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Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman; writer for the New Statesman

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

Ed Smith

October 10, 2012

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The fireworks start as West Indies get their hands on the prize, Sri Lanka v West Indies, final, World Twenty20, Colombo, October 7, 2012
The current West Indies side is possibly far enough removed from the glory days to not feel the pain of comparison © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Clive Lloyd | Sir Viv Richards
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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

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Posted by   on (October 12, 2012, 7:27 GMT)

Dhoni won T20 in 2007 and One day world cup 2011. But the core of the team was different except for one man Yuvraj.WI should identify that core which will take them to 2015.For test cricket they have to make a good bowling attack .I frankly see Sunil Narine as a long term stuff.Mystery spinners once sorted out can be handled.They need a good pacy attack.Windies pitches must be made responsive.Then they have in it I guess.

Posted by yocasi on (October 11, 2012, 23:38 GMT)

Lazytrini, you hit the nail on the head. Here in Grenada, even an all boys' secondary school with 800 students struggles to field a cricket team. Cricket in particular and sports in general simply hold no interest for most young men. I tried all I could to get my 2 teenage sons to play cricket but they just aren't interested. In contrast, as an 11 yr old, I saved my bus and pocket money for a whole term so that I could buy a pair of cricket pads. Let's hope that by winning again, a few boys will be attracted to the game.

Posted by   on (October 11, 2012, 18:41 GMT)

I do not really rate T20 as Cricket. So though it was awesome that they won the WC for their long suffering fans it does not really point to progress. All it does point too is the the Regional is full of T20 specialists.

In real Cricket- Tests, they have improved the feel in the group bonded as a tight knit unit because of the strong principled leadership of Sammy, but are bereft of real class

Especially in their batting where only Gayle, Samuels and Shiv are the only who are Test class with the rest bordering from average to diabolical. Darren Bravo needs to be in the Team at 5 with Samuels batting at 3.Their bowling is quite good to balance this out.

Crucially they need to resist the temptation to bring back tried and true failures like Sarwan who would be a bad influence in the group with his lazy and lapse attitude

Posted by   on (October 11, 2012, 18:34 GMT)

One of the main problems with cricket in the West Indies is the first class season which is weak. The structure of West Indies cricket has to change if we are going to be a force in world cricket again.

Posted by Sinhaya on (October 11, 2012, 13:07 GMT)

I strongly reckon that West Indies at their prime were a better test team than the Aussies from 1999 to 2008. Why? West Indies never lost a test series from 1980 to 1995 both home and away, but Aussies lost test series in India in 2001, Ashes in England in 2005. West Indies kept on winning against the Aussies in the 1980s. Looking at the 1960s and 70s, Australia, West Indies and England were equal.

Posted by lazytrini on (October 11, 2012, 11:40 GMT)

Just one minor comment. I constantly, to the point of my irritation, see the observation made that one of the reasons WI youth have moved away from playing or having an interest in cricket is because of basketball. I can't speak for the majority of the islands, but mainstream, ground-level interest in basketball in TT is small enough to be non-existent. At various times, (MJ-era, Shaq-Kobe era) there has been some hype about watching/following the sport, but while you'll hear of TT sporting professionals in golf, football etc, you can't name one notable TT basketball player, because not many play the game. Other than JA, none of the islands have produced a notable BBall name. Point being, there may be a lot of reasons for the spectacular decline of WI cricket, but let's be realistic more about them. In TT there are prob more youths involved in crime and delinquency than in Bball and many more just not playing a sport at all. Turn your sights on the right targets to be taken seriously.

Posted by davidlister on (October 11, 2012, 10:32 GMT)

Surely the T20 World Cup 2012 represented a mini-perfect storm for the West Indies, combining as it did the following elements: The team had pretty much its best available eleven out- something that has happened rarely with recent West Indian international cricket sides; there was motivation in the glory of winning a world cup; and the form of the game was the one preferred by many/most of the West Indian team. Add to this the fact that results in this form of the game are in such great proportion chance-determined and I would suggest we should be very cautious about reading a lot into the victory regarding a general upward trend in West Indian cricket.

Posted by Selassie-I on (October 11, 2012, 9:45 GMT)

I think how the tournament win will benefit West indies is that,hopefully, it should encourage more of the young sportsmen to take up cricket rather than Basketball or sprinting.. that's what has changed more than anything, more and more young athletes in the Caribbean are influenced by popular American culture and are looking to become a basketball player, sprinter etc. rather than a test bowler or batsman, you can only pick from the talent pool available and if all the talent decides to play another sport due to a lack in popularity of cricket then you can't pick who could potentially been the best players. I think this is the real question - will this incresae the popularity of cricket again in the islands? The other thing they gain of course - belief that they can win, losing is a hard habbit to break.

Posted by Timmuh on (October 11, 2012, 8:16 GMT)

How can anyone judge anything by T20? It has almost nothing to do with theonly cricket by which international teams and players can be judged. Are the West Indies going to improve? We can only hope so, and if they can get their best team together more often thn once every few years they should do. T20 form does not mount a case for anything except T20.

Posted by davidlister on (October 11, 2012, 7:52 GMT)

Surely the T20 World Cup 2012 represented a mini-perfect storm for the West Indies, combining as it did the following elements: The team had pretty much its best available eleven out- something that has happened rarely with recent West Indian international cricket sides; there was motivation in the glory of winning a world cup; and the form of the game was the one preferred one for many/most of the players. Add to this the fact that results in this form of the game are in such great proportion chance-determined and I would suggest we should be very cautious about reading a lot into the victory regarding a general upward trend in West Indian cricket.

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