October 10, 2012

Are West Indies bound upwards at last?

Asking them to regain the heights of the 1980s would be too much, but they can still be a force in international competition

Anyone can discern the direction of travel. The challenge is to decipher whether it is a cycle or a trend. Will things naturally improve again, once the wheel begins to turn? Or is the decline structural, a trend that will lead inexorably downwards towards collapse, unless its course is radically changed? It is a central question. Before we can improve the situation, first we have to understand the nature of the problem.

In the case of West Indies cricket, the decline was beginning to look ominously like a trend rather than a cycle. Over the last ten years, West Indies have consistently languished at the bottom of the Test match rankings. West Indies cricket is much loved around the world - including by this column - but its fans struggled in vain for signs that this was just a passing phase rather than a permanent decline. Anyone who watched West Indies drift towards annihilation on the Test tour of England in 2009 could only conclude that the good old days of Caribbean cricket - of lithe but lethal fast bowling, of brutal but beautiful batsmanship, of languid and liquid fielding, and, above all, a sense of adventure and joyous self-expression - had gone forever.

It ran deeper than the mere on-field performances. The malaise seemed profound. There was a gloomy listlessness both on and off the field, a sense that there is something not right about the whole culture of West Indies cricket. I tried to follow the details of the recurrent disputes between the board and the players, but eventually they blurred into a general sense that there was far too much emphasis on money and not enough on cricket.

So last weekend's triumph by West Indies in the final of the World Twenty20 is, at the very least, a wonderful change to a losing pattern. It is the first West Indies tournament victory on the world stage since their relatively minor ODI tournament win in 2004 in England.

There were encouraging signs at every level - mystery spin, thrilling batting, and captaincy stamped with decency rather than self-interest. And the "reintegration" of Chris Gayle - to borrow a phrase that the ECB use about the return of Kevin Pietersen - has been made to work, however difficult it may have been to achieve. The rumblings of discord between players and management can still be heard in the near distance. But there is nothing like victory to heal old wounds and galvanise a sense of purpose.

But will the West Indian triumph as World T20 champions prove to be a watershed or just a false dawn?

Perhaps we need a little history to place modern West Indies cricket in context. The West Indian teams of the '70s, '80s and early '90s were not just unusually successful. That cricketing dynasty may well have been the greatest international sports team - forget just cricket - ever to take the field. As Michael Holding argued in the film Fire in Babylon: "No other sporting team in any discipline anywhere in the world dominated their sport for 15 years." Holding is a famously modest man with no need to brag about anything. He was just telling the plain truth.

West Indies should no longer be judged by the standards of the previous generation. Crucially, renewal and revival are sometimes easier when you are free from the burden of expectation

And it wasn't just a case of eleven brilliant individuals. The most extraordinary feature of those West Indian teams was their strength in depth. Indeed, sometimes a single island boasted more fast bowling talent than the rest of the world put together. In 1984, Wayne Daniel, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall played the lead role in bowling out Australia. At the same time, on the highly controversial "rebel" West Indian tour of South Africa, Sylvester Clarke, Franklyn Stephenson, Hartley Alleyne and Ezra Moseley bowled out South Africa. All eight fast bowlers weren't just West Indian, they were all from Barbados. One small island could have taken on any team in the world.

So how could a collection of tiny islands in the Caribbean - bound together only vaguely, by geography, a shared university and a single cricket team - dominate a world sport so completely?

The glory days of West Indian cricket benefited from a perfect-storm situation. The formidable standard of club cricket - so memorably described in CLR James' Beyond a Boundary - produced a steady stream of hardened cricketers. The national team also benefited from the looseness of the concept of "nation" itself: West Indians only come together to play cricket. That inter-island rivalry created fierce competition. Speaking to Viv Richards this summer, I was struck by how vividly he described the rivalries within domestic cricket when he was a young player.

And then, of course, there was the much deeper question of the team having a point to prove. Fire In Babylon argues that the racial dimension, the sense that the teams of Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards embodied the struggle of a whole people against colonial oppression, was a central explanation of West Indian success. All these threads - some explicit, some mysterious - were woven together by the leadership of Lloyd and then Richards.

But a perfect storm cannot strike twice. West Indies have to accept that whatever the future looks like, they are highly unlikely to emulate the astonishing dominance of the 1980s. That is not a lack of ambition; it is realism. West Indies can still be a real force in international cricket. But they should no longer be judged by the standards of the previous generation. Crucially, renewal and revival are sometimes easier when you are free from the burden of expectation. Perhaps this West Indies team is finally sufficiently far removed from the glory days to not feel the pain of comparison.

The world game, not just the Caribbean islands, raised a glass to the new T20 world champions. It is wonderful to see them back at top table. We still can't be sure whether this is just a cycle or a real trend. But we at least know that the direction of travel, at long last, is upwards.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here