The forgotten series
When the first ball of a decisive Test between West Indies and the game's second-ranked team was bowled at Kensington Oval yesterday, there were nearly as many menacing looking task force policemen, in their dark overalls, assault rifles on their shoulders and revolvers on their hips, as spectators in the stands. Perhaps they heard a rumour that 'Dudus' Coke was somehow in the vicinity but their presence, and even that of the contingent from the ordinary constabulary, seemed absurdly redundant.
Basic cricket knowledge would have advised them that, if they had to be at any sporting venue, it would have been Bubba's, Lucky Horse Shoe or any of the other spots beaming live coverage of football World Cup matches from South Africa. The obvious reality is that this series was always competing with the football for the public's attention. Especially since it involved South Africa, whose players were denied the experience of being present at the rainbow nation's greatest sporting occasion. Cancellation would have been the best option, except that it was already cast in stone on the ICC's future tours programme.
The choice for fans yesterday was between the two matches in the round of 16 from South Africa, carried free on TV at precisely the same time as the Test, and forking out around 50 bucks a day to watch the cricket - that is, after being thoroughly frisked on entry and scared witless by the sight of a group of formidable, heavily armed men. If anything, the attendance was even smaller for the earlier Tests in Port of Spain and St. Kitts than it eventually was at Kensington.
Perhaps the defining spell of the series was during the first Test at the Queen's Park Oval. The Trini Posse had installed a large television set in their stand for those of their clients keen to follow both the cricket and the football. Since it was at the rear, it meant those watching England's opening match against the US had to turn their back on the cricket -and they were in the overwhelming majority. There were, of course, a few ways to have countered the pervasive hype of the football.
The first was for West Indies to present the South Africans with a competitive challenge. The second was for the cricket to be of genuine, compelling Test-match quality. The third was for the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) to launch an imaginative, intensive promotional campaign, along the lines of the 'Bring It' exercise that proved so effective for the World Twenty20 tournament. Lowering the prices, as for the Twenty20, was another obvious alternative. All came to nothing.
West Indies had, once more, disappointed their supporters by losing the two Twenty20 Internationals and the five ODIs. Yet they came close to victory three times and there were signs that they would give their superior opponents something to think about in the Test. That hope disappeared within the first two sessions of the third day of the first match.
After keeping South Africa to 352 in their first innings, West Indies folded for 102 all out in 47.1 overs. It was a hapless performance. Only a last-wicket partnership of 27 saved them from double-figure humiliation. Defeat by 163 runs, with a day to spare, was the inevitable outcome.
Long before then, the trials and tribulations of the French and Italians and England's great escape in South Africa had provided potential cricket supporters with a welcome distraction. Their mood was reflected in their pointed absence from the second Test at Warner Park in St Kitts.
Those diehards who turned out did see a spirited West Indies response to their first Test demise. On a pitch apparently transported the few miles across the Caribbean from the Antigua Recreation Ground, that scene of batting records, they even had the satisfaction of hundreds by Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Brendan Nash and a first-innings lead. But it was meaningless to the outcome of the match.
Indeed, nothing demeans Test cricket quite as much as run-heavy draws on placid pitches. When this was compounded by the abhorrent cynicism of both teams over the first two sessions of the fourth day, the game's traditional format was further debased. The West Indies were 424 for 4 at the start, responding to South Africa's 543 for 6 declared. It was an equation that shouted draw.
What followed was the noise of nails being hammered into a coffin that is awaiting the limp body of Test cricket, now increasingly weakened by the shallow, all-action excitement of the Twenty20. South Africa adopted the tactic of left-arm spinner Paul Harris bowling a foot and more outside leg-stump from over the wicket from one end and fast bowlers firing it the same distance wide off stump from the other.
Chanderpaul and Dwayne Bravo reacted to such go-slow methods with their own. Chanderpaul blocked, Bravo kept kicking the ball away. The first session yielded 39 runs off 29 overs in two hours. The second brought the same slim pickings. It was not Test cricket. It was not cricket, period. It was an approach by highly-paid cricketers guaranteed to undermine a sport that is their profession.
Each team cast the blame elsewhere, mainly the pitch and each other. Neither seemed to accept the responsibility was theirs. Graeme Smith, the South African captain, said during the week that a Test championship is "a matter of urgency to stimulate the five-day game".
"Such a championship would give context and value to every Test match and would stimulate interest in the five-day game worldwide," he reasoned. That may or may not be so but the players must surely recognise their part in ensuring that Tests remain the pinnacle of the game, a position they all profess to accept.
They shirked their duty in St Kitts. They cannot be surprised when so few now turn out to watch them, even at Kensington Oval where the names of great players adorn stands that were once crammed to capacity to watch contests such as yesterday's.
Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for nearly 50 years