January 7, 2009

In praise of empires

Eighties West Indies or modern-day Australia before they fell from grace - which was the greater side?

Modern Australia's reign has been fit to compare with any the game has known © Getty Images

You know an empire has crumbled when its strongest fortress, the symbol of its authority, falls twice inside 12 months. To see Australia beaten at the WACA by India this time last year supplied evidence enough that slippage had become erosion. To see South Africa chase down 414 there, coasting, was to see the citadel go up in flames. The Melbourne stroll confirmed all: what was once an irresistible force is now a decidedly moveable object. Australia No Longer Rools. And yes, in the interests of democracy, that is assuredly OK.

"The problem with 80% maybe 90% of the guys on [the PGA golf] tour is Woods, Woods, Woods. With all respect to Mr Woods, God's name is not Mr Woods." So said Jos Vanstiphout, who styles himself as a "mind coach" (which as far as I can see differs from "psychotherapist" in no discernible way whatsoever, but no matter). In his view, Ernie Els, the South African, has suffered from "Woodsitis". Michael Campbell, a fine golfer who might have won a good deal more than a solitary major in any other era, reinforces the notion of a circuit cowed into submission: "The players feel negative about themselves, it's affected their psyche." Given the deep scars left by a century of failure down under, what South Africa's approach on their current tour has signified - as embodied by Jean-Paul Duminy and Dale Steyn's tide-turning ninth-wicket stand in Melbourne - is the end of negativity, of fear, of Australia-itis.

I come here, though, not to bury but to praise. Only now it is over can we finally look back on Australia's reign as undisputed world champions, a title held by precious few other sides since the game became something more substantial than a white man's plaything (Don Bradman and Lindsay Hassett's post-WWII Australia, Peter May's England of 1955-58, Garry Sobers' West Indies of 1965-66, West Indies 1980-95). Indeed, for sheer quality and longevity, it has been a reign fit to compare with anything the grand old game has ever known. And while there are undoubtedly still a few folk out there who will cry foul at any attempt to belittle Australia's so-called "Invincibles" of 1948, for anyone born since then the comparison must be, can only be, with the Caribbean combos led by Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards. For all one's natural objections to monopolies and dictatorships, to have thrilled to both in the same lifetime has been an incredibly rare privilege and an almost undiluted pleasure.

Fuelled by innovation - relentless pace quartets, run-rates cracking the four-an-over barrier, physical and mental "disintegration" - both empires were profoundly modern creations. The foundations, ultimately, lay in the remarkably durable talent of their players; players whose longevity owed much to significant advances in training, medical and even psychological expertise, not to say financial rewards.

If we include David Boon and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who featured only fleetingly, of the 48 men who have won 100 Test caps, nearly 40% - 18 - played for one or other of these dynasties: 10 from Australia, eight from West Indies. Throw in Curtly Ambrose (98) and Adam Gilchrist (96) and you have 20 of the top 51 cap-winners. The key, though, lies with the small minority. Of the aforementioned 51, nine are bowlers or bowling allrounders, What sustained Australia most was the fact that their reign coincided almost entirely with the careers of the fourth and 17th men in that list - Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. How fortunate or flukey is that? That form should regress so hurriedly since both won their final caps was nothing if not inevitable, though Stuart MacGill's sudden retirement last year, allied to Stuart Clark's injuries, have made the return to earth that much bumpier.

The hardships Australia faced - a more onerous workload and ever-shortening tours - make their win ratio all the more admirable, reflecting an arguably greater willingness to risk defeat

What sustained West Indies, though, was not so much that Ambrose spent more than a decade in harness with Courtney Walsh, the most-capped quickie of all - by the time the former debuted in 1988 the peak years were gone - as the uncanny ability to keep replenishing the main source of that success, namely a four-pronged pace battery. From Andy Roberts (debut 1974) to Ian Bishop (1989), that conveyor belt worked overtime, producing six of the 38 regular new-ballers ever to have taken 200 Test wickets. Moreover, of the 23 pacemen since World War I who have claimed 100 at under 24.50, no fewer than seven hail from Caribbean cricket's golden age. That's more than 30%. I repeat - thirty per cent. A staggering stat in anyone's language. And had injury not shackled Bishop from the age of 26 (he'd harvested 110 wickets at 21 in his first five years), who can say with any certainty that Richie Richardson's West Indies would not be mentioned in at least neighbouring breath to those of Clive and Viv?


Many will contend that West Indies' domination began in 1976, but India and Pakistan both ran them close in the Caribbean: not until after World Series Cricket did Lloyd and his compadres take up their unchallenged residence on the throne. Beginning in Adelaide on January 30, 1980, when a 408-run victory brought them their first series triumph in Australia, West Indies strung together a sequence of 20 wins and just one defeat in 29 rubbers (discounting one-off Tests against South Africa and Sri Lanka). That that sole reversal occurred in the second of those series underscores the point in indelible ink. By the time Steve Waugh decided to don his Attila the Hun mask at Sabina Park in 1995, the Caribbean mean machine had played 124 Tests during that span, winning 62 and losing just 17.

Starting with that Worrell Trophy encounter, the baggy green 'uns went on an even mightier surge. In 154 Tests up to the start of South Africa's current tour - excluding, for the purposes of credibility, the 2005 ICC "Super Series" - they won 102 and lost 27. In 45 series (discounting one-off Tests against India, Zimbabwe and the Rest of the World) they were victorious in 37 and lost just five. In the most naked, least subjective terms, namely ratio of individual five-day wins to losses, the teams led by Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting hold a slight edge: 3.74 to West Indies' 3.64. Of those 45 series, furthermore, 82.22% were won, a marked improvement on West Indies' 68.97%. The latter, on the other hand, proved significantly harder to beat, almost 28% harder, losing 13.71% of their Tests to Australia's 17.53%. And while Australia obliterated the previous record by winning 16 Tests on the trot, then matched their own feat and set a new mark for successive wins in multiple-match series (eight), West Indies reeled off an unprecedented 27 such series without defeat, some way clear of Australia's peak of 16.

A dissection of defeat is revealing. On seven of the 13 occasions (53.85%) West Indies lost a Test in which the outcome of the series was still in the balance, they did so heavily (by 150-plus runs or more than five wickets); if we include the South Africa series, Australia did so heavily 11 times out of 17 - 64.71%. More instructively, even if we take into account that they played 25% more matches, Australia lost disproportionately more tight games overall (margins of 50 or fewer runs or up to five wickets) - 10 to three.

West Indies did more to raise the bar, improving colossally on what had gone before. In the eighties their ratio of series wins to losses was 14 to 1; since Test cricket expanded into a multi-racial form, the next best performance in a decade had been Australia's six-to-one ratio in the thirties. Similarly, in terms of individual matches, West Indies' exchange-rate of 5.3 wins for every defeat during the eighties was more than double the previous best - Australia's 2.33 to one during the thirties and fifties. Even during the current decade, and despite the gulf between themselves and South Africa (1.85), England (1.40) and India (1.37), the brand leaders' rate has only been 4.8.

One of the keys to West Indies' success was their ability to sustain the quality of their four-man pace attack for over a decade © Getty Images

That is not to say that context should not play a part in our assessment. There was far less urgency about cricket in the eighties than there is now, thanks to a host of factors ranging from the absence of central contracts and a formal rankings system to a more cautious mindset born of a less evolved one-day game, individual insecurity, and a host of less trustworthy pitches. All these can be cited as reasons for the greater preponderance of draws in that decade, and of Australia's enhanced win ratio. By the same token, the hardships they faced - a more onerous workload and ever-shortening tours - make that ratio all the more admirable, reflecting an arguably greater willingness to risk defeat.

It could also be argued that West Indies were aided by a more tolerant approach to bouncers, but it is hard to believe that even if they had been so confined, the array of skills at the beck and call of Ambrose, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and others would not have been equally effective. Besides, theirs was an intimidation born not of balls rising over shoulder height but of those targeting ribs and armpits. Similarly, some might factor in the often modest standard of pitches, favouring as they did pace bowling in particular, but again this holds little water. Underpinned by sheer physical menace, the quality shown on most surfaces, from the true to the treacherous, would surely have prospered in any era.

Nevertheless, Sydney (1985 and 1989), The Oval (1991), Chennai (1988) and Faisalabad (1986) all provided damning evidence of Caribbean vulnerability on turning tracks: who can say what havoc Warne, Anil Kumble or Muttiah Muralitharan might have inflicted had they been born a decade earlier? Then again, much the same could be said of Australia: virtually all their struggles came on the subcontinent. How they would have fared against their own bowlers, notably Warne and MacGill, is almost as intriguing a hypothetical as how well Richards and Co. would have coped with their own.

Nor is there much to choose between the depth of competition each dynasty faced. A non-West Indies Rest of the World XI to represent the period 1980-95 might read: Gavaskar, Gooch, Gower, Miandad, Border, Imran, Marsh (wkt), Hadlee, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir, with the likes of Botham, Kapil Dev and Martin Crowe in reserve. A comparable non-Australia Rest of the World XI could read G Smith, Sangakkara (wkt), Kallis, Tendulkar, Lara, Chanderpaul, Flintoff, Wasim, Kumble, Donald and Muralitharan, jettisoning the likes of Inzamam, Vaughan, Sehwag and Dravid. Still, West Indies arguably had to contend with more demanding foes: all five of their regular opponents, Australia, England, Pakistan, India and New Zealand, had at least a clutch of world-beaters; of Australia's seven regulars, West Indies and New Zealand have largely been whipping boys, while India (until 2003) and Sri Lanka have been poor travellers. Australia, though, have spent far more time in the singularly taxing climes of southern Asia.

Greatness, however, can also be measured by fortitude, resilience, resolve, indomitability (any word will do so long as it's not that dread concoction beloved of soccer managers, bouncebackability). West Indies put their most resolute foot forward in Lahore in late 1986. Humbled for 53 in Faisalabad a week earlier, they entered the second Test one down in a rubber for the first time in five years, yet rebounded to dismiss Pakistan for 131 on the opening day, tallied only 217 themselves, yet still cantered home by an innings. Australia matched that in St John's in 1999. Until The Oval in 2005 it was the only time outside India that they had to win the final Test to save a series, and they'd lost the previous encounter as Brian Lara led West Indies, 105 for 5 chasing 308 at one point, to a miraculous one-wicket triumph in Bridgetown that would have flattened most dressing rooms. Yet, even without Warne, Australia romped home in the decider.

In the mid-nineties Australia were seeking to re-establish themselves as the game's pre-eminent force, to bolster the national self-image, to reaffirm theirs as the planet's most fertile sporting territory. West Indies, though, were fighting for so much more. Their quest was both territorial and racial

West Indies, nonetheless, were less vincible, more adept at rescuing lost causes. Especially in their Barbados fortress. For Exhibit 1 read Bridgetown 1999. For Exhibit 2 read Bridgetown 1992, when South Africa began the final day needing 79 with eight wickets intact only to lose all eight for the addition of 26. For Exhibit 3 read Bridgetown 1988, when, set 266 by Pakistan to square the series, they fell to 180 for 7 and 201 for 8 but still prevailed by two wickets. Only in Hobart in 1999, when they stumbled to 126 for 5 pursuing 369 against Pakistan before Gilchrist and Justin Langer saw them home without further alarm, did Australia reverse the tide so completely (and no, I'm not ignoring Adelaide 2007: after four days the match appeared destined for a draw, not an England win). Indeed, as witnessed by England's 12- and 19-run wins in Melbourne (1998) and at The Oval (1997), India's astonishing comeback in Kolkata (2001) and West Indies' record-shattering chase in St John's (2003), they were considerably more prone to fall foul of the improbable.

Both sides had their nemeses. For Australia, India were a constant thorn: 10 Test wins apiece, three series wins apiece. For West Indies it was Pakistan, who drew three rubbers out of five but lost twice as many Tests (six) as they won. Even when sitting their most searching examination, the champions endured. On six of the seven occasions they went 0-1 down in a rubber, they recovered to win or share the spoils. Even if we overlook that era-ending loss to South Africa, only three times in seven did Australia evince such powers of recuperation. When the going got rough, West Indies proved much the tougher.

And that essential difference, rather than being traced to skill, can be more readily attributed to motivation. In the mid-nineties Australia were seeking to re-establish themselves as the game's pre-eminent force, to bolster the national self-image, to reaffirm theirs as the planet's most fertile sporting territory. West Indies, though, were fighting for so much more. Their quest was both territorial and racial, a cause hampered by disunity almost as much as by economic deprivation. Officially there is no such person as a West Indian because West Indies is a region defined by disunity, by inter-island rivalry and devout separatism. Only in sport do we collectively describe Bajans, Guyanese, Trinidadians, Antiguans and Jamaicans as "the West Indies". And only in netball and cricket - and not, instructively, soccer or athletics - do the islands unite under one banner. Even now, only in cricket has a black international team ever dominated its field. The biggest, most fitting accolade came from that renowned American-centric, cricket-phobic magazine Sports Illustrated, which named West Indies, alongside Liverpool FC and the San Francisco 49ers, as its team of the eighties. Has a representative team ever lived up to such a title more effectively or profoundly? Not from where I'm sitting.


And so to the fun bit. Not that selecting a composite team is a facile matter. Take away the no-brainers (Marshall, Warne, Richards and McGrath) and you are left with a representative imbalance come what may. Such time-leaping debates can only ever be subjective. Runs have been easier to come by in the noughties than they were in the eighties and nineties, wickets much harder. Impossible as it is to quantify such things, batting and bowling averages, respectively, are probably about 10 and five runs higher now than they were two decades ago. All of which renders conventional comparisons redundant; so we must seek elsewhere for justification.

Perhaps the best measure of the depth of this particular pool of talent is the revamped (now ICC, nee FICA) Hall of Fame. Six members of those West Indies sides were among the 55 players initially inducted in 1999 (Gordon Greenidge, Holding, Lloyd, Marshall, Richards and Roberts), and there are at least eight more shoo-ins under consideration for this XI - Ambrose, Gilchrist, Lara, McGrath, Ponting, Walsh, Warne and Steve Waugh.

Honorary Caribbean: Steve Waugh's unflinching determination brought him closer to the West Indian spirit than any other Australian © Getty Images

Preserving the opening alliances doesn't seem terribly necessary (besides, Greenidge and Desmond Haynes v Matthew Hayden and Langer is whatever the opposite of a no-brainer is), but if the pitch was a turner McGill would partner Warne by dint of being streets ahead of Roger Harper, the only spinner West Indies selected on anything like a consistent basis. Nor would wicketkeeping duties incite much toing and froing: Ian Healy was an immeasurably finer technician than either Deryck Murray or Jeff Dujon, and Gilchrist a far more effective batsman than any of them, not to mention good enough to come in at six, and hence preclude the need for a bonafide and/or orthodox allrounder, a status only Carl Hooper of those under scrutiny came close to acquiring. Still, for all the stirring contributions of Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee, McGrath would surely be the only Australian seamer, even if the attack ran to four pacemen. Even with Marshall picking himself, no fewer than five other men in maroon - Ambrose, Garner, Holding, Roberts and Walsh - can be considered superior to the second-best Australian.

The most fervent arguments will doubtless be stoked by the choices for those top five berths. Even if we accept that Lloyd was past his best by the end of the seventies, and with Richards nominated as of right - no batsman, not even Hayden, has ever terrorised bowlers quite so remorselessly - West Indies can still offer four other compelling candidates: Greenidge, Haynes, Lara and Richie Richardson. Australia, though, can submit five: Hayden, Langer, Ponting and the Waughs, with Michaels Clarke and Hussey not all that far behind. Of these, the hardest to omit is Steve Waugh, whose unflinching determination brought him closer to the spirit of those Caribbean conquerors than any other Australian.

So, for what it's worth, here's my combined XI, one I'd back to beat any other side drawn from any era in Test history. Even the one listed directly beneath it, at least five of whose constituents would have to give way if this particular selection committee merged the teams.

Australia-West Indies XI: Gordon Greenidge, Matthew Hayden, Vivian Richards, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, Adam Gilchrist (wkt), Shane Warne (capt), Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Joel Garner, Glenn McGrath.

Rest of Time XI: Sunil Gavaskar, Len Hutton, George Headley, Don Bradman, Sachin Tendulkar, Garry Sobers, Keith Miller (capt), Alan Knott (wkt), Dennis Lillee, SF Barnes, Muttiah Muralitharan.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton