January 26, 2016

Remembering the mighty Shell Shield

West Indies' first-class tournament, which began 50 years ago, boasted famous names and unforgettable rivalries

West Indies' invincible team of the '70s and '80s practised world domination through the fiercely competitive Shell Shield © PA Photos

Jeffrey Stollmeyer, former Test captain, later board president, regarded it as "probably the most significant development in West Indies cricket". Allan Rae, Stollmeyer's one-time opening partner and his successor as president, termed it "the missing link in the chain".

Wednesday marks 50 years since the inauguration of the Shell Shield, the first annual first-class tournament encompassing all six West Indies Cricket Board members - Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Leeward and Windward Islands (of which the last two initially joined as the Combined Islands).

It was a long time coming. The initial first-class match in the Caribbean was in 1865, between Barbados and British Guiana (now Guyana) at the Garrison Savannah on the outskirts of Barbados' capital, Bridgetown. In the interim, there were the yearly, so-called "goodwill" series between Barbados, British Guiana and Trinidad from 1920 to 1944, and brief, reciprocal encounters with Jamaica, too distant in the northern Caribbean to make their inclusion financially feasible. The Windward and Leeward Islands weren't brought into the mainstream until the Shield.

Its introduction coincided with a period of burgeoning West Indies strength. Frank Worrell's team of highly talented young players had made their unforgettable impact in the tied Test series in Australia five years earlier. They subsequently prevailed over India at home, England in England, and under Garry Sobers, Worrell's heir as captain, in the Caribbean for the first time over Australia in 1965.

Even though the board's lack of resources restricted it to a single round of four, then five, matches for each team, standards were maintained by the intense rivalry always present among territories separated by water and united only by their excellence in the sport bequeathed to them by the British colonisers.

By the time Shell Oil's sponsorship ended into 1987, the game was already being transformed by its many new innovations. Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, featuring West Indies' 20 finest players, introduced one-day matches with a white ball under lights. It was followed two decades later by the shortest format, 20 overs a side; a cluster of domestic franchise T20 tournaments added an even more far-reaching dimension, offering such lucrative contracts that leading West Indians no longer committed themselves to WICB cricket.

The Shield morphed by turn into the Red Stripe, Busta and Carib Beer Cups between 1987 and 2008. Unable to attract new sponsors, the WICB has since been compelled to finance its first-class competitions on its own, adding its latest reform, the franchised Professional Cricket League (PCL), in 2014-15.

No team has dominated regional cricket as Barbados did in the Shell Shield's 21 seasons, winning 11 times and sharing once. They were at their strongest in the first season, when they fielded eight current Test players, led by Sobers. British Guiana and Trinidad and Tobago were each beaten by an innings, Jamaica by seven wickets. Only rain that wiped out two days against Combined Islands prevented a clean sweep. Barbados reeled off six individual hundreds (along with Sobers' 204 against British Guiana) and conceded only one, 107 by a hard-hitting, bespectacled 21-year-old left-handed newcomer by the name of Clive Lloyd.

It wasn't to say the other teams were weak. British Guiana's batting order read Steve Camacho, Roy Fredericks, Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Joe Solomon and Lloyd; Lance Gibbs' offspin led their attack.

"I always got a similar buzz on the morning of a match against Barbados as for a Test in Australia"
Jeff Dujon

"I would place this team at least the equal of New South Wales and probably stronger than any other state team in Australia," Sobers said at the time, speaking from his experience of two earlier seasons with South Australia.

It was confidence that prompted Barbados to arrange a special match against a World XI in March, 1967 to mark the island's independence from Britain the previous November. Worrell was among those strongly opposed to the idea, arguing that its effect would be to undermine the unity of West Indies cricket he fought so hard to create. The game proved an embarrassment; even with eight Test players, Barbados were routed for 84 in their first innings and thrashed by 262 runs with a day to spare by below-strength opponents.

While six Barbadians were on tour to Australia and New Zealand, Jamaica won their first Shield in 1969. Trinidad and Tobago were back-to-back champions in 1970 and 1971, mainly thanks to the imaginative captaincy of Joey Carew. Guyana, as it had then become, triumphed in 1973 under Kanhai, and in 1975 with Lloyd, the new West Indies captain, at the helm.

Barbados regained their ascendancy over the last decade of the Shield, champions from 1977 to1980 and again in 1982, 1984 and 1986.

By now, new players were emerging to underpin a prolonged phase of international dominance under Lloyd. The most notable season was 1981. The Combined Leeward and Windward Islands, captained by Viv Richards, won the championship for the first time on the back of Andy Roberts' 25 wickets in four matches at an average of 9.92. Desmond Haynes, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Wayne Daniel, Sylvester Clarke, Larry Gomes, Gus Logie, Roger Harper, Colin Croft, Jeff Dujon and Michael Holding were others in various teams who were in the vanguard during West Indies' sequence of 15 years without the loss of a Test series.

There was wide consensus among them as to the benefits of Shield cricket to their advance. "Facing up to Andy Roberts bowling like lightning, it was just as hard, if not harder than Test cricket," was the assessment of Haynes, who moved from the Barbados team in 1978 to form West Indies' most prolific opening partnership with Gordon Greenidge. "There was certainly no difference in the intensity. Everyone always seemed to come hard at Barbados because of our record over the years."

According to Jamaica's Dujon, the wicketkeeper throughout the era of invincibility, Barbados had such an awesome pace combination, with Garner, Marshall, Clarke and Daniel on their hard, fast pitches that "it prepared you for Test cricket, made the transition a little easier".

"I always got a similar buzz on the morning of a match against Barbados as for a Test in Australia," Dujon said.

Bowling at Richards for Barbados gave Daniel "an adrenaline rush". "It wasn't just that he was a great player, but you knew he had something to prove."

Holding played for Derbyshire and Lancashire in England, Tasmania in Australia and Canterbury in New Zealand, but always had a "special feeling" bowling for Jamaica. "It meant more than just going out and playing another cricket match," he said. "You were representing the people of your homeland. That was always on my mind."

Such rivalry made no difference to West Indies as a tight-knit group under Lloyd. "When we were coming to the end of a tour of Australia and New Zealand and heading back for the Shell Shield, the banter as to which team was best would start," Holding said. "And it was serious. There was no holding back because you might have been the other fellows' room-mate on tour."

Times have dramatically changed. As West Indies slid rapidly downwards from their lengthy stay as top Test team to eighth of 10, public interest waned. Stands usually packed during the Shield became virtually deserted and the previous passion ebbed from territorial contests.

In such an environment, the Shell Shield has faded to be a distant memory, yet it will always remain an integral part of West Indies cricket history.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for over 50 years