Waiting for the Caribbean flair

Is the WEST INDIES the weakest host of a World Cup? As much as the heart would like to believe otherwise, the answer sounds something like a yes, writes NANDITA SRIDHAR.

Some day, it'll just not be worth it. The huge amount of ink spilt to make sense of it all will have been archived into obscurity, the heart would have numbed, the pages devoted to the West Indies' decline will be buried in newsprint devoted to modern cricket's instant dramas. Brian Lara's bat, probably resting in some corner, will no longer produce sublime geometry, and tongues and pens might even wag on the West Indies' Test status. If the team continues with its non-conquering ways, it will occupy nothing more than filler space in cricketing and public minds.

It's a thought worth the forehead worry-lines. In just over a year from now, the cricketing world will turn vultures, converging on the coveted silverware in one-day cricket, the World Cup. From various sources, both real and make-believe, echoes of favourites, pretenders and the dark horses, of speed, batting and bowling records, of rivals and marquee clashes will begin to acquire deafening proportions. Looking for a shade of maroon will be like searching in a haystack for a needle that isn't there.

Going by the current disarray, is this the weakest host of a World Cup? As much as the heart would like to believe otherwise, lest the mind retorts, "I told you so," the answer sounds something like a yes. After the Champions Trophy final win in 2004, which was a bit of cricket and a lot of blind man's buff, new hope was predicted.

Hope obviously has different Caribbean connotations, which translates into losing 19 ODIs and winning just three, with one failing to finish. And home was where the horror was, with the team losing all eight of its one-day matches. In ground-sniffing distance in the rankings (eighth spot), the only thing that could be worse for the West Indies would be losing to a team that has just come out of Test status schizophrenia, Zimbabwe.

World Cup hosts have not always lived up to the hype, but never has the scene looked so dismal. Except for Sri Lanka, which was a co-host in 1996, and went on to win, the hosts have floundered at the World Cup. South Africa in 2003 claimed to have been undone by two men who choked at the death. England in 1999 was possibly only next to what the Windies look like doing — playing gracious (?) hosts and nothing more (With the postcard beaches, laidback lifestyle, languid pace and all the other Caribbean stereotypes, the gracious tag will no doubt fit these hosts).

Besides England in 1999 and South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2003, Australia, in 1992, is the only host team to have fallen flat even before the knockout stage.

With the World Cup dogged by a host-jinx, the West Indies should have taken the tour of New Zealand as a stepping-stone. Though not exactly a balm for battered bats, a New Zealand tour is definitely less intimidating than some Aussie chin and verbal music, or a spine-twisting dance on Indian pitches. But what the Kiwis lacked in natural talent, they made up with dogged determination and doctored pitches.

"With a 4-1 series win achieved by the Black Caps, this West Indian cricket team currently seems like the geographical location of the Islands they represent — spread out, isolated and individual," wrote Chris Cairns in the New Zealand Herald. Hard to disagree, what with contract disputes, captain and coach not seeing eye-to-eye, and controversial decisions on review committees announced prior to the series not helping an already beleaguered team.

Consolation wins are nothing more than two words that make headline writing less arduous. Losing four ODIs and scraping through the last one doesn't amount to having the last laugh, maybe just a grim grin. With superlatives becoming a vestigial part of West Indian cricket sans Lara, every win is treasured with customary hopes of a turnaround. In the modern world, one-off wins don't mean too much, what with even Bangladesh pulling off such victories with surprising regularity.

Not foreseeing Nathan Astle's decision to make his coach look a tad silly (for dropping him during the Lanka series), the West Indies was done in by the 34-year-old, who conjured up scores of 90, 2, 118 n.o., 81 and 4. Besides his characteristic shots making the area square of the wicket smell of burning leather, he irritated the bowlers with regular ones and twos. Shane Bond doesn't and didn't require doctored pitches; just a mass of leather in his hand quickly (make that very quickly) did the trick. With these two on fire, the others just had to chip in, which they did.

For the West Indies, the only semblance of something remotely resembling positives from this series was the duo, Ian Bradshaw and Runako Morton. A workhorse with the accuracy of a dart-thrower (minus the chucking, of course), and a bat that can talk a bit, Bradshaw is an old kid on the block.

The selectors rightly decided to award the 31-year-old his Test debut. Morton, besides possessing an adamant bat, has an indigestible stomach for a fight that made sure that the embarrassing losses did not further turn a shade of crimson.

Playing Zimbabwe at home next will be the perfect block of ice, after receiving some heavy whipping and battering. India follows next, with past records of snatching defeat from the jaws of victories and draws (though the one-day picture looks rosier). Touring Pakistan and receiving Australia, besides trying to live up to an endangered West Indian tag of defending champions (Champions Trophy), are all opportunities to put together a unit that at least looks like winning. Unfortunately, it's not just about the team. Despite dominating world cricket for decades, the hosts are presently virgins in hosting the event. It reflects the logistical difficulties in organising such a massive event in different countries (at least Indian states are not islands), and the lack of funds, facilities and infrastructure that has plagued West Indian cricket. Sheer talent stood out and was sufficient in the earlier days, but with the expanding cricketing infrastructure in other parts of the world, they have to keep pace.

"They don't know if they should see themselves as professionals, especially when every series comes with a stream of incompetence surrounding payments and contracts. They go out on tours and meet facilities and equipment they don't have at home. How do they feel about themselves? They don't know," said Trinidad-based journalist Vaneisa Baksh.

With flair and flamboyance having turned Sub-Continental colours, those hoping for a Caribbean miracle and the glory days will have to watch out for flashes of a calm and collected Chris Gayle turning on the heat, for a Chanderpaul shuffle before a smack that has irritated many a bowler's eye, for a Ramnaresh Sarwan shot that fulfils more than just half of what he is capable of, and for a voluminous Lara backlift to lift the entire team and the region. Watch out for these occasional flashes of brilliance. We might have to make do with these.

* * * QUOTEHANGER

"There is not much I can do really. There are a lot of things coming from inside." -- Shivnarine Chanderpaul on the inside story.

"He's still young in the job and what I'd like to see him do is get back to his own style of batting. Chanderpaul is one of the better batsmen that I have ever come across playing for the West Indies. We need him as a captain, but we need him even more as a batsman"

-- Lara on captain Chanderpaul.

"Brian Lara scoring runs is not a winning formula."

-- Lara's humble assessment of himself.

"We expected them to come out at us all guns blazing and either be all out for 189 or get close to the target. To meander through to 233 was a bit puzzling." _ Stephen Fleming, after his team won, setting the Windies a target of 325 in the fourth ODI.

* * * HOSTS AT THE WORLD CUP

1975 in England: The host lost in the semifinals to Australia.

1979 in England: The host lost in the final to the West Indies.

1983 in England: The host lost in the semifinals to India.

1987 in India & Pakistan: India lost to England and Pakistan lost to Australia in the semifinals.

1992 in Australia & New Zealand: Australia failed to get beyond the league stage; New Zealand lost to Pakistan in the semifinals.

1996 in India, Pakistan & Sri Lanka: India lost in the semifinals to Sri Lanka; Pakistan lost in the quarterfinals to India; Sri Lanka won the championship.

1999 in England: The host did not cross the league stage.

2003 in South Africa, Zimbabwe & Kenya: South Africa failed to get past the group stage; Zimbabwe went out in the Super Six stage; Kenya lost in the semifinals to India.