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Decline and Fall

4 December 2007.

Self-indulgence and self-interest are to blame for West Indies’ present condition.

Not long ago a rising West Indian batsman asked an old hand for help with his game. Since the elder was a selector, the youngster might have supposed that he’d be happy to offer advice. Not a bit of it. Instead the experienced past player replied that he’d have a look at him presently and between times would let him know how much he charged. In a nutshell that is the problem of West Indian cricket. A lot of taking and not enough giving.

Past players blame the administration but it’s a cop-out. Too many of them queue up for the handouts provided by past fame and present sponsors. Too few of them serve in the confronting fields where players are made and broken. As far as West Indian cricket is concerned, the seeds of destruction were sown even as the victories continued in the 1980s. Bad habits set in but they did not seem to matter. West Indies still had great players and could trounce all comers. Not until the great men aged and the inadequacy of their replacements was exposed did any alarms bells ring, and by then it was too late. For a while the West Indies was able to produce just enough good men and wonderful cricketers to delay the inevitable, but there was too much strutting and not enough straining.

Brian Lara

Brian Lara batting for West Indies against India at Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, Barbados, in May 2002. He scored 55 runs.
Photo credit: Ukexpat from Wikimedia Commons

West Indian cricket and cricketers must carry the can for their own collapse. It has not been caused by basketball or soccer or even the weakness of administration (not that officials can escape censure). More than anything else the problem lay with the character of the players and the culture of the team. West Indies rose when it was on a mission but upon reaching the top became self-indulgent. The rest was inevitable. And champions have further to fall than anyone else. West Indies did not have a strong structure to fall back on, and therefore relied mostly on the talent and leadership qualities of the players. Once they fell into laziness, the game was in trouble because there was no back-up. As a result of these attitudes West Indian cricket is in a pretty pickle.

As a rule it is unwise to discount the possibilities of a restoration of previous powers merely because hard times have been encountered. Provided the underlying culture is strong, a bad patch will sooner or later end. Provided commitment is retained and the basics are respected, a country or company or school or family will rally. Properly regarded, setbacks can be instructive. Enduring cultures regard them not as calamities but challenges, and absorb their lessons.

Alas the rot runs deeper in the West Indies and so far no one has emerged to hold up the side. To the contrary, the game in the region has been blighted by self-interest. At the outset cricket in the Caribbean relied on co-operation between the islands and the embracing of a glorious idea. At first the game was sustained by the brilliance of the players and the desire to show that black men could hold their own, and what was more, behave better than anyone else. It was a fine motivation. Of course it was not all sweetness and light. For decades shrewd black players found themselves playing under dimwitted white captains – but then the world is full of folly, a custom that shows no sign of abating.

Nevertheless West Indian cricket pressed ahead. Between them the sugarcane fields and Sunday schools and soft-ball matches sent into the world an astonishing array of wonderful players and notable characters. Indeed the West Indies have produced both the game’s most admired leader and most highly regarded writer: Frank Worrell and CLR James. Most of the truly great men of the game come from the Caribbean. Of course the islands have also had their black sheep. (Incidentally, has any evidence been produced proving that black sheep are worse than their white brethren?) The notion that West Indian cricket consisted solely of smiling fast bowlers and swashbuckling batsmen was patronising.

Hereabouts the culture of the game was powerful. As time passed and confidence rose, West Indies produced its first official black captain, and throughout the 1960s the Calypso Kings were the most popular and successful team around. It is an unusual combination. Brazil has had the same standing in soccer but generally domination demands harshness. Empires are not defended with feathers.

Towards the end of the decade the West Indies fell back. Meanwhile the demands for justice were growing, as independence movements fought for equality in Africa and elsewhere. A generation was born for whom pride was a starting point and not a conclusion, a generation tired of the tales of capitulation under pressure, a generation that rejected servility of the mind, a group that understood that deeds alone could silence sceptics.

Naturally the islands felt this surge. Inevitably cricket was affected. As far as West Indies was concerned, the two crucial moments were defeat at the hands of the Indians in 1971 and their destruction in Australia in 1975-76. Suddenly it was unacceptable. Unprepared any longer to shrug, and finding around him a bunch of like-minded players, including two great cricketers from Antigua (among the most angry of the islands), Clive Lloyd set out to prove that West Indies’ time had come. He turned his side into an efficient fighting force, a supremely athletic team that played a ruthless power game. Inspired by the unifying idea, excited by their own remarkable gifts, and forcefully led by a captain able to set an example on the field and make players cower off it, West Indies ruled the roost.

The supremacy was glorious and enduring. Lloyd passed the mantle to Viv Richards, an explosive and politicised character whose intimidatory manner disguised insecurity and growing recklessness. He was a great batsman and a proud competitor who did not countenance defeat, but he turned a blind eye to excesses, including his own. Richie Richardson, the mildest of the Antiguans as Desmond Haynes was the angriest of the Bajans, came next, and already West Indies was losing its way. Men of the calibre of Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall had been replaced by Kenneth and Winston Benjamin. A succession of dubious glovemen and erratic pacemen were chosen. Not even Jimmy Adams and Ian Bishop could check the decline. West Indies lacked strength in depth and relied on talented charlatans.

Now the situation is even worse. Ten years of decline, a litany of failed captains, a list of sacked coaches, a series of defeats overseas, and a wasted but logistically well run World Cup (imagine building all those stadiums and not a single indoor training facility), and still West Indies fiddles. Still the selectors give further opportunities to failed and compromised players. Few of the players attract the attention of rich English counties. It is not that they lack ability. It is because too many players from the region have been idle, and the reputation has stuck. The imposing West Indian and Australian sides of recent years had one thing in common – many of the players turned out for English counties, where they experienced different conditions and bore the brunt for their sides.

West Indies needs to start again and can begin by sacking time-wasters. Marlon Samuels should have been dropped long ago, and he is not alone. Before it is too late West Indies must build its side around Dwayne Bravo, Omari Banks, Shiv Chanderpaul, Denesh Ramdin, Darren Sammy and other well-raised young men with a passion for the game and a sense of service. Chris Gayle is the hardest case because he expresses the best and worst in the current side. The Twenty20 project should be abandoned as a waste of money and the entire board sacked. West Indies thinks too much about the past. Everything should be focused on high standards, strong discipline, sustainable structures, good groundsmen, demanding competition, objective selection, visionary administration, and attacking cricket. Roger Harper, Bishop, Ottis Gibson, Gus Logie, Cardigan Connor and other good and true men have much to offer. The time has come to give them their heads.

This article was written for ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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