November 1, 2011

Those majestic West Indians

They pulverised India on tours here, but the home fans loved them regardless because of the way they played the game

Fire in Babylon. Think what you will of Stevan Riley's work, but until it came along, it was difficult to explain to younger fans just how good West Indies once were without coming across as one of those obnoxious cricket-was-better-in-my-time types.

I got my first clues as a nine-year-old in that rubicon year for Indian cricket, 1983. As we played outside, my uncle listened to the World Cup final on the radio. Even when West Indies were 66 for 5, and 126 for 9, he refused to believe that it was over. When it was, the predominant emotion appeared to be disbelief. How could it have happened? How could a team with the batting of Greenidge, Haynes, Richards and Lloyd and the bowling of that quartet possibly lose?

A few months later, Lloyd's team came to India with retribution very much the name of the game. There was no Garner, and a fading Roberts played only the final two Tests, but the personnel available were more than adequate to emphatically underline the huge gulf between the two sides. My grandfather's letters spoke of the bravery with which Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar batted, and of pace bowling of a ferocity that India hadn't seen before.

Make no mistake, Indian pitches then were as batsman-friendly as they are now. But instead of whining, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel just took the conditions out of the equation. West Indies won two of the six Tests by an innings and a third by 138 runs. Marshall took 33 wickets, Holding 30. Daniel, who'd probably have played 100 Tests if born elsewhere, finished with 14 from three Tests. They didn't lose a game all tour.

A cousin who wangled a pass to get into the Kotla on the eve of the second Test recalled watching Marshall and Holding in the nets. Spooked by the experience, he went up to Madan Lal and asked what India would do if there was a bouncer barrage the following day. Perhaps recalling that famous June day at Lord's a few months earlier, Madan Lal puffed out his chest and said: "Agar woh bouncer dalenge, toh hum bhi bouncer dalenge [If they bowl bouncers, so will we]."

There were two blackwashes of England, best remembered for grisly photographs of Mike Gatting's nose and Marshall bowling with his arm in plaster in Leeds, before West Indies returned to India four years later. By then, their relentless dominance had begun to polarise opinion.

For some impressionable kids like me, they were the players you wanted to be. You dreamt of batting with that panache and exuberance, of bowling with that pace and fielding with such nonchalance and agility. Others who had followed the game far longer, like David Frith, reckoned that intimidation by pace made a mockery of cricket.

In India, though, they remained hugely popular. In the first 33 Tests that they played in the country over nearly 40 years, they won 13 and lost just three. One of those Indian wins was in 1979, against a team decimated by defections to Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket.

Back then, seeing West Indies play was as good as it got, bamboo scaffolding or not. Now, you'll be lucky to see 50,000 people over the three Tests. Sporting dominance is cyclical, but West Indies have been in the doldrums so long that the glory days of the 1980s seems like another life

Though they routinely made India look second-rate, West Indies were most people's second team here, playing a brand of cricket that was irresistible. Gavaskar named his son after Rohan Kanhai, of the falling sweep shot, and no trip to Chepauk is complete without stories from someone who watched Sobers or Hall in their prime.

By 1987-88, an era had passed. Marshall was unavailable, while Garner and Holding had followed Roberts into retirement. Walsh, Patterson and Davis didn't have the same ring to it, even though they were good enough to skittle India for 75 on the opening day of the series.

That was a truly remarkable Test. India responded by bowling West Indies out for 127, and Vengsarkar's century then put them in control. West Indies needed 276, the sort of target that had never been chased down in Indian conditions. But Richards smashed 109 from just 111 balls and West Indies did just that, showing the sort of self-belief that had made a mockery of a huge final-day chase at Lord's in 1984.

Narendra Hirwani ambushed them on an underprepared Chepauk pitch, and West Indian anger was given full expression in the one-day games that remained. They played eight in all, including one in Ahmedabad for the BCCI's Benevolent Fund. They won seven.

The last game of the tour was at the University Stadium in Trivandrum. My grandfather was 73 at the time, and had watched Lala Amarnath score a century against Douglas Jardine's Englishmen more than half a century earlier. He was determined to see the modern-day titans, and so we went - ten-hour train ride, hours in a queue, packed lunches and all.

The facilities were rudimentary, to put it charitably. We were fortunate enough to get some seats on stone steps. Others perched precariously atop makeshift bamboo galleries that would be considered safety hazards now.

India piled up 239 in 45 overs. By the run rates of the time, it was worth 350 now. Srikkanth's swashbuckling 101 had the fans in raptures, though there were also plenty of cheers when Richards had Ravi Shastri - leading the side, but a magnet for crowd displeasure wherever he went in India - stumped.

After lunch we settled down for what we assumed would be a gripping chase. Instead Greenidge and Phil Simmons - Lendl's uncle - walloped 164 for the first wicket. They won with 13 balls and nine wickets to spare. Richards, idol of idols, didn't even need to bat. I cursed quietly most of the way home.

Back then, seeing West Indies play was as good as it got, bamboo scaffolding or not. Now you'll be lucky to see 50,000 people over the three Tests. Sporting dominance is cyclical, but West Indies have been in the doldrums so long that the glory days of the 1980s seem like another life.

This, their first tour to India in nine years, could be a bridge too far for a callow side, but win or lose, I hope they play the game the right way. Their predecessors weren't just the best team I've ever seen. They had majesty and a spirit that made you want to play. Perhaps that's what greatness really is.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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