No one is more painfully aware of the rapid disintegration of West Indies cricket than West Indians themselves. The proof has been before our eyes for at least a decade now, at our once-filled grounds, on our television screens, in our newspapers.
Once the most powerful force in the game, it has become so weak and woeful that its Test and ODI teams languish in the nether regions of the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings. The reasons for the sorry state of affairs are myriad but easily identified. As responsible as any is the environment of constant confrontation between an inept administration, all but bankrupt both financially and intellectually, and mollycoddled players who have been allowed to become idle and indisciplined for lack of leadership.
For all that, the abuse and scorn heaped on the team in the Australian press following its defeat in the first Test in Brisbane last week - by an innings and in three days - was undeserved. Much of it was simply beyond the pale.
The circumstances of the match were largely overlooked. Until it was significantly pointed out by the Australian coach Tim Nielsen, so too was the recent history of the first Test at the Gabba. And comparisons with Australia's similar decline in the 1980s, when their overall win-lost ratio in 92 Tests was 18-36 (5-16 against West Indies), were conveniently ignored.
Instead, we had this supercilious comment from Malcolm Conn, the long-serving writer for the Australian: "Have the West Indies really sent their full-strength team to Australia? Surely the real team must be still on strike, because if this is the best the combined might of the Caribbean can muster, then Test cricket is in terminal decline."
He was in the Caribbean with the Australian team in 1984 when West Indies did not lose a single second innings wicket in the five Tests, winning the series 3-0 on the way to six successive victories. As I recall, no one suggested then that Test cricket was in terminal decline because of it.
Nor was there any consideration by the West Indies board that the series "should be cancelled and all tickets refunded", the line Ben Dorries came up with in the Brisbane Courier-Mail after the Brisbane match. And, as bad as the Aussies were back then, they were not chided that their Test cricket had become "a complete and utter joke", another of Dorries' pearls.
Th captain of Australia during that dismal period was Kim Hughes.In his 28 Tests at the helm, Australia lost 13 Tests, against four victories. He resigned in 1984 after his team had been beaten for the fifth successive time by the West Indies, ironically at the same Gabba.
He cut a forlorn figure as he openly wept in front of the assembled media, pleading: "The constant criticism, speculation and innuendo by former players over the past four or five years have finally taken their toll". Given such a background, he might have been expected to keep his thoughts about the present situation to himself. Instead, he weighed in.
West Indies, he charged, were "an embarrassment to themselves", adding that Chris Gayle doesn't believe in Test cricket and "his body language suggests he doesn't want to captain".
"I'm a passionate person about Test cricket and this was not a Test," Hughes added. It was an observation that could be applied to his last five Tests against West Indies that produced two defeats by an innings, two by ten wickets and one by eight wickets. As he made his whimpering exit from the captaincy, did Hughes think, as he did now, that "it's not fair on sponsors and the public, who would be asking `why did you accept this lot'".
I doubt it. Even though West Indies had shown signs of improvement, drawing short series against Sri Lanka and New Zealand and regaining the Wisden Trophy with a 1-0 triumph over England in the Caribbean earlier in the year (the same England that defeated Australia in the summer to regain the Ashes), the outcome of the Brisbane Test was not surprising. They had been beaten in their eight previous Tests in Australia and had not won a series there since 1992-93.
They arrived hardly a month after the upheaval that had led to the second strike in four years by the main players and were palpably unprepared for such a tough assignment. Their fastest bowler, Fidel Edwards, remained at home suffering from back and knee injuries.
Gayle made a flying visit to Jamaica to be with his ill mother and arrived back only two days before the toss. On the morning of the match, Ramnaresh Sarwan's stiff back eliminated him from the starting XI. Halfway through the first day, the only tested fast bowler, Jerome Taylor, damaged his hip badly enough to put him out of the tour.
These were serious handicaps, especially for the opening Test at the Gabba where Australia had prevailed in 15 of their 20 Tests since beaten by the West Indies in 1988. Six of those victories were by an innings, three by ten wickets, two by more than 300 runs, five by more than 100 runs. Gayle's team simply added to the list.
Yet, after Sri Lanka went down by an innings and 40 runs in 2007 (Australia 551 for 4 declared) or England by 277 runs in 2008 (Australia 602 for 9 declared and 202 for one declared), there were no snide remarks in the Australian media such as "this summer will be defined by the comical, not the competitive". (Jamie Pandaram in the Melbourne Age) and "how on earth can anybody be expected to maintain interest in this dog-eared series for two more Tests" (Robert Craddock in the Brisbane Courier-Mail).
There has always been a general perception among West Indians that their successes are grudgingly accepted by others, their failures celebrated.
At the height of their powers, when their fast bowling was its unequalled strength, legislation limited the number of bouncers in an over to one and there were proposals from serious commentators that the pitch should be lengthened. Prior to the tour of England in 1991, David Frith, editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, damned the team as "the most fearsome, the most successful and the most unpopular in the world".
"Their game is founded on vengeance and violence and is tinged with arrogance," Frith wrote. Now there is growing support for the specious thesis that the game in the region would be stronger if fragmented into its separate parts.
Fortunately there are those of substance and influence with a more sympathetic, and realistic, take on West Indies cricket, men such as Greg Chappell. "The region of the West Indies has been one of the great cricket-playing regions and it would be an absolute tragedy in my view if we lost the West Indian region to cricket," he said in his recent Bradman Oration in Melbourne. "I'm hopeful that some of the work that's being done to help West Indian cricket become strong again is successful because I think they're a very important member of the cricket family," he added.
It is up to West Indians themselves, on and off the field, to silence the detractors and fulfill Chappell's hope.