In the 70s, my father spent many nights glued to a radio or a transistor, following the commentary of Test matches between India and the West Indies. Yeah, he was a big fan of cricket, but a much bigger fan of an infinitely more exciting sport: Caribbean cricket. It seemed perfectly natural for him to take half a day off work to catch a BBC broadcast, on a static-ridden shortwave signal, of a 1973 Test match between England and the West Indies. Why would a middle-class working man, reporting to a demanding boss, do such a crazy thing? Because when stalwarts like Sobers, Kanhai, Lloyd and Gibbs performed their latest magic tricks, you wanted to be amongst the first to know. Is that so difficult to understand?!
Of course, in the next couple of years, ODIs became a format to reckon with and Caribbean cricket got even more exciting. A young Vivian Richards sauntered into the global arena and taught us that it was possible to hit towering sixes with a swagger. Simultaneously, gentle giants like Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding showed us how entire stadia could be hissed into silence with venomous bouncers. Through the rest of the 70s, other teams pretty much showed up for the honour of losing to the West Indies.
If there’s a better way to play cricket than the way the West Indians did in the 70s, we haven’t seen it yet. Perhaps the Ozzies dominated the late 90s and the early naughties more than the West Indians ever did, but they felt it necessary to swear, sledge and spit in anger to underline their domination.
The Caribbean folk, on the other hand, dominated with a velvet touch. They smiled good-naturedly when their opponents sledged, certain in the knowledge that the next delivery would stamp their authority on the game. They were children of the sun and surf, blessed with humour and the instinctive understanding that both cricket and the Calypso demand a dash of flamboyance.
To their credit, the Caribbean cricketers of today retain the ability to celebrate with signature moves, just like their predecessors. Unfortunately, the comparison ends there. Barring a surprising win in the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy, and Brian Lara’s routine exhibition of individual brilliance, the West Indians have done nothing in the past fifteen years to claim inheritance to a glorious legacy. Why is that really? There’s certainly no dearth of talent on the Caribbean tectonic plate. The problem probably lies in the leadership – the way talent and the game are managed. The current Test series between India and the West Indies proves this point.
Darren Sammy isn’t the first newcomer to be handed the captaincy of a national side. In recent times, Lee Germon (New Zealand), Adam Hollioake (England) and Graeme Smith (South Africa) became captains before they had established themselves in the international stage. While Germon used his natural leadership skills to overcome his mediocre batting abilities, Smith scored prolifically in his early years to demand respect from his team. Hollioake, on the other hand, had a brief stint at the top, leading England to a rare tournament victory in Sharjah in 1997.
The jury is still out on Sammy, but he appears to be a fighter, a man who wears his game face for the game, whether he’s game or not. But so far, he has chosen to be safe and unimaginative as a leader. If he really, really wanted to send a strong message to his team and the selectors, then he should have dropped vice-captain Brendan Nash from the team for the first Test. Since the WICB has been making noises about rebuilding the team, it had no business selecting a 33-year-old batsman who has scored a mere 53 runs in his previous six outings. And he seemed so uncomfortable out there that I wished somebody would give him a Valium to go with his Gatorade.
One of the reasons Sammy probably has his job is that he won’t throw the spotlight on the selection bloopers. But it’s quite remarkable that the selectors promptly omitted Nash from the second Test and his replacement in the playing eleven, Marlon Samuels, top-scored for his team in the first innings. The episode highlights the meandering, indecisive manner in which the West Indies team is selected. Wiser selectors won’t have had a public spat for four long years with the temperamental Chris Gayle. They would have reluctantly accepted that the man will shoot his mouth off time and again, and that their job was not to rein him in, but unleash his fury out on the field of play. Instead, they’ve opted to keep him out in the cold. Go figure.
Meanwhile, Sarwan and Chanderpaul – known previously for their grit and character – now resemble ballerinas without their blushes. Age has gnawed at their prowess, yes, but the political drama in WICB too has played its part here. Also, the West Indies has the most unsettled team amongst the Test-playing nations. Isn’t this a sign that too many undeserving guys are getting the nod, and that some of the gifted youngsters deserve more patience from the WICB?
And finally, a word about Andre Russell. This true-blue all-rounder singlehandedly transformed a snooze-fest ODI series into an exciting show. Were the WICB selectors not tuned in? Did they decide that he was too young or too raw for Test cricket? Or did they feel that his Mohawk haircut won’t go well with white flannels? In cricket, a pound of form can substitute for an ounce of class. And Russell has tons of both, class and form. After all, he came close to scoring a century while batting at number nine. What more do the selectors need to “Test” him out?
If cricket in the Caribbean must again reach the dizzying heights of the 70s, the WICB needs to discover more Andre Russells and nourish them with optimism and the spirit of the Calypso. Shall we hold our breath?
Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.