The rise and fall of West Indies


For the West Indian spectators cricket is a passion and a way of life. And the 1975 & '79 Caribbean teams knew very well that they had to satisfy their supporters.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

``West Indian cricket has arrived at maturity because of two factors; the rise in the financial position of the coloured middle class and the high fees paid to the players by the English leagues.'' Thus wrote C.L.R. James in his classic work `Beyond a Boundary.'

CRICKET in England played a major role in the rise of cricket in the Caribbean. So, it was easy to understand the reasons for West Indies attaining the status of invincibles in world cricket for almost a decade. The team, led by Clive Lloyd, may not have matched the deeds of Don Bradman's all-conquering combination but there was never any doubt that this West Indies side was a sight for the gods, with a collection of some magnificent all-time great cricketers.

And it was indeed a magnificent all-time great team in both forms of cricket!

A symbol of supreme athleticism on the field, Lloyd and his men set high standards, quite unattainable by any team in modern cricket. The West Indies did not just win. It dominated, decimating any opposition. The playing surface hardly counted because the West Indians played an outstanding brand of cricket. It was built on a sound self-belief. The West Indians never lost sleep worrying about the pitches and the opposition.

What made the West Indies such a formidable force in international cricket? It was a combination of awesome talent and a fierce desire to express their emotions in a telling manner. For a native of the Caribbean, a win at cricket was seen as a statement of supremacy in all fields of life. Cricket created a strong bond among the small islands that formed the Caribbean and Lloyd and his men only carried the message far and wide.

"Cricket", writes C. L. R. James, "was a way of life in the West Indies". True. It was also a means of entertainment, and quite a popular one too. So, when Lloyd went out to toss he remembered those passionate cricket lovers who backed the team against some of the greatest challengers in world cricket. To Lloyd goes the credit of leading West Indies cricket to dizzy heights.

The West Indies cricketers were gifted with amazing natural talent. Lithe physique gave them great advantage on the field as they moved with stunning speed and agility; the batsmen had amazing sight to pick the ball early and dismiss it; the bowlers had this great quality of putting fear in the batsmen's mind even on dead tracks. What more could have Lloyd asked for? His team of 1975, which won the inaugural Prudential World Cup, was a crack force worthy of winning the honours at Lord's. The sight of Lloyd holding the trophy aloft was a confirmation of pre-tournament assessment of West Indies' overall strength.

With Lloyd at the helm, the West Indies had little worries. He set the example and thus motivated the rest. Lloyd's quality of keeping the team together and getting the best out of his men was a boon to cricket in the Caribbean. He had great resources at his disposal but he also had the vision to mould them into one great force.

It was also a boon that Viv Richards arrived at the right time to watch and learn from Lloyd. Richards was young and energetic and unnerved all with his disdainful treatment of the bowlers. His swagger and a gum-chewing, nonchalant countenance conveyed the man's arrogance. With his awesome talent, he could very well create an aura of dominance around him.

The West Indies, as a team, gave a new dimension to cricket, especially one-day cricket as it won the title in 1975 and 1979 and lost it in 1983 because of a misguided air of superiority. It was the most lethal force in one-day cricket no doubt, but paid the penalty for complacency. To this day, the West Indies team of 1983 has not been able to overcome the pain of losing the final to India.

Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner... West Indies' lethal firepower in 1979.-ALLSPORT

It was a complete team. Sensational slip catching gave the bowlers an extra edge. Can't really recall the West Indians misfielding or grassing catches. The bowlers were backed by some great fielding — especially the slip catching — which is the most essential tool for any team to do well at any grade. That the West Indies achieved it consistently at the highest level spoke for the quality of cricket that Lloyd's men produced.

To cap their efforts, the West Indies always had a marvellous bunch of fast bowlers. Bernard Julien, Keith Boyce, Andy Roberts and Vanburn Holder in 1975; Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner in 1979; Roberts, Garner, Holding and Malcolm Marshall in 1983. The best, and the most crafty, of fast bowlers carried the West Indies on its shoulders. The opposing batsmen had no respite really. The pace battery gave the West Indians a distinct advantage in both forms of cricket. It was a complete team with virtually no loopholes.

But the most crucial factor for the West Indies dominating the first three World Cup tournaments was the fact that England happened to be the host. And England, for cricketers from the West Indies, was a second home. Almost the entire West Indies team was contracted to play in English cricket for different counties.

Complete understanding of the playing conditions and experience of playing on the English county circuit saw the West Indies dominate all attacks — Pakistan, Australia and England, all with a lot of guile and variety at their command. The England bowlers were lethal at home but they came a cropper against the West Indians in the 1979 final. Australia had an attack that boasted of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Max Walker and Gary Gilmour but Lloyd treated them with contempt and produced an all-time great innings in the 1975 final. Most of Viv Richards' sensational batting exploits too have come in England. This affinity to English conditions played a big part in helping the West Indies dominate. When the World Cup moved to the Indian sub-continent in 1987, the West Indies, still a strong team, did not even make it to the semifinals.

The West Indies' slide continued at the 1992 Cup when it finished sixth, once again not figuring in the semifinals. A brief revival in 1996 saw the West Indies lose in the semifinal from a winning position. A result that saw skipper Richie Richardson break down in anguish, his tears portraying the true image of a team which had lost its identity after having ruled for years.

The Cup returned to England in 1999 but West Indies had lost the firepower to excel even at `home'. It failed to make it to the semifinals. That then was an emphatic statement on the decline of West Indies as a cricket power. A Cup final at Lord's was very different this time — the absence of black supporters so conspicuous. The world of cricket had witnessed some substantial changes and the decline of West Indies stood out as a sore point. There was more colour and more money in the game but the soul — the inimitable brand of Calypso cricket — was sadly missing! A tragedy for those who love entertaining cricket!