Monday, September 3, 2012

West Indies cricket: the golden years

Proudly wearing the rosette
of my skin I strut into Sabina,
England boycotting excitement
Bravely, something badly amiss.

Cricket. Not the game they play
at Lord’s, the crowd (whoever saw
a crowd at a cricket match?)
are caged, vociferous partisans

quick to take offence. England
sixtyeight for none at lunch.
‘What sort o battin dat man?
Dem caan play cricket again, praps
Dem should a borrow Lawrence Rowe!’

And on it goes, the wicket slow
as the batting and the crowd restless.
‘Eh white bwoy, ow you brudders dem
does sen we sleep so? Me a pay monies

fe watch dis foolishness? Cho?’
So I try to explain it in my Hampshire
drawl about conditions in Kent,
about sticky wickets and muggy days
and the monsoon season in Manchester

but fail to convince even myself.

This poem, ‘At Sabina Park’, by Stewart Brown, poet and professor of Caribbean studies, is a sample of the joyous impact of West Indian cricket on its crazy, partisan spectators, but long before Boycott and Amiss had arrived on the scene to appear wooden by unfair comparison with the gifted Lawrence Rowe, thousands of fans had been hooked—by the Three Ws, Ramadhin and Valentine, Sobers and Kanhai, Atkinson and Depeiza (if only for one heroic stand that went into the record books), Hall and Gibbs.

The first time I followed a Test series involving the West Indies was when Australia toured the islands in 1954-55 and Clyde Walcott lit up Sabina Park with two outstanding innings of 155 and 110 yet Australia won by an innings and 82 runs.  That was the fifth and final Test and Walcott had made 110 and 39 in the first Test too, on that same, lightning fast pitch, against the pace of Lindwall, Miller, Johnston and Archer and the wrist spin of Benaud. Incredibly, Walcott also scored a century in each innings at Port of Spain, Trinidad (with Everton Weekes contributing 139 and 67 not out), amassing 827 for an average of 82.7 in the series, yet West Indies lost the series 0-3. It was at Bridgetown, Barbados that Atkinson and Depeiza put on 347 for the seventh wicket and forced a draw.

A young lefthander named Garfield St. Aubrun Sobers made 35 not out and 64 in the final Test, compiling in all just 231 runs and taking 6 wickets in the rubber, in what was a modest beginning to the greatest all round Test career of all time. Notice of his greatness had already been served, the very first time he batted against the Aussies. Richie Benaud was to recall years later that, fielding at gully, he had to run for cover, seeking protection from Sobers’s fierce square cuts!

Those were still the Dark Ages of West Indies cricket: no dark-skinned player could captain the team yet. That had to wait until Frank Worrell was handed the reins from FCM Alexander for the 1960-61 tour of Australia, the historic series that brought the crowds back to Test match grounds, after the chucking and dragging controversies between England and Australia and dull county cricket had driven them away to other sport. Worrell and Benaud were the rival captains involved in what was to be a major diplomatic victory for cricket—for the spirit in which the series was played—but also in the game’s first tied Test match at Brisbane. The West Indies were gallant losers of a closely fought series and might have fared better but for a contentious umpiring decision that cost them a victory in the fourth Test. In the event, Australia scraped through with a two-wicket margin in the final Test, to emerge as a 2-1 winner of the series.

Two grand innings of 125 and 168 confirmed Sobers’ burgeoning stature as the world’s leading batting talent, after his world record 365 against Pakistan, but he was yet to achieve the phenomenal success that prompted John Arlott to declare: ‘No aspect of his cricket has been more amazing than his capacity for combining quality and quantity of effort; it is as if a single creature had both the class of a Derby-winner and the stamina of a mule.’ He was also still some distance from burying the ghosts that haunted him after his dear friend and co-star in the firmament of West Indies cricket, Collie Smith had died in a car accident with Sobers at the wheel. In his autobiography Sobers has confessed that after that shocking loss, he steeled himself to bat and bowl and field for both of them. And how the cricket playing nations of the world had to pay for that resolve!

Worrell was the great binding force, the calming influence on a team of brilliant but mercurial individuals. He took Sobers under his wing and groomed him to be his successor. And by the time Sobers led his team to India in 1966-67, he had been unofficially crowned the greatest all rounder in the world, and we in India were treated to some wonderful samples of his genius. Wes Hall was a fading colossus and so was Charlie Griffith, but Lance Gibbs was still a force to reckon with, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse, David Holford—Sobers’s cousin and partner in a couple of historic rearguard actions—Clive Lloyd and Jackie Hendricks, made up a powerful combination.

Another crowd favourite in India as elsewhere was Rohan Babulal Kanhai, the man who matched Sobers knock for knock in daring strokeplay that disguised technical excellence of the highest order. There was a keen rivalry between these two heroes of West Indian cricket, but it was tempered by a chivalry natural to both of them. It helped them to come together to make common cause on several occasions. If Sobers’s run as captain came to an unhappy end after his sporting declaration resulted in a series defeat against the touring England team in 1972, Kanhai’s reign began with a series defeat to Australia despite great personal form, aided by the brilliance of Clive Lloyd. One Garfield Sobers was sorely missed, as he was out of the series mysteriously injured.

Sobers and Kanhai combined briefly to post huge personal and team totals in the 1973 English summer, but the new generation was already upon them, with the elegant lefthander Alvin Kallicharran playing several delightful innings and the massive Clive Lloyd launching murderous assaults against the world’s best bowling attacks.

The Indian tour of 1974-75 was Lloyd’s first as captain. A batting sensation answering to the name of Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards was unveiled on this tour and Lloyd himself gave evidence of his enormous power in the final Test at Bombay. West Indies won the series 3-2, but not before India put up a hard fight levelling the series 2-2 at Madras. Noone noticed yet, but the greatest battery of fast bowlers in the history of cricket was in the process of being assembled. It took an abject whitewash in Australia –after Roy Fredericks played a pulsating innings in the second Test at Perth, the only one West Indies won on that tour—and a magnificent win by India chasing 404 at Port of Spain the following season, for Lloyd to marshal his fast bowling resources in a fearsome quartet, an unprecedented combination in Test cricket.

It is precisely the manner in which the fearsome foursome concept was first developed that took away for me the lustre and gallantry of West Indies cricket. Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel, Bernard Julien and Vanburn Holder unleashed a barrage of short balls on the hapless, helmetless Indian batsmen, often bowling round the wicket on a ridge around leg stump and traumatizing them with viciously intimidating bowling. The tactics showed Clive Lloyd in a poor light, desperate to maintain a winning record. It was the start of the total dominance of world cricket for over a decade by Lloyd and his men, the great fast bowlers backed by the greatest batsman in the world, Viv Richards, and the captain himself, still as destructive as ever. Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Alvin Kallicharran, Larry Gomes, Derryck Murray, Jeffrey Dujon, Malcolm Marshall, Bernard Julien, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Colin Croft and Keith Boyce were some of the names to etch themselves permanently in the memory of the West Indies cricket fan.

An ugly side of West Indies cricket was to be revealed, at least in the eyes of ‘the victim’, when Kerry Packer’s coup de tat in 1977 resulted in all the leading west Indies players joining his ‘circus’. Alvin Kallicharran refused to toe the Packer line and was rewarded with the West Indies captaincy but he was unceremoniously axed when Clive Lloyd and the other Packer men returned to official Test cricket. Kallicharran cried foul and even claimed that his Indian origin worked against him in the inter-island politics of West Indies cricket. Similar murmurs had been made by the other great east Indian icon, Rohan Kanhai, in his playing days. During the Vivian Richards era, the murmurs were louder and clearer, with the captain charged with racial prejudice in the team composition he favoured.

This was a far cry from the early days of West Indies cricket, when it was a disadvantage to be black, as in West Indian society. According to C L R James, for the dark man, “the surest sign of … having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself.”

To me, the golden period of West Indies cricket was not the era of Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards and the four-man pace battery, but the journey that began with Sir Frank Worrell’s historic tour of Australia with his gallant men, and ended with Rohan Kanhai and Sir Garfield Sobers bowing out in style, or almost doing so, with individual scores of 157 and 150 not out in the Lord’s Test of the summer of 1973. (The next Test series was their last together—at home—an anticlimax for both).

It was a time when the West Indies team was united as never before, and set the pattern for Clive Lloyd and men to follow. Under Lloyd too West Indies played their cricket fair most of the time, though harder than any team before or after. The blot on their record of sportsmanship was provided by that ugly Test match at Kingston Jamaica against India, and the tantrums of their bowlers in the face of poor umpiring in New Zealand. Vivian Richards ranks with the best batsmen of all time, as does Brian Lara. Richards was part of a champion side and Lara of a struggling, loose conglomeration of no-hopers most of the time. As captain, neither has succeeded in inspiring a West Indies combination to great heights. That honour goes to Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Garfield Sobers and Clive Lloyd.