Will West Indies cricket rise again?
Vivian Richards

For an unprecedented 15 years, the West Indies marched unconquered through the world of international cricket. Fuelled by unrivalled fast bowling and forceful batting, they ruled as kings of cricket from 1980 until their reign came to an end in 1995.

Stung by a 5-1 drubbing Down Under in 1975/1976 when they could find no answer to the pace and hostility of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, and despondent after India successfully chased 406 on a spin-friendly Queen’s Park Oval strip, despite the West Indies being armed with three spinners, Captain Clive Lloyd decided that pace bowling was the way of the future. The four-pronged attack was therefore established and unleashed upon a cricketing fraternity that lacked the wherewithal to respond.

It was fast bowling, both brutal and shrewd, and the Caribbean had a seemingly endless supply of practitioners.

Starting with Andy Roberts, the long line that included greats such as Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, and Courtney Walsh often reduced the opposition’s batting to rubble. And while the batting did not consistently inhabit the same dizzying heights, players such as Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, and Desmond Haynes were largely better than those available to any other team.

But, as the 90s dawned, the once invincible side started to show signs of decline. When the legends retired they were replaced by less talented players and it was apparent, to those who paid attention at least, that the other teams had begun to nip at their heels. In 1992/1993, it took a one-run victory in Adelaide for the West Indies to come away with a 2-1 series victory against Australia, and they only achieved a 1-1 draw against India after a brave declaration by Walsh in Mohali, India.

Michael Holding

By 1995, only Ambrose and Walsh remained of the great pacemen, while the batting had begun to rely too heavily on Brian Lara and Richie Richardson. A confident Australia arrived in the Caribbean, ably led by Mark Taylor and staffed by future greats like Glen McGrath, Shane Warne, and the Waugh brothers — Steve and Mark. Having not laid hands on the Frank Worrell trophy for two decades, they toppled the West Indies 2-1 to usher in their own era of dominance.

The West Indies’ decline continued in the years following. Sporadic episodes of outstanding performances, such as Test series victories over England in 2019 and 2022 and Twenty20 (T20) World wins in 2012 and 2016, have served to stoke stirrings of hope in the hearts of long-suffering fans and well-wishers. But they were not enough to mask the general malaise that had set in.

Not blessed with a large population, it was the passion for the game that was primarily responsible for the Caribbean’s success in cricket. And it is the waning of that passion that precipitated its protracted decline.

As a boy growing up in Jamaica, fast-bowling great Michael Holding often played on a patch of ground in an area of Kingston called Red Hills. A multitude of neighbourhood boys would congregated to play what we call ketchy shuby in Jamaica, a totally free-for-all game of cricket in which whoever fields the ball bowls it, and whoever “dismisses” the batsman (hits his wicket or takes the catch) gets his turn at the crease.

Joel Garner

That scenario was repeated everyday throughout the entire length and breadth of the island. Travel along the road in those days and one would happen upon similar games of cricket in almost every community. There was a great craving for cricket, and informal games were played in backyards, on beaches, and in almost every available space.

As boys, we carved out bats from coconut branches or discarded planks of wood. Balls were often premature oranges or some crude concoction consisting of a hard inner core — a stone perhaps — encased in rubber tubing, its rise from the usually uneven surface anything but predictable.

In his memoir, Hitting Across the Line, Viv Richards writes of crafting crude playing strips on land otherwise used for grazing cattle, and how hazardous such surfaces were. “It was madness in a way,” recalled the great batsman, “and it was certainly some of the most dangerous cricket I have ever played, but it gave us a real sharpness. Wherever you were playing, you really could not afford to lose concentration for a second.” Good preparation then for facing Lillee and Thomson.

Whenever I tell my son that the acquisition of a single tennis ball to play cricket was a source of considerable delight, he does not really appreciate what I mean because he has loads of balls just laying about. He cannot fathom, in this day when he is told he has to wear a helmet and knee pads before riding his bicycle, why we would have chosen to bat against a hard ball that could inflict serious pain without any form of protection. Simply, we did it because we loved playing cricket.

That widespread love for the game is no longer with us. Cricket is certainly not the attraction it once was despite the new converts to the T20 format, and this fading interest has led to diminishing levels of participation.

Sometime ago, on the popular Mason And Guest radio show in Barbados, former West Indies off-spinner Nehemiah Perry lamented the diminishing number of schools participating in cricket in Jamaica. “There are so many schools dropping out of the competition, losing interest, losing players to other sports and other things. You are not going to develop your capabilities of expanding the sport. You are going to continue to struggle.”

Brian Lara

Diminishing participation means a smaller pool from which to choose, which leads to lower overall quality. Caribbean cricket fans have therefore witnessed a steady decline in the quality of players wearing the maroon over the last two or so decades.

As the old stalwarts demitted office, the new recruits could not match their level of skill, and days of plenty were gradually overtaken by days of famine. It has been difficult to witness, something akin to watching a close friend or a family member, previously in rude health, get sicker and sicker as the days go by.

The harsh reality is that we are currently falling short in unearthing high-quality cricketing talent in the Caribbean. This is a truth many West Indian fans would rather not accept. Yet the evidence is clear: Save for Nkrumah Bonner, no current Test batsman averages over 40, and his career is only 12 games old. Shai Hope impressively averages 51.3 in 92 One-Day Internationals, but then averages in the 20s and 30s in Tests and first-class cricket, respectively.

One can hardly blame the selectors; they have to try and chose the best of an average lot. We can’t blame the captain either; no matter how cunning his schemes he will need competent players to carry them out. As for the coaches, they can’t be miracle workers expected to spin straw into gold like Rumpelstiltskin did in the fairy tale.

That is not to say there are no talented young players around. We could mention names like Jayden Seales, Alzarri Josephs, Chemar Holder, and Joshua Da Silva, all players of some promise. Yet, if you compare them with youngsters coming out of India and Pakistan, for example, we easily recognise the difference in both quantity and quality.

A little over a year ago, Curtly Ambrose, speaking on Talk Sports Live in Antigua, expressed doubt that the West Indies could ever return to its glory days: “Yes, we can be competitive and climb up the ICC [International Cricket Council] rankings and be a force to be reckoned with again,” said the legendary fast bowler, “but those glory days, I don’t think we will see them again.”

Nobody in their right mind expects a return to the way it was in the 80s, but I hope Ambrose is right about the West Indies getting better and competing with the best.

Garfield Robinson

Garfield Robinson is a Jamaican living in the US who writes on cricket for a few Indian and English publications. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or garfield.v.robinson@gmail.com.

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