Sagas, strife and silver linings
West Indies played 12 Test matches during 2009 - two series against England, one against Bangladesh, and one, Australia. Thanks to a spectacular spell by Jerome Taylor (5 for 11 in nine overs) they won one match, the first against England, which enabled them to put their hands on the Wisden Trophy after more than a decade. It was soon returned as, two months later, the English reclaimed their prize. Several argued that the two-match series, following so soon after the five-match one, illustrated the insensitivity of the ICC in devising schedules.
With England all out for 51, that first Test win may have squeezed some optimism into West Indian minds that the year was going to be a better one. After all, 2008 had closed with Chris Gayle scoring his first century in a couple of years. Brendan Nash was promising to join Shivnarine Chanderpaul as an anchor, and between Taylor and Fidel Edwards, a bowling attack of pace seemed to be forming.
Whatever stability fluttered in the wind was soon blown away as, yet again, off-stage events rocked the foundations. Early in February rumours had begun circulating that Allen Stanford was pulling back on his substantial investments in the game. They would turn out not only to be true, but far more innocuous than the eventual scandal. Having made a deal with the ECB to take part in a quadrangular Twenty20 tournament in England, Stanford backed away as news broke that he was being investigated by the American authorities. Fraud charges were speedily laid, leading ECB chair Giles Clarke to admit that their deal had been an error of judgment. The ECB had collected its money for the previous year's tournament, but the West Indies Cricket Board revealed that they had not been paid the US$3.5 million fee by Stanford. With Stanford ending up in jail, West Indies cricket faced a significant loss to its already depleted coffers.
As it blustered its way to a defence after the Stanford news broke in February, the board faced the added embarrassment of the second Test in Antigua against England being abandoned because the sand-based outfield was deemed unsafe. Sir Viv Richards was apoplectic as the stadium bearing his name was dragged through the mud - though the ICC lay blame at the WICB's door.
In March, Dinanath Ramnarine, president of the West Indies Players' Association (WIPA) tendered his resignation as a director of the WICB, as yet another contract dispute threatened to get out of hand. It did.
Indeed, the West Indian year was dominated not by the 12 Test matches, or the spectacular flurry of Twenty20 matches, but by an extraordinary bout of hostility between WIPA and the WICB. Arbitrations and interventions could not staunch the flow of animosity as even the heads of regional governments and every possible influential figure tried to get the parties to end the war. It reached the point where players again threatened to strike: the first time was during the ODIs against England; they relented. The second was just before the Bangladesh series. This time the WICB responded by mustering another group of players and installing Floyd Reifer as captain for the two Tests. Bangladesh won, both the Tests and the ODIs, and made their own mark on history.
In May, Gayle had declared that he wouldn't be unhappy if Test cricket was replaced by Twenty20, and that he was reconsidering captaincy in any case. Saying it took too much from him, especially socially, he hinted at dropping the mantle. Perhaps the furore raised by his remarks caused him to back-track, and he hastily acknowledged his debt to cricket and captaincy, adding that he was happy to lead and to play. But his remarks had penetrated deeply, and the strike fuelled enormous debate over who should be the next captain. Daren Ganga, Trinidad and Tobago's highly successful leader, was seen as the obvious contender, but under the cloud of the strike he could not be selected.
It didn't help that in October he led T&T to an impressive and consistent string of successes in the Champions League. The underdogs were the only unbeaten team until their final clash with New South Wales, and they riveted viewers around the world, adding the emotional and spirited dimension that these encounters had come to lack for all their hype.
The T&T performance reopened another troubling question, of whether the regional team should call it a day and let national teams vie for Test status. Whatever the aspirations of supporters of that notion, few would recommend it as a pathway to anything substantial. Fresh from his success in India, Ganga himself shouted down the idea, but even he might have nurtured a hope that his brilliant performance might have earned him another shot at the captaincy as the three-match Test series against Australia loomed.
Perhaps mercifully for him, it was not to be. Gayle was invited to take the reins again, and the team went off to Australia, carrying Dwayne Bravo, who had been out with a bad ankle for most of the year, and rookies like Kemar Roach and Adrian Barath.
The first Test was another West Indian nightmare, with only the breathtaking beauty of Barath's maiden century offering redemption. Although it was in a lost cause, its quality resonated and called to mind elegance of times past.
The year ended precariously and perhaps perplexingly. For the following two Tests unearthed a team who were resolute and disciplined enough to provide interesting and competitive cricket worth watching. Dwayne Bravo's century and his captain's power knock were reminders of the team's potential. Nash proved his grit and Travis Dowlin looked ready to fly. In the absence of Taylor and Edwards, Roach was a joyous find, and Sulieman Benn seemed to befuddle batsmen with success. The Australian team may have been climbing off their formidable platform, but it was heartening after all the fighting off the field to see West Indies put up a fight.
New kids on the block
Undoubtedly Roach and Barath are the ones who have piqued the most interest. Both carry the confidence of youth and its aura of invincibility; hopefully they will spread it rather than absorb the prevalent culture of losing. Barath has strokes aplenty and a charming aplomb that has set him apart, and although he is new on the block and so young, he has been apprenticing for nearly 10 years. Mastery can come shortly. Roach's approach has been likened to Malcolm Marshall's and his ferocity and speed suggest he is the real deal.
He had faded before and only had a cameo performance in this year, but what a cameo! Poor Reifer seemed more hard done by than he deserved when he was named to captain a second-string team against Bangladesh.
The resilience of the last two Test matches of the year, against Australia, was as agonising as it was comforting. How could a team that surrendered so shabbily one match ago suddenly become a purposeful unit? How many times has the team made us wonder if egos have to be punished to improve performance? Whatever: it was Test cricket from West Indies, and coupled with the Barath century, enough for a high.
Perhaps the lowest point was when the WICB proffered an alternative team for the Bangladesh series and tried to convince West Indians that it was the honourable thing to do. It was not a Test-standard team and it was dishonourable to pretend it was. That Bangladesh whitewashed the team was not as disturbing as the farce that preceded it and the one that followed, with Gayle being expediently returned to the captaincy - throwing all the imaginary principles for his removal out the door - as the WICB again demonstrated the jelly of its belly.
What 2010 holds
Only three Test matches, against South Africa, fill the home season for West Indies in 2010. But there will be a lot of other cricket.
Zimbabwe arrive in February for five ODIs and a Twenty20. The World Twenty20 will occupy just over two weeks, from April 30 and May 16, and will be played in Barbados, St Lucia, Guyana and St Kitts.
And following T&T's performance at the inaugural edition of the Champions League Twenty20, there is said to be the possibility of yet another Caribbean team joining the line-up for the next edition.
Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad