The likeable West Indians

WITHOUT a doubt, the West Indies are the most popular of all teams visiting India. The brand of cricket they play, their joie de vivre, their sense of humour are all attributes which makes them crowd pleasers everywhere they go. Though they have over the years produced some of the greatest cricketers in the world, not one of them could ever be called a prima donna. For, basically, the West Indies cricketers have been the most down to earth players one will ever encounter. They play the game hard, but there is no known instance of the West Indians indulging in sledging. This is one more reason and a very good one too for their popularity even among their opponents. That they are touring India after eight years while other teams have been to India twice in that period does indicate that someone in both the Boards has goofed up. India has been to the West Indies twice - in 1997 and 2002 - without the West Indies returning the trip, which again shows that the scheduling has not been done properly. Hopefully, it won't be another eight years before the West Indies tour India again.

Perhaps for the first time since 1948 when the West Indies first toured India, the team comes without a frightening pace attack. That was the West Indies' strength - to be able to blow opponents away even on the most unresponsive of pitches. Their present attack is more workmanlike and though all their pace bowlers have the physical attributes to bowl really quick, they prefer or have been asked to bowl a line and length and wait for the batsmen to make mistakes. This can only be due to the English influence, for a lot of the West Indians play cricket in England and are greatly affected by the tactics employed there. So the excitement that a fast bowler generates is simply not there in this team and though Dillon & Co. try to glare at the batsmen, it is more amusing than frightening. The followthrough and the look that batsmen got from Roy Gilchrist, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose was chilling because the batsmen knew they were now marked men. Even the raised eyebrows of their genial quickie Courtney Walsh conveyed a menace that Dillon & Co. simply cannot match. The West Indians have been brought up to play the game hard, but sledging is something reprehensible as Ian Bishop so aptly put it. So, though there will be stares and glares, there will be no verbals from them.

Pedro Collins who gave Sachin Tendulkar such a hard time in the West Indies with his swing and cut may find the experience a little different in India. The little champion is loath to forget the difficult times and goes after a bowler almost intentionally to show who is the boss. Remember the assault on Henry Olonga? The Zimbabwean surprised Tendulkar with one that came on a bit quickly in one game and then had the full repertoire of the little master's shots unleashed against him in the next game where just about every other delivery either went for a boundary or some runs.

Ditto with another Zimbabwean, Travis Friend, who got Tendulkar with a bouncer and then did not know where to bowl the next time around as even the bouncer was clobbered for runs. Collins may well face the same treatment as the little champion will want to show him that what happened in the West Indies was one of those patches that can strike even the best of players at some stage of their careers.

Brian Lara's illness may actually prove a blessing for Tendulkar for he will be spared the stupid comparison battle that the media builds up every time the West Indies play India. The series earlier in the year saw both playing well below their best. Though Tendulkar did get a century, the series was dominated by other players from both teams.

Both teams have other quality batsmen and so do not depend totally on Lara and Tendulkar as in the past. The pressure would thus be a lot less on Tendulkar now that he knows that the Indian batting line-up is a good one.

Unfortunately, the illness will mean that Lara may well finish his career without enjoying the applause that is so special when a batsman reaches a century in India. He is 33 years old and by the time the West Indies come to India again five or six years later, he may not be playing Test cricket. That will be a real pity for he has lots of fans in India as he has all over the world and to get that appreciation on reaching a milestone is a feeling to savour. Today, at most venues in India, there are packed grounds only for the one-day games and very seldom for Test matches excepting perhaps at the Eden Gardens, Kolkata. Yet, it is an ovation that makes every ounce of sweat and tears worth the effort.

The Australians have started a new trend of a bowler, after taking five wickets in the innings, showing the ball to the crowd in much the same manner as a batsman raising his bat in response to the applause for getting a century. This is a welcome trend, for a five-wicket haul is only appreciated at the termination of the innings when the fielders are returning to the pavilion. So, for the bowler to show the ball immediately after picking his fifth wicket, even if the batting side is not all out, does bring to the notice of the crowd a special achievement. Cricket being a batsman's game, bowling feats are generally overlooked and so this new trend is very welcome indeed. So far we have seen only the Australian bowlers do it, but it won't be long before bowlers from other teams also start doing it.

The beauty of Australian cricket is that even while fiercely protecting some of the traditions of the game, they are not afraid to start new ones and it is this willingness to take the game further that makes them leaders in world cricket and its undisputed champions.