It points towards improvements

Let’s not get carried away by West Indies’ thumping victory against England at Sabina Park. Chris Gayle & Co. must take the series and climb the rankings. Only then can the song change from “Rally Round the West Indies” to “Rejoice, they’re back!”, writes Peter Roebuck.

West Indian cricket has turned more corners than a driver on his last lap of the Monaco Grand Prix. Every time the regional team wins a match followers of the game put aside misgivings and memories and pray that it is going to last. It is an optimism caused by respect for a great tradition. Of course the image of the happy go lucky Caribbean cricketer is as much a caricature as the idea of the English toff or the leathery Australian. Indeed it is as patronising as a minstr el show and the casting of the faithful black servants in old movies. It has never been as simple as that. Caribbean cricket did not exist in a comic book. For a long time West Indies was compulsorily captained by a white man whilst inter-island rivalries and anti-Indian sentiment were not unknown. For a long time people said the players could not keep their heads in a crisis. It was the usual baloney. West Indian cricket has not been all calypso and coconut.

And yet the high regard for West Indian cricket is justified. After all the Caribbean has produced many of the most impressive figures of the game, including Learie Constantine, Frank Worrell, Conrad Hunte, George Headley and C. L. R. James. Honourable mentions can be given to Clyde Walcott and Wes Hall and more recently Ian Bishop, Jimmy Adams, Malcolm Marshall, Clive Lloyd and Michael Holding. For that matter Tony Cosier counts amongst the best and most versatile of cricket commentators. On the field, the West Indies can boast Garry Sobers, the best of them all, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Everton Weekes, Sonny Ramadhin and so many others. Was there a dullard amongst them? Not bad for a group of small islands whose roots lie in slavery and indentured labour.

And they could play and entertain. Other teams might be mean, cynical, slow; West Indies seemed to rejoice in the game. No wonder the cricketing world yearned for a revival. No wonder it has over-reacted to every promising sign. No wonder it yearned for an end to the long decline, a sickness that lasted so long that it seemed terminal (might still turn out that way). All sorts of reasons were advanced to explain the decay. Basketball was blamed, as if a rival game was somehow obliged to step aside. Next it was soccer’s fault. Schools had stopped coaching cricket. Slackness had taken hold.

Most of it contained a grain of truth. After all the islands had abruptly changed from producing sugarcane to building holiday resorts. Youth had turned away from Africa and towards Afro-America. Religion had faded. Marshall had attended Sunday school precisely because he could play cricket afterwards. But other countries also endured change and survived. By no means can West Indian players or administrators escape so lightly. Caribbean cricket was let down by its stake holders; it has been blighted by bad organisation, a lack of investment and by the vanity of players past and present.

Not that the cause was ever hopeless. Under various captains the team remained hard to beat at home. Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Lara could conjure up camouflaging wins. But the team travelled badly, played lazily on the road, had endless meetings, complained continually, lived on reputation and was shamed by the same. Now and then a victory was secured and occasionally a trophy was collected but it never lasted. Captains and coaches were sacked. Lara himself was a mixed blessing. And so hope came and went with the tide.

Can it be different this time? Whenever the regional side completes a lap of honour, the question hangs in the air. Of course it is too early to risk an answer. It has only been one win secured against a distracted opponent. And yet, and yet, but let us desist and allow only cold logical into the argument. Suffice it to point towards improvements. Chris Gayle was a bold choice as captain. At the time it was clear that West Indies must either appoint him or ditch him.

His influence was considerable but was it constructive? The gamble worked and the enigmatic opener emerged as an independent-minded leader prepared to stand up for his players, but also give them direction. Previous captains had fallen between these stools. Crucially, too, he is Jamaican, and commands respect in the most promising and problematic of the islands.

West Indies has also found a spinner. Indeed Sulieman Benn took vital wickets in the victory at Sabina Park. West Indies had forgotten how to handle spinners, setting proper fields, using them as offensive weapons. Gayle himself is a handy second spinner so his team fields a balanced attack. Ever since the great speedsters of the 1970s West Indies had relied on pace, if not actually then psychologically. But the game had moved along.

Another promising sign from Kingston was the sight of a West Indian tail wagging. For years the batting had ended at No. 6. Five out was all out. The bowlers said the batsmen must score the runs, all of them. Walsh was partly to blame. Meanwhile willow wielders as incompetent as Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie learnt to hang around so that 220/5 became 358 and not 265 all out. Now Benn, Daren Powell and others are putting a higher price on their wickets. Players are taking responsibility.

And it goes further. Some of the credit belongs to John Dyson, a capable and adaptable coach and, more contentiously, to Allan Stanford, who has not always invested wisely but whose money nevertheless has ended up in the pockets of current players. Several of the West Indians have become overnight millionaires, a turn of events that can weaken resolve or else create security. Although not without its complications, the IPL has also created opportunities for young West Indians to become rich. First they need to catch the eye of increasingly shrewd owners, and that means performing in the best company. Suddenly cricket is not merely a game but a source of wealth. Finance has a part to play in driving the game along in the Caribbean. For too long it has been a poor cousin.

Add a great batsman in Chanderpaul and a picture forms of an awakening community. Long may it last. West Indies has provided the game with many of its greatest glories and characters. It has always been worth the effort. But let’s not get carried away. West Indies must take the series and climb the rankings. Only then can the song change from “Rally Round the West Indies” to “Rejoice, they’re back!”