'Champion' dazzlers ready for final jig
After West Indies beat India in the World Twenty20 semi-final, after the press conferences were done, the players received an informal query about whether there was something special planned at the hotel that night. The players' reaction was, "What do you mean? We have already done a lot of special things."
Yet, when they reached their hotel, they had something even more special for the world. The video is now the image of the tournament: dressed in their travelling team polos, Darren Sammy and Dwayne Bravo step out of the team bus first, Sammy with a speaker in his hand, playing Bravo's "Champion" song, delighting the world with a dance that had more than four million views within hours.
Earlier in the night, West Indies had created a happy ruckus in the dressing room, using the hot cases on the dinner table and cutlery as their percussion instruments. Even earlier in the night, during the match, Bravo had turned around to the Mumbai crowd after taking a tense catch and shut them off with his Champion dance. Even earlier in the tournament, when West Indies were walking out for the national anthems, usually a tense moment when players are focusing on the match, Sammy carried his mascot kid in his arms.
During their only training session in Kolkata before the World T20 final, Sammy noticed some of the women doing the "Champion" dance for the camera were not doing it quite right. He called Bravo out of the nets, and told him, "Hey Bravo, you need to teach them the dance yet."
This is team that puts on a T20 show. They hit the biggest sixes, they have the flashiest celebrations, and they enjoy their time on the field. While this is what the format is sold as, for the players, the cricket is intense. MS Dhoni, for a long time the coolest man in cricket, has begun to snap a little. It is a format where results are more reliant on luck than any other factor, yet it is the most defined by results. It does not even have room for a tie. It can be reduced to a bizarre five-over shootout just for a result.
After New Zealand's stellar run in the tournament was ended by England in the semi-final, a sage-like Kane Williamson summed the format up: "You want to be smart in how you want to execute your skills. Do it as best as you can. Let things unfold to a certain extent. Sometimes in this format the harder you try the worse it can get."
If anything, in that light, the public persona of West Indies suits T20 cricket even more. Hit hard. Dance hard if you win. Smile if you lose. There is always the next league. Except that it is not the case. West Indies are not just one of the smartest T20 teams around, they also care a lot about this World T20.
They have reason to care too. Between the World Cup last year and this World T20, captain Darren Sammy represented West Indies only twice. He does not hold a contract with the WICB. He did not get an IPL bid because he believes current international form matters in the IPL. Carlos Brathwaite, who had scored two Test half-centuries in Australia, drew big money in the auction. Just before the last auction, Sammy had scored 89 against Ireland in the World Cup. He believes the world was watching. The world is watching now, and a lot of the stars in this team are involved in an impasse with the WICB. They do not have job security. If they are to make a living out of travelling around playing T20 cricket in the various leagues, they need to keep doing well.
Making a living playing T20 cricket in the various leagues has made them one of the canniest T20 teams. They always play under pressure, the pressure of being one of the two or three or four expensively acquired foreign cricketers. They study all the players all over the world. They hardly play with each other - eight matches as a team between the two World T20s - but come together as a bigger ensemble of match-winners than in any other team. Their belief, knowledge and intel is unparalleled.
How they have managed to come together in this us-against-the-world crisis is a wonder. They have channelled negativity - some real, some perceived - into a motivational force. In Sammy - establishment man once, and hence not trusted then - they have an inspirational leader. He treats his match-winners as match-winners. He connects with all players on an individual level.
The coach Phil Simmons has brought in the much-lacking man management. There now appears a conscious effort among the seniors to mentor the youngsters, to teach them what they have learnt in their vast T20 experience. With the actual cricket, especially in T20s, Simmons lets his team do its thing, trusting that they know what is best for their game.
Sample what Simmons had to say about Gayle's batting after he scored the century in their first match of the tournament: "Sitting and talking to him and trying to see how he works this out, it's as simple as he makes it look out there. He actually analyses it as simple as he does it. I mean he practices hard, he hits a lot of balls in the nets, but he works it out just as he did. [Adil] Rashid is my bowler for the day, I've got to take him down so it's as simple as that."
On the night, Rashid had bowled his first over for four runs and Marlon Samuels' wicket. In a big chase the spinner could have been key. Gayle went after him in his next over, hitting him for back-to-back sixes; Rashid did not bowl another over. Gayle knows his game and his body inside out. He knows he has a finite number of miles in his legs. Every moment of his is deliberate and measured. His power and aura in T20 cricket is worth far more than an agile fielder and runner. West Indies know it, their opponents know it.
Watch their nets, and you will see other players at the top of their awareness of their game. Even before they go out and play their warm-up football game, Andre Russell comes out padded and has a 10-minute session of just hitting the pants off every ball thrown at him. He knows in the batting line-up that he is a part of he will not be needed to do anything else. Even though the comforting Rabindra Sangeet is playing in the background, this is a scary sight. "I noticed Andre Russell the other day," Clive Lloyd, the chairman of selectors, says. "We have net bowlers, and I fear for their lives when he's batting. Because he's strong, very strong."
In the net next to Russell, Denesh Ramdin looks to nurdle yorkers for imaginary singles, and hits the big shot only if the ball is a half-volley. The two then join the team in the football. Once it is over, Russell bowls full-out in the nets, and Ramdin practises keeping with a chair placed in front of the stump, to simulate a batsman blocking him.
Every player in this team knows his game. They know the opposition too. Virat Kohli made 89 against them the other night, which is a big score, but West Indies did great damage control. Kohli might have run them ragged with his bunts into the leg side, but one of his most beneficial boundary shots - through extra cover, where he peppered Australia - was blocked by the fierce Johnson Charles, who did not let Kohli take a second on his watch. All their fielders are not as quick as Charles, but they know where to hide the slower ones. West Indies were not going to let India get away by trying to take wickets, until India threatened to put on 210. They were hardly stretched in the chase either.
They were perhaps the first team to recognise the declining value of the single, which again comes from the awareness of their own game. Sammy knows they are not good at rotating strike, but he also knows they are the best at hitting boundaries. In T20 cricket, boundaries trump strike rotation. Let them stop us from hitting boundaries first, he says. It is not all bravado. Their use of spinners in the first half of the innings, and defensive quicks in the second, is a testament to their T20 smarts. And they are missing one of the sharpest brains in T20, Kieron Pollard. During a match last year, Pollard noticed Mahela Jayawardene did not quite kill the ball when he defended off the front foot. When there was a brief window at the start of the innings to get him there, he moved himself to silly point and caught Jayawardene for a duck.
Lloyd debuted for West Indies in 1966. He has seen the game evolve over 50 years. He is of the view that West Indies, as a team, have been at the forefront every time there has been a revolution in the most popular format at that time. Four fast bowlers, athletic fielding in one-day cricket, Viv Richards, and now T20 cricket. Even though they hardly play together, West Indies have been the most consistent T20 international side. Lloyd's view can be argued against, but it has more than an element of truth to it.
"It has given our cricket a lift, playing the IPL and the Big Bash and so on," Lloyd says. "You are playing against different people and in different conditions. County cricket was our sort of learning school. We picked up a lot, and became more professional. The same thing is happening here. We have some of the best one-day cricketers around. You are playing in India, South Africa, Australia, Bangladesh and some of them playing in England at the moment. It's given us that rounded thing to be professional and playing a lot more cricket outside of the West Indies."
Looking at West Indies go about their business, there is a solid confidence that if they do not slip up they will win this thing. "The only team that can beat us is us," Bravo is supposed to have said in a team meeting. If they do win this thing, there will be a mad party. If that happens, don't forget that the men doing the "Champion" dance are a team of shrewd professionals who do not have the security of contracts with their regional team.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo