May 16, 2012

The hardest act to follow

Given the circumstances, even baby steps by West Indies in England will amount to victory

It doesn't look good, does it? From 1976 to 1998, West Indies and England competed 11 times for the Wisden Trophy, the former taking nine rubbers to none and 32 Tests to seven. The opening instalment of the 2000 reunion was the same old song: England's greatest accomplishment was to confine Curtly to a solitary wicket, yet so expertly did he truss up the opposition (more than half his 35 overs were maidens), Courtney hoovered up eight of them. Even Jimmy Adams bewildered a couple.

Since that Edgbaston three-dayer, however, the tables have not so much turned as looped the loop, strolled across the ceiling, activated the sprinklers and performed a deft impersonation of Gene Kelly swishing through the rain.

Discounting that blink-and-you-miss-it beach party at North Sound in 2009, the antagonists have met in 22 purported five-dayers: bar that afternoon at Sabina Park when Jerome Taylor ran amok with the sort of you-guys-are-pre-history burst for which batsmen need fear no guilt, England have never once looked like losing. Of their 15 wins, three have come by an innings, three by ten wickets, one by eight, three by seven and three by 150 runs-plus. The closest to a close-run thing was at Old Trafford in 2007, when Shivnarine Chanderpaul's undefeated century stretched a hunt for 455 just past lunch on day five.

Shiv is not just the reigning world champion batsman and the farthest the current game gets from a commitment-phobe; he is also the lone link between glory and gory. The other day, Curtly Ambrose told Simon Wilde of the Sunday Times that the only contemporary player worthy of a seat among the Caribbean's best of the best - those enlightened despots who even Sports Illustrated hailed as the finest competitive artists of the 1980s - was the man from Unity. Gus Logie, he proposed, seemingly with huge reluctance, would be the chap for the chop.

Has there ever, in any branch of show business, been a harder act to follow? Sometimes, even for those who winced patriotically through those 11 Wisden Trophy rubbers, it is hard to grasp, let alone communicate, how irresistible the West Indies were for those two decades (the Aussies spent one and a half cock-strutting the walk; given the subsequent free-for-all, even that already feels like a lifetime ago, not mention almost inconceivable). The only way I can come to terms with the totality of their achievement is to decide - as I depress, abuse and quite possibly bore these very keys - that they are worth sticking the full extent of one's neck out for.

In the course of researching what my employers doubtless anticipate being a high-minded, scrupulous and scholarly history of spectator sport, the temptation to plan a brief and excessively subjective final chapter devoted to The Greatest became irresistible. Fortunately my editor eventually consented. The Greatest Sportsman and Greatest Sportswoman have yet to be resolved, but the third category is a done deal.

After due consideration of the merits of the school bully New York Yankees of 1949-61, the regal Real Madrid of 1955-60, and a pair of immaculate conceptions from my bar mitzvah year - Garry Sobers' Rest of the World sorcerers and Pele's Brazilian self-expressionists - I find myself unable to see beyond the West Indies collectives led by Clive and Viv, Macca and Mikey, Gordon and Desi, Gus and Joel and the Dooj. No surnames, no pack drill.

Here was a peerless fusion, of skill, strength, heart, brain, spirit and soul; a whole that trumped even the considerable sum of its aces. Here, far more significantly, were teams in the very best and truest sense: bands of disparate beings who stood for something beyond local or national identity; who somehow embodied, in one improbable fell swoop, inter-island solidarity and racial pride; who not only proclaimed "Say It Loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud" with even more fervour than James Brown, but had their own signature tune: "Say It Loud - I'm Human, I'm Different And I'm Proud." Set, naturally, to the strident-but-joyous beat of Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up". And all on a budget that wouldn't have kept the Wailers in plectrums and drumsticks. Follow that.

NOT THAT CLIVE, 40 by the time he passed down the crown, would ever cite the Rastaman Vibrator as a soul brother (he left that to Viv, the successor in whom he helped cement the courage to be militant, the worthy heir, who personified resistance to the racial pecking order every bit as formidably as Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Basil D'Oliveira, Jackie Robinson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos). That said, he fully appreciated the vista of this particular picture.

"I've never tried to look at things in a black and white manner," he assured me as we sat in his Bayswater hotel room 19 years ago, a copy of Eric Williams' Inward Hunger on the dressing table. Only now has the question dawned: was the emphasis on "tried"? Was he saying he never looked at things that way, or that he couldn't help doing so?

Defeat is no longer the default option. Two months ago, when the captain lashed Brett Lee through wide long-on, pulling the scores level, Arnos Vale erupted in a roar so musical you half-expected Tony Cozier to inform viewers that Lord Beginner, Lord Kitchener and the Rastaman Vibrator had all popped in

Cue elaboration. "I never had a heated argument with anyone over that in 20 years. In my first Test against England in 1968, Jeff Jones called Wes Hall 'black bastard' or something. Wes got uptight at first then realised he shouldn't let it get to him. You mustn't let these guys get through to you. The minute they upset you they've done their job because you're going to want to hit that ball so hard you're not going to time it. That was the West Indies of old, calypso, Carry on Flamboyant, not putting a lot of thought into your cricket. That's how they used to get us out years ago, probably call out some racist remarks and then you get uptight and give your hand away."

The tremors of the American Civil Rights movement and African self-determination reverberated far and wide. By 1993, in flagrant contravention of the Townshend Law, the new boss was very different from the old one. Clive was warming to his theme. "People think it's payback time, but that's just stupid. It's not a matter of paying back. People don't understand the importance of cricket in the West Indies. We were showing people, we were showing the world that we can be just as good as anyone else. That's all." His foremost source of satisfaction? Forging a team, he believed had revived dreams of a united Caribbean.

"I had people from different islands sharing [rooms] so they could get to understand each other. A guy would never talk about 'my Trinidadian mate'; it would be 'my room-mate'. That got rid of the insularity. By playing together, by doing so well for so long, all the politicians now have to realise that this is something we can do with the islands. Cricket has been a catalyst and now we're getting it together. We now have a West Indian commission talking about doing things together. That's what cricket has done for us: it has brought us together. We are unified through cricket."

None of it lasted, off-field or on. Brian and Chris and Kieron have given us hours, even days, to cherish, seldom weeks, let alone seasons. The reasons are too numerous and familiar and sad to bear reciting like some bookmarked shopping list. That doesn't mean it isn't worth reminding ourselves that even in the one area of Caribbean life graced by a residue of one-for-allness, Trinidad and Tobago are talking secession. Clive himself has been arousing the fury of the West Indies board as well as of Dubai, heading the government-run Interim Management Committee, which has assumed the game's administration in Guyana. Bridge-building? Has the noblest trade ever been more unfashionable?

NOW IMAGINE TRYING ON Darren Sammy's shoes at Lord's tomorrow morning. Not only are nearly half his best players absent and the opposition No. 1, the weight of history sits on his shoulders like King Kong after a month-long McDonald's marathon. Think "Those Little Pals O' Mine", the Three Ws, Lance and Rohan and the Great Garfield. Now double it.

Of late, encouragingly, this unlikely but admirable shepherd has presided over a handy flock (though one suspects the older Bravo's last-ball six at Eden Gardens on Monday did little for his belief in timely omens). Defeat is no longer the default option. Two months ago, when the captain himself lashed Brett Lee through wide long-on, pulling the scores level with just one wicket left but fully three balls remaining, Arnos Vale erupted in a roar so musical, so ecstatic, so uplifting, you half-expected Tony Cozier to inform viewers that Lord Beginner, Lord Kitchener and the Rastaman Vibrator had all popped in for the closing overs.

Sure, Kemar Roach lost his nerve and the game, heartbreakingly, was tied, reducing dear Tony to the nearest he has ever come in his long and endlessly judicious career to nose-hair-ripping despair. Yet it was what followed - victory in the next game, the fourth ODI, in Gros Islet - that truly shocked even those inured to Caribbean cock-ups. Australia levelled the series at the last but the mood had altered, as a hard-fought scrap for the Worrell Trophy underlined.

"Baby steps" - the gospel according to Richard Dreyfuss' psychiatrist in Frank Oz's grossly neglected What About Bob?, the mantra that energises Bill Murray's loveable obsessive-compulsive while exposing its inventor's grubby ego. If Shiv and Kemar and the Darrens can keep the Lord's Test going until the final afternoon without any assistance from the third most goddamn-awful English summer since records began, that'll be another baby step. For now, given the multitudes ranged against them, that would be victory.

Coming from a pampered Londoner, of course, that doubtless sounds like the very worst brand of condescension. Then again, at the risk of re-offending Alan Knott - who once chided me at Lord's for supporting the pre-Murali Sri Lanka - I will be rooting for the condescendees. By way of apology, I sincerely hope that makes some difference.

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