By Adrian Meredith
Who can forget when West Indian cricket were not only the best team going around but they were simply unstoppable! Commentators used to joke that there was a never- ending supply of West Indian fast bowlers. They were accused of cloning them. Their batting was as good as any going around and, while technically not the best ‘keeper, Jeff Dujon was certainly one of the most acrobatic.
And yet, from 1995 when they officially gave up their title as "best in the world" to Australia, to now 16 years later, West Indian cricket has slumped big time; they are barely ahead of newcomers Bangladesh, and for a brief while in one-day cricket, they were even behind Bangladesh.
How could West Indian cricket have fallen so far so quickly and what can be done to lift it up again?
When looking at how it fell, firstly we should look at why it rose.
West Indies first entered international cricket primarily as a white side. While blacks did play cricket, the culture of cricket in the West Indian nations was that blacks were paid to bowl to the whites, who were viewed as the dominant players. While black West Indians played in the Test team even, they were never captain. Even the likes of George Headley, who averaged over 60 in Test match cricket, was never considered for Test captaincy.
When West Indies finally had a black captain in Frank Worrell, everything changed, though Whites were still in the team. West Indies soon participated in the first tied Test, against then best in the world – Australia. The build-up took the best part of 15-20 years, and perhaps even 30 years if you include the time that they were trying to get a black captain. That is a long time to be building up to something. Such that when West Indies finally were the best in the world, it was like a huge celebration.
For fans of West Indian cricket, that era of dominance wasn't just a time to say that they were the best, but it was also a time of relief, relief that finally the injustice in cricket in the islands was addressed. And it showed that racial equality led to people being their best, and that their best was the best in the world.
It is really hard to explain that euphoria unless you were there, struggling along with them, struggling for acceptance, struggling to find their roles within the team. South Africa are still having troubles along the same lines and indeed so too are Zimbabwe in some way.
The era of dominance was never going to last forever. In any sport, a team has a period where they are the best, then they drop down a little, so it was inevitable that West Indies would drop.
They clung onto hope for a long time, with Courtney Walsh extending his career and the emergence of both Curtly Ambrose and the great Brian Lara, possibly West Indies' greatest ever batsman.
But then something went wrong.
Ian Bishop was set to become West Indies' greatest ever bowler, but injuries cut short his career to be an incredibly short one. It was meant to be Bishop-Ambrose-Walsh to mentor a fourth bowler and thus continue the tradition. Yet it never really happened. Instead there were just two quality bowlers with experience to choose from. And the third and fourth bowlers let them down somewhat. They had potential, but when they hit the big time, while in the past they would have been mentored and developed, now, with just two big names going around, somehow it didn't happen. Ambrose and Walsh had a big enough burden trying to win games by themselves that they seemed unable to pass on the baton.
The injury to Bishop and the subsequent reality of having only two decent bowlers to choose from in Walsh and Ambrose meant that there was now a use-by-date on West Indian cricket. As soon as Ambrose and Walsh retired, West Indian cricket didn’t have any quality bowlers. The newer crop didn’t have anyone to mentor them either. They were on their own.
The batsmen kept coming through, but without the bowlers to support them it was all a bit too hard. Brian Lara had to do it all by himself, far too often. Lara himself was accused of being cavalier, of being lazy and not taking things seriously enough, and even of being selfish, and other batsmen, who could have been a lot better than they were, ended up following that example.
So with only two bowlers and one batsman it was asking a bit much to expect them to go on too long. After Ambrose and Walsh finally retired, it was just Lara by himself. Once he retired, there was nothing.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan are very good cricketers and if they had had the support that was about during the era of dominance, or even that huge 30 year period leading up to it, they could have had a much bigger impact than they did. Chris Gayle came along and seemed to be worthy enough to make West Indies good enough, even without any support. Dwayne Bravo, too, seemed to be good enough to do it by himself. Keiron Pollard is just a freak, a natural all-rounder, Lance Cairns-like, the kind who seems almost to prefer a team without much support.
And yet now we have this situation where there are three players in Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Pollard, who could bring West Indies back from that natural cycle of decline. But what’s happening? All three are playing IPL, not being picked in national teams, off on strikes of various kinds and generally not doing what they should be doing.
The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) isn’t the cause of West Indian cricket's decline. It is just natural that you can't stay on top forever.
Newer supporters, who never saw West Indies being dominant, may react differently. They see what was once great suddenly become bad and they become disheartened. They turn to other sports, like running, athletics, soccer or basketball, or even turn to smoking pot and not worrying about sport. They don't even bother to watch at all.
But West Indies right now have three players to build a team around. Chris Gayle is all of 31 years of age and is a natural leader of a team in crisis. His calm approach just steadies everyone around him. His batting strength and powerful hitting is supported by his occasional spin bowling. Dwayne Bravo is more a bowler than batsman, but he is also another solo fighter who doesn't need a lot of great players around him to shine. And Pollard, more than anyone else, can do it all himself.
These are the three players that West Indian cricket should be focusing around. They are talented, explosive, exciting players. Fans love them. They are all great at T20 and ODI cricket but are also more than useful at test level. They are the kinds of players that the other eight could look up to. They are the leadership group. Then, with older experienced players like Sarwan and Chanderpaul acting as mentors, and talented players with a lot of potential like Darren Sammy, Kemar Roach and Devendra Bishoo, they have the start of a very good team. Darren Bravo has done enough to suggest he could one day be good, and a lot of the new bowlers used in the ODI World Cup like Andre Russell and Ravi Rampaul have shown immense potential.
But then, for some reason, the WICB are not including the three leaders in their teams. Heck, they aren't even including Sarwan or Chanderpaul half the time.
There are contract disputes because Gayle, Pollard and Bravo want to play in the IPL, or the KFC Big Bash or other lucrative tournaments. They want to do so largely because what they get playing for West Indies is not a big amount.
Perhaps the WICB doesn't have enough money to give Gayle, Pollard and Bravo the kinds of money that they need to stop them playing IPL and T20 tournaments. If that is the case, then really they should come to an understanding. Meet them half way. Let them play in these tournaments and earn the money but then let them come back to the national team afterwards. Perhaps make them wait until the start of the next series before returning to the national side. Whatever, they have to do. There has to be some negotiation there. Not demands. Not threats. Not all-or-nothing situations. And certainly the WICB should be trying their hardest to make sure that their three biggest stars are in the team as much as humanly possible.
The other side to it is that there is a growing suspicion that the WICB aren't paying their players fairly. The West Indies Players’ Association (WIPA) certainly thinks that they don't get their fair share of the money that the WICB are raking in. Whether that is true is a matter of debate, but certainly the players have become convinced that they are being underpaid enough to go on strike for entire tours and even lose at home to Bangladesh over it. Yet still the WICB hasn't backed down.
It is hard to imagine what is going through the heads of the people in charge at the WICB that they could allow it to deteriorate into such a big mess. They banned Sarwan and Chanderpaul at one point, then go them back. They did the same thing with Gayle, Pollard and Bravo. They take a stance, come under public pressure because the decision was incredibly stupid only to back down. West Indies lose matches that they would have won if they had their full strength side and so they bring the sidelined players back.
Back in the glory days, they were actually going quite well. And while they weren't so good in the days of White captaincy, West Indies obviously improved and continued to improve until they got to the level of dominance.
I don't for a moment think that with the WICB acting sensibly that West Indies would suddenly become the best team in the world, but I think that they would be a lot better. And perhaps they could pave the way to one day become as great as they once were.
It is no coincidence that the teams that are doing the best in world cricket are the teams that have the best functioning national boards. The two go hand in hand. Zimbabwe went downhill quickly when their national board became politicized.
West Indies shouldn't be No 1, no matter what. But they should be winning some of their away series against some of the weaker teams, be competitive away against some of the better ones, and win most of their home series, regardless of the opponents. Right now, West Indian cricket has the best set of players that they have had available since the late 1990s, yet, thanks to the incompetence of the WICB, they aren't able to utilize them. And that, indeed, is very sad.
(Adrian Meredith, an Australian from Melbourne, has been very passionate about cricket since he was seven years old. Because of physical challenges he could not pursue playing the game he so dearly loved. He loves all kinds of cricket - from Tests, ODIs, T20 - at all levels and in all countries and writes extensively on the game)