The lost boys of cricket
No depth. Not so much in the batting order or the available talent so much as in character.
West Indies' capitulation against Sri Lanka on October 14 may have been disappointing, even deflating, but only those who just became followers of the roller-coaster ride that is contemporary West Indies cricket would have been shocked by the manner of the surrender in the last preliminary match of the Champions' Trophy.
The match report of the debacle in the Sunday Express, T&T's Sunday edition, was less of an eye-opener as the sidebar on "Windies ups and downs" which highlighted exactly why the batting demise is par for the course, simply because the Caribbean side spend as much time these days bogged down in sand traps, unplayable rough and water hazards as sitting pretty on the fairways in sight of a birdie or an eagle.
Even then, with just a short tap-in needed to seal the deal, there is always the persistent fear that they will blow it, as in the opening match of the DLF Cup in Malaysia against Australia. Now the next opponents will again be Australia in the opening Group A match for both sides on October 18. But this will be a settled, full-strength Aussie side, quite different from the one of four weeks ago that was almost an experimental unit with a handful of players given a rare run out at the top level.
This doesn't mean automatically that the West Indies have no chance. Far from it. The abbreviated nature of one-day international cricket guarantees a greater degree of unpredictability, and when that is combined with the mercurial nature of the regional side, it really isn't stretching the imagination to any great degree to suggest that anything good or bad can happen when the teams clash in Mumbai in two days' time.
If you're seeking consolation in fairly recent history, just go back ten years ago to the 1996 World Cup, which was also played on the Indian subcontinent, when the West Indies crashed to their most humiliating defeat in the tournament's history, being bundled out for just 93 by newcomers and still minnows Kenya in Pune. Yet in the aftermath of all the weeping and wailing following that embarrassment, the same side rallied to defeat Australia in a critical final group match a few days later, beleaguered captain Richie Richardson guiding his team into the quarter-finals with an unbeaten hundred.
They eventually fell to the same Australians in the semi-finals in Mohali by just five runs, a result that remains the most painful that I have ever, ever experienced for reasons so wide and varied that one column cannot suffice.
But, in the immediate aftermath of the latest setback, most fans will probably accept a narrow semi-final defeat in this Champions Trophy hands down because it would mean that team responsible for their fluctuating blood pressure had claimed a top two spot in a group that also includes India and England.
None of this, of course, deals with the fundamental issue of just why players blessed with such phenomenal individual talent cannot perform at a consistently high level.
It may be incomprehensible that a team capable of scoring a world record 418 to defeat Australia in a Test match can crash for just 47 against England a year later. Within the space of three weeks at the start of 2004, the audience in Cape Town saw the West Indies threaten a seemingly impossible target of 441 - a chase highlighted by Dwayne Smith's spectacular hundred on Test debut - and then fold for 54 under lights in the opening one-dayer, their lowest-ever ODI total. Many at Newlands for those matches thought they were watching two very different teams.
The list of such dramatically erratic performances grows longer and still you ask: Why?
Well, with a few notable exceptions, these are just gifted boys playing a man's game, where ability without character, commitment and dedication will only take them so far. Yes, we are the Champions Trophy holders, but only because, as Brian Lara has said more than once, we played four one-day matches well, and still it required an heroic ninth-wicket partnership to pull us out of a seemingly hopeless position in the final two years ago.
From the repetitive manner of dismissals to the almost casual errors in the field to the inability to follow one disciplined spell of bowling with another, these are players capable of incomparable feats of brilliance but who really have no sense that they are just part of a greater whole, the latest in a lineage that has brought pride and dignity to the people of the former British West Indies and immense respect from opponents.
They say all the right things, how defeats hurt and how they must do better next time, but they don't really mean it. Maybe they think they do, but at the superficial level at which most of them function, there is no real association between words and meanings, far less appreciating their place in an historical context.
Victory or defeat, hundred or duck, five wickets or licks around the ground, it is just another performance on just another day. Throughout the region, we bemoan the deterioration of values and principles yet are surprised when our cricketers reflect that level of decay and disconnection from the bigger picture.
Again, none of this precludes a reversal on the 18th or a victory in the final on November 5. But turnaround? Not for a long, long time.