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By Suresh Menon
For those above a certain age, the West Indies have represented the finest in cricket; their players so naturally gifted and so charmingly laidback that they seemed to play the game without a thought to winning, but merely expressing themselves. Not even the harsh realities of bones broken and international careers brought to an end by their fearsome fast bowlers has quite erased that excessively romantic picture. There was a time in the 1960s when the tiny island of Barbados (about a third the size of Gurgaon) could have beaten most Test-playing countries.
An all-time Barbados XI might read (in batting order): Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Frank Worrell (capt), Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Garry Sobers, John Goddard, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Wes Hall, Sylvester Clarke. That would leave no room for Conrad Hunte, Seymour Nurse, Charlie Griffith, Wayne Daniel, Fidel Edwards and many others.
The current West Indies team would give anything to have players of that calibre. From 1976 to 1991 they won 59 and lost only 16 of 122 Tests played. From such heights have they fallen. The true lover of cricket will be saddened by their decline. Today Bangladesh is the only team below them in world rankings in both forms of the game. “When there is rubbish at the top you will get rubbish at the bottom,” said Michael Holding recently, summing it up.
There has been talk of the ‘West Indies’, the only Test team which is not a single nation, breaking up into Jamaica and Trinidad and Barbados or worse, collapsing as a cricket unit altogether.
Although "the West Indies" is a single cricketing unit, the Trinidadians, the Bajans, the Jamaicans and so on are distinctive, as Alec Waugh commented in his book on the West Indies, A Family of Islands. "I have come to recognize their separate identities," he wrote of the islands. "When I began to write their history, I felt I was engaged upon a family saga that covered a succession of generations; I was tracing the fortunes of the various branches of that family, with first one branch in the ascendant, then another."
Just how much of all this is common knowledge among Suresh Raina’s men now touring those islands is difficult to tell. Few modern cricketers prepare for a tour by reading about the country they are about to visit. Nor will too many be conscious of the historical cricketing ties with India. The West Indies were the first team to tour independent India and but for an umpire’s stupid mistake India might have squared that 1948-49 series.
The first three Tests were drawn, the West Indies won the fourth by an innings. At one stage in the decider, India, chasing 361 to win, looked so threatening that the rival skipper John Goddard resorted to leg theory bowling. Vijay Hazare made 122, and India came within six runs of a win with seven balls remaining when the umpire, caught up in the excitement, called ‘over’, and also the end of play. India had to wait till 1971 to record their first win.
A whole generation in India has grown up in the years when the West Indies no longer ruled world cricket. Raina, born three years after India’s first World Cup victory played a crucial role in their second a couple of months ago. Neither he nor his teammates will carry the kind of baggage into a West Indies tour that some of the earlier tourists did.
The West Indies cliché was established early. In 1950, they beat England at Lord’s and as the last English wicket fell, “there was a rush of West Indies supporters, one armed with an instrument of the guitar family,” wrote Times. The guitar man was Lord Kitchener, the calypsonian from Trinidad whose words and music, according to Brian Stoddart “led the celebrations in honour of a new cricketing power. (Soon), the name ‘West Indies’ began to evoke images of rum, calypso and exciting play.”
The rum remains, as does the calypso. But exciting play has been missing for a while. My generation weeps.