In the Caribbean, only T20 sells!

For almost two decades nobody really managed to knock the West Indies off their high perch. But as the 90s dawned the once invincible side started to show signs it was weakening. As the legends retired they were replaced by less talented players. And then in 1995 Australia went to the Caribbean, snatched away the crown, and things have never been the same since.

In the 70s and 80s West Indian pace ruled the roost. Here England captain Tony Greig is bowled for a duck by Andy Roberts in the first Test in Nottingham in 1976.   -  GETTY IMAGES

A scene from Barbados, West Indies in 1981. Cricket was a passion then and people played it everywhere. But now the intensity has declined and the game has suffered.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Those following cricket in the late 70s and throughout the 80s would’ve had first-hand experience of the dominance of the West Indies team. Fuelled by unrivalled fast bowling and forceful batting, they ruled as kings of cricket. The game had never seen its like before. No team had ever lorded it over world cricket the way they did. It wasn’t just that they were the best team around; opponents knew they had no realistic chance of competing.

How could any line-up of batsmen ever hope to successfully combat the West Indies’ famed four-pronged fast bowling units? What could they do to repel or even survive bowling of that calibre?

It was fast bowling both brutal and clever, and the Caribbean had a seemingly endless supply of its practitioners. Starting with Andy Roberts, the long line included greats such as Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, all capable of reducing the opposition’s batting to rubble.

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The batting, while not rising to the dizzying heights of the bowling, was forthright and formidable just the same. Batsmen such as Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Larry Gomes, Clive Lloyd and Richie Richardson were all extraordinary players with great records who managed more than their fair share of runs.

And then there was Viv…the master blaster, the king, fearless and frightening, his strokeplay imbued with might and majesty. Bowlers spoke his name in whispers, worried that wherever and whenever they came face-to-face with the great man, it might not turn out well.

For almost two decades nobody really managed to knock them off their high perch. But as the 90s dawned the once invincible side started to show signs it was weakening. As the legends retired they were replaced by less talented players. It was apparent to those paying attention that the other teams had begun to nip at their heels. And then in 1995 Australia went to the Caribbean, snatched away the crown, and things have never been the same since. It’s been like watching a friend, previously in very good health, being diminished by an illness that just won’t go away.

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In years gone by cricket was the game of choice among Caribbean boys. It was played in the backyards, on the beaches, in the streets, in our schools, in every available space. As boys we fashioned our bats from coconut branches or discarded planks of wood. Balls were often premature oranges, or some crude concoction consisting of a hard inner core wrapped with rubber tubing, the bounce of which was anything but predictable.

That kind of appetite for the game no longer exists. Not blessed with a large population it was passion for the game in the region that powered the great rise of West Indies cricket. And it is the waning of that passion that has resulted in the lengthy decline.

Having said that it has to be acknowledged that cricket’s newest, briefest, and most electrifying format, like it is everywhere else, is hugely popular in the Caribbean. Fans, who have long stayed away from Tests and first-class cricket, have flocked the grounds to view the Caribbean Premier League (CPL). I remember being barely able to gain entry to Sabina Park for a regional encounter between Jamaica and Barbados because of the huge crowd that turned up. Last year that same Sabina Park was almost empty for a Test against the mighty Australia despite the authorities granting free entry to children and patrons over the age of 65. And it’s not just in the Caribbean either. Outside of the Ashes encounters and a few others, the audience for Tests has been significantly reduced.

The players have also gravitated towards Twenty20 (T20) cricket. With Test cricket no longer the only game in town many Caribbean players — not as highly remunerated as those from the top teams like India, Australia and England — have shown a preference for the much more lucrative T20 franchise cricket. They can hardly be blamed. We all try to maximise our earnings. And lest it be forgotten, an athletic career is a rather fleeting one.

This state of affairs has often robbed the West Indies of the opportunity of fielding its best Test team, and has further frayed the precarious relationship that existed between the players and the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB). Even the previously rock-solid bond that existed between the international players and their representative, the West Indies Players’ Association (WIPA) has been torn asunder. Accusations and counter-accusations have been flung back and forth and there are ill-feelings and distrust all round.

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The reduction in fees that triggered the abandoned 2014 India tour still haunts Caribbean cricket. World Twenty20 finals hero, Marlon Samuels, recently spoke on the matter: “Some of us as players agreed in principle for a pay cut with WIPA to help with the paying of first-class cricketers in the regional professional league, but none of us had signed off on the exact percentage”, the batsman commented. “WIPA then went literally behind our backs and signed off on close to a 75 per cent match-fee pay cut, and I can tell you none of the players are happy about it. Situations like these do not motivate or encourage our senior players to want to play the longest version of the game.”

Samuels also mentioned the possibility of retiring from Test cricket if the situation does not improve. If he does, then he’d be following in the footsteps of colleagues Lendl Simmons and Dwayne Bravo who have already given up Tests to concentrate on the limited overs formats.

Some months ago, former England batsman, Kevin Pietersen, called on cricket’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC) to finance improved wages for cricket’s less wealthy countries, so as to ensure that the best players are attracted, once again, to the game’s longest format. It is a suggestion West Indies’ Test and ODI captain Jason Holder was quick to support, having himself been forced to forgo at least one T20 payday in order to focus on international cricket.

For many Test cricket is slouching inexorably towards a slow, painful death. T20 cricket may or may not be contributing to its demise, but it is clear that the rise of cricket’s latest format seems to be coinciding with the fall of its eldest.

A few ideas have been proffered to stanch Test cricket’s march to irrelevance. One, recently being discussed by cricket’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), is a two-tiered league system with promotion and relegation. It was instantly swatted away by some. West Indies T20 specialist Dwayne Bravo, for instance, had this to say: “I think people just have to face reality, times change. Kids realise that it will benefit them financially if they play the shorter format of the game. Those who are in charge have to do something differently to encourage people to play Test cricket.”

But there were others who embraced the idea. Ian Bishop, the former West Indies fast bowler, is a wise soul. I asked him his thoughts on the two-tiered proposal and its possible effect on West Indies cricket a few months ago. This was his response: “I like the concept of the two-tiered system because it will bring an additional context and competitiveness to the international game. It shouldn’t be a matter of whether the West Indies will be adversely affected. The thinking has to be about what is better for the world game. I am certain the West Indies would see this as an opportunity and challenge to drive their processes and ensure they improve their on-field product and by extension their ranking and are therefore ready for any such implementation if and whenever it manifests. Enough talent is still available to do it. It’s a matter of refining and managing that talent. If this tiered system leads to a better product on the field and greater context to matches then people will take interest and come out to watch.”

Let’s hope he’s right.

(The author is based in the West Indies)

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