Recently, many of us who had watched Test matches during the late 1980s and the ’90s shed a silent tear to see the depths to which West Indian cricket had sunk, especially in Test cricket. Although West Indies, despite the absence of many of their ‘mercenary’ stars, redeemed themselves in the One-Day International series, the fall in Test cricket was tough to digest. Another innings would not have prevented an innings defeat at Rajkot. They started well at Hyderabad but fell off inexplicably.
I decided to revisit the scene of the West Indian halcyon years between the 1970s and the turn of the century. This is with a view to bring to light the type of dominance that the West Indies exerted during the middle period in these years.
Maybe a nostalgic look into the powerhouse that the West Indies were and a wistful reminder of how those gentle giants strode around the world as invincible gladiators. In addition, for those younger viewers to Test cricket, it is a peek into the heights that were reached by the Caribbean giants.
I have earlier looked at the powerhouse that West Indian bowling was in those years. This time, just to get clarity, I decided to include the batsmen, too the heady combination of match-winners, which led West Indies to those 15 years of unparalleled greatness.
Andy Roberts played his first Test for the West Indies at Bridgetown on March 6, 1974 against England (Test No. 734). Courtney Walsh played his last Test at Kingston on April 19, 2001 against South Africa (Test No. 1,544). The West Indies played 226 Tests during these 27 years and this is the period I intend looking into.
The career summaries of the eight pace bowlers who played during these years are given in the table to the left Let me draw a timeline of the eight pace bowlers and seven top batsmen who played during these three decades. However, I will make it clear that this article is primarily about the West Indian bowling strengths and the batsman, Brian Lara included, only play a secondary role.
This long period of 27 years is split into three parts. (See graph below.)
The West Indies were reasonable in the first period, but World Series Cricket had its toll in about 10 Test matches during this phase.
It is the middle period, during which the West Indies had an unbeaten 29-series streak, that we are interested in. The timeline clearly shows that during these 15 years, the West Indies had a surfeit of riches, both on the bowling and batting fronts. Throw the redoubtable Jeffrey Dujon into the mix and you can get an idea of the types of teams that took the field. I will be looking at the middle period from different points of view.
The decline started during the third period. The losses were far more than the wins. After Test No. 1,544 came the fall, and what a fall it was. It was left to the unfortunate Lara to preside, more unsuccessfully than successfully, over this crumbling edifice.
Many years have passed and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, barring a lone completely unexpected success in the Champions Trophy in 2004. No team can perform consistently at the top as a Test-playing team without match-winning bowlers.
The following facts are clear through a perusal of the timeline graph above. This is only for the purpose of gathering overall intelligence. The detailed by-Test and by-series graphs come later.
- The West Indian pace bowling saga of 27 years comprises two clear periods of differing bowler groups linked by a colossus: the first one between 1974 and 1987 during which Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft held sway, and then the second period between 1988 and 2001 during which Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop held fort.
- Malcolm Marshall was the connecting player across the two eras. Let me bring out the following facts.
— Marshall is the only one to have straddled both periods almost completely.
— He played with all the other seven bowlers at their peak.
— His haul of 376 wickets at 20.95 makes Marshall, arguably, the greatest among this collection of champions.
— During the post-WSC phase, even Marshall was not guaranteed of a place, so intense was the competition.
- Croft’s career was a subset of Garner’s career. Marshall’s arrival hastened Croft’s departure.
- Roberts handed over the baton, or, more appropriately, the red cherry, to Walsh.
- Holding and Garner retired almost simultaneously and Ambrose took over from them.
- Bishop had to retire quite early. Severe back injuries meant he had long breaks in his career twice. Just extend his career by another five years, at least until 2001, when Walsh retired. Think of the impact this would have had on West Indian cricket.
Now for the batsmen. First, their career summaries.
Clive Lloyd was a near-decade-old veteran when Roberts made his debut. Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge made their debuts in India in the very next Test after Roberts clocked in. Desmond Haynes followed a few years later. Thus, it can be seen that during the peak years between 1980 and 1995, all these four batsmen were active.
Richie Richardson came in while Lloyd was still playing. Carl Hooper and Lara came in after Lloyd’s retirement. Richards and Greenidge had just over a year with Lara and retired during 1991. The retirement of Haynes and Richardson signalled the end of the West Indian hegemony and Lara struggled on gamely for a decade longer, but with little support.
Towards the end, Shivnarine Chanderpaul walked in and contributed his skills, although these were primarily defensive in nature.
I will look at the middle period from two points of view: one from the series results angle and the other from the point of view of the bowlers who took the field.
The chart above is the summary of the 29 series played by the West Indies between 1980 and 1995. They won 20 and drew nine of these. Embedded in these are two 5-0 whitewashes against England. Only once did they not win a Test in a series. That was in the drawn series against Sri Lanka. There was a win on the horizon whenever one was needed, to seal a series win or achieve equality.
Let us not forget that this was the 1980s and ’90s when draws were considered acceptable results. Unlike today, when draws have become virtually extinct. Most teams have lost the art of saving Tests, with the recent glorious exception of the Usman Khawaja-led Australian effort at Dubai. West Indies also mastered the art of drawing Tests, especially away.
In seven of these series, the West Indies came from behind to either win or draw the series. This golden period is summarized in the table below.
Now we move on to a different view: by Test matches during the above-referenced period. This will enable us to have a look at how the bowlers operated during these successful years.
The graph is self-explanatory. The three streaks of 11, seven and seven consecutive wins during the middle period are clearly visible.
The usual perception is that West Indies fielded a four-pacer attack quite often. However, during this decade and a half, the West Indies fielded a quartet of fast bowlers only 25 times. Moreover, less than half of these Test matches ended in wins.
Hence, the reality indicates that the best combination was three top pace bowlers and one bowler of different type, a spinner or even a medium pace swing bowler, to maintain balance. Maybe three pace bowlers plus one of Lance Gibbs/Vanburn Holder/Viv Richards/Larry Gomes/Roger Harper/Patrick Patterson was the more effective combination. Among this lot, Gibbs was a world-class spinner in his own right. Patterson and Holder were good support bowlers. Finally, a tribute to these eight great bowlers.
I cannot remember a single instance of their engaging in any verbal duel with any batsman. Holding’s stump-kicking was aimed at himself and the umpire, not the batsman. One penetrating glare was all what was on view. They let the ball do all the talking and what conversations the 121,282 deliveries engaged in! They captured their haul of 2,296 wickets at a rate of 52.8 balls per wicket and at an average of 22.8 runs per wicket. They conceded only 2.59 runs per over.
Any of these eight could have found a place in 90 per cent of Test teams across the years. They graced the Test scene for nearly three decades. We can only stand back and admire them at this point in time. The most endearing terms for these eight bowlers was the “gentle giants.” It was a privilege to be contemporaries to them.