Paradise'. But can it be regained?

Dr Ernest Hilaire, chief executive officer of the WICB, believes that the West Indies team is still capable of winning matches occasionally, if not consistently. "To be world beaters, you can't win a match every now and then. The fact is, right now with what we have, we cannot win matches consistently. It is not that we don't have the talent, but in today's cricketing world, having talent means absolutely nothing, " Hilaire has been quoted as saying.

As the West Indies "starts to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes" it is time to focus on the positives even as Team India prepares for its first full tour of the Caribbean after 2006. Darren Sammy's boys have warmed up nicely with a rare Test win - after almost two years - over Pakistan. The coming of age of Trinidad's puny leg-spinner Devendra Bishoo and pacer Ravi Rampaul, the two architects of the 40-run win, is a pointer that players of Asian origin will have a big role to play in future West Indies teams.

In the immediate context, if the IPL rebels make their peace with WICB officials and return to the West Indies squad, the Test and ODI series against India will be more closely fought than most people think. That is surely a happy thought for the maroon brigade that will continue to be the sentimental favourites as long as cricket continues to be played - in any form, and any part of the globe.

 

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