It was the second Test in Rawalpindi in November 1997. Pakistan pace spearhead Waqar Younis bowled an in-swinging yorker that knocked the West Indies’ champion batsman Brian Lara off his feet. The ball, which initially seemed like a friendly half-volley, curled back in at pace to knock the leg stump out of the ground. For a brief moment, Lara remained on all fours. The sight of him, beaten and bowed, is a significant event in the annals of West Indies cricket. It appeared as if the Prince had finally put his armour down. The Caribbean dominance was nearing its end.
As the years went by, the stories of the golden age of West Indies cricket were passed on from one generation to the next, causing a new set of cricket fans to fall in love with the swagger of Vivian Richards, the ruthlessness of Michael Holding, and the domineering captaincy of Clive Lloyd. But as the rush of nostalgia subsided and the sport entered a new era, all that became a distant memory.
These days, any series involving the West Indies is just another opportunity for cricket tragics to reminisce about the memories and joyful banter of yore while often witnessing with mouths agape the terminal tailspin of Caribbean cricket since the late 1990s.
“When Jamaicans or Trinidadians living in Britain in the ’60s and ’70s watched the West Indies play England, they felt a common unity and a fraternal togetherness that they had rarely experienced in their lives before. In short, the West Indian cricket team brought people together,” Simon Lister, the author of Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet , told Sportstar .
Never had this been more evident than during the five-match Test series against England in 1976. It was a seminal moment where the post-war Caribbean exodus to Britain and racism intersected to provide an emotionally charged backdrop to cricket.
Tony Greig, the blond South Africa-born captain of England, said he would make the West Indies team grovel. “Greig was a showman who liked making big gestures. This one backfired,” said Lister.
Former England fast bowler Mike Selvey, called in for the third Test at Old Trafford, remembers the “exhilarating” series. “Not an experience I would change for anything,” he said. “There was a familiarity [with the West Indies players] though in a sense because I had been playing against Gordon Greenidge since he was 15 or 16, Clive (Lloyd) was at Lancashire, Viv (Richards) at Somerset, Roy Fredericks had been at Glamorgan, Alvin Kallicharran and Deryck Murray with Warwickshire, and Andy Roberts at Hampshire, and Vanburn Holder at Worcester. It was getting them all in one package that was tricky.”
Michael Holding’s spell at the Oval in 1976 brutally exposed the English batsmen. Snorting bouncers at express pace hurt their bodies and bruised their pride. Holding took 14 wickets for 149 in the last Test.
Selvey recalled Holding’s display at the Oval. “It has to be one of the greatest ever by a fast bowler. The pitch was so unforgiving, the outfield totally parched, the weather hot and the playing area huge. Just look at the figures of the other pacemen in the game such as Andy, Vanburn and Bob Willis and see how absurd Mikey’s figures were.
“He bowled very fast, full and straight. Hindsight says that obviously the conditions were perfect for reverse swing, but I was certainly not aware of the phenomenon and I know Bob wasn’t. Whether Mikey did I cannot say, but with the full length, pace through the air and the ground conditions, he was probably reversing it a bit... I dragged one on the first ball in the first innings.”
The Oval, Selvey recalled, had a celebratory air to it. “The grounds (Old Trafford and the Oval) on both occasions were far from full and the West Indies supporters were a relatively small if vocal element,” he said.
The West Indies won the five-Test series by a resounding 3-0 margin. “[It’s a] cliché, I know, but they really did prefer to let the ball do all their talking. They seemed all the more mean for it. It’s just how they chose to play the game,” said Selvey.
However, two Tests earlier, on the third evening at Old Trafford, two English openers were in the middle – John Edrich, who was then 39, and Brian Close, 46. Holding, Roberts and Wayne Daniel were bowling short and quick, hitting both batsmen repeatedly on the body. For 80 minutes in fading light, Edrich and Close took on the fastest bowling attack in the world, exhibiting the kind of old-school attrition and doggedness that are synonymous with cricket in whites.
“The batting of those two was remarkable under the circumstances. They had been brought in to try and blunt the pace attack and were pretty much dispensable (as it proved),” said Selvey. “In the second innings at Old Trafford, they were exceptional and Brian particularly so. The bowling was hostile, of course, exceptionally so, and exacerbated at one end, the Stretford End, by a significant longitudinal crack running on a length down the line of middle stump. It was very nasty for left-handers, which of course both were.
“What many don’t realise is that Brian took a single in the first over from the Stretford End and then faced every single ball delivered by Michael Holding bowling from the Warwick Road End. He played the bouncers superbly if you watch carefully: there are those who would say he nearly got hit on the head several times, but the point is he didn’t because he watched the ball and moved his head out of the way.
“The times he did get struck on the body were from deliveries just short of a length that hit the crack and jagged back at him, so they were impossible to avoid. Seeing him afterwards, I would be surprised if he hadn’t got cracked ribs because of course there was no body armour. [It’s] worth mentioning too that, a, England did not lose a wicket in those 80 minutes; b, after all that, Brian Close was 1 not out at the close; c, I was very grateful to both as I was padded up as nightwatchman.”
Selvey felt the allure of watching the West Indies in action was hard to resist back in the day because “certainly in my time the West Indies were one of the best if not the best team of all, and packed with legends.”
Element of surprise
When Windies cricket lost its way later in the 1990s and 2000s, there were still enticing players – Lara, Chris Gayle, et cetera – but with the retirement of (Courtney) Walsh and (Curtly) Ambrose, the attack was diminished, according to Selvey, Middlesex County Cricket Club’s president. “It looks to me as if the game is starting to have a resurgence there beyond T20 (Twenty20 cricket), with a quality pace attack and some fine young batsmen,” he said.
The spread of television from the mid-1980s onwards and the satellite TV revolution a decade later brought cricket from all over the world into our living rooms, but the times of radio commentary posed a particular challenge to the teams then, one that Selvey said “no longer” applies. “There was always an element of mystique about a touring party because before the advent of satellite TV in particular, there wasn’t that familiarity. It was a chance to see players you hadn’t seen before.”
Lister feels it would be impossible to recreate what now seems like the simple drama of those earlier England-West Indies matches. “The West Indies has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, as have the priorities of international cricket,” he said.
“The motivations for why young men and women aspire to be professional cricketers in the Caribbean have also changed...not least because the relationship with cricket as seen by a new generation of Caribbean-heritage people in the UK has totally changed. The game is no longer at the centre of their lives in the same way, and the heroes of West Indian cricket no longer play for county sides.”
Always a context
According to Lister, matches involving the West Indies and England have never lacked in context. “It is as impossible to separate the West Indian people from their history as it is impossible to uncouple West Indian cricket from the region’s history,” he said.
“It would be naïve to say that the West Indies played cricket in a certain way, simply due to racism. What is true is that many of those people who supported the West Indies in England had experienced the crudity of institutional racism in their lives when it came to housing, education or their jobs. So what the cricket team did was to offer a temporary balm to that injustice. The cricketers offered an example of Black sporting excellence which couldn’t be ignored.”
The 1976 series was deeply significant for that West Indian side because they had been blown away by Australia and had played indifferently against India at home. “Had they lost in England, it could have cost Lloyd the captaincy. As it was, the 3-0 victory was the beginning of a decade of authority for a team of superb batsmen, bowlers and fielders. It gave them confidence, which replaced their previous brittleness and allowed them to play with a new freedom,” said Lister.
Over the years, payment disputes and the availability and selection of players for One-Day International (ODI) and Test cricket have led to a steep fall in the popularity of the game in the Caribbean. Moreover, the rapid evolution of T20 cricket has led to many of the West Indies’ star players prioritising overseas leagues over domestic cricket.
Meanwhile, over the last five years, England prioritised white-ball cricket, which culminated in Eoin Morgan’s men winning the ODI World Cup for the first time in July 2019. The team currently occupies the top spot in the ICC rankings for the 50-over format and is No. 2 in T20 internationals. But it is placed fourth in the Test rankings, and Ashley Giles, the managing director for English cricket, said two months after the ODI World Cup win that the country will “redress the balance” between red- and white-ball cricket over the next few years.
In their most recent series, the West Indies defeated the visiting England side 2-1 to win the Wisden Trophy in January-February 2019. But English Test cricket received a fillip in the form of Ben Stokes’ heroics in the Ashes later in the year, and the 29-year-old all-rounder – who was named Man of the Match in last year’s ODI World Cup final and the 2019 Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World – will lead his team in the first Test against the West Indies in the absence of regular skipper Joe Root.
Forty-four years from the events of that tumultuous 1976 series, the West Indies’ three-match Test series in England is an opportune moment to see in what ways this rivalry may have evolved.
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