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Guest Column

How Holder and Sammy have changed the West Indies script

Thanks to them, the world is looking at West Indies as more than just a shadow of a once-glorious empire

Ahmer Naqvi
Ahmer Naqvi
Like Darren Sammy, Jason Holder has tried his best after being pushed into taking charge of an under-strength team  •  Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images

Like Darren Sammy, Jason Holder has tried his best after being pushed into taking charge of an under-strength team  •  Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images

At a little over three years old, Shannon Gabriel was one of only three members of the current West Indies squad to be alive when Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Jeffrey Dujon and Malcolm Marshall retired, marking the end of the golden era of the team. The youngest member of the current side, Alzarri Joseph, was only ten when Brian Lara retired, arguably the last symbol of the mythical past. It is either extremely lazy, or a testament to the enduring mythology of those old teams, that three decades later, any achievement or failure by West Indies leads to people dredging up the past.
It is not that other narratives about the team haven't existed, but they have often been ignored. For about a decade West Indies have been at the very outer limits of the game's most cutting-edge format. As documented in several places, they have created a singularly unique and dominant type of T20 side.
They have also created not one but two remarkably similar, barely believable bodies of work - the captaincies of Darren Sammy and Jason Holder. Their stories are not easy to discern looking at the numbers alone, but rather require the context of their appointments and the subtext to their performances. Because in all the discussion of the lamentable decline of West Indies cricket, it is almost always the players who are blamed first, and the chaotic administration seems to have been taken for granted as a constant. It's almost if we want to believe that greatness can go on forever without institutional support. And so, to look at Sammy's and Holder's captaincy numbers is to not understand their remarkable careers.
Sammy's story was the one Drake wishes he had. He was vice-captain in an under-strength side that became Bangladesh's first away series victims in Tests, and then was appointed captain after the contract dispute that led to that losing, under-strength side taking the field wasn't resolved. Sammy was hated for being the board's lackey and was called a terrible cricketer to boot. The men he replaced had at least carried the swag and strut of the Caribbean ideal. Sammy seemed like a meek yes man who had lucked his way into a job he didn't deserve.
About six years later, though, he was cradling his second world title while calling out the West Indies board in front of a global audience, now the righteous rebel adored by the world.
The entire saga was chaotic and could have overwhelmed anyone, especially a limited player leading a limited team. Despite that, Sammy kept his dignity by managing to find moments that mattered - a gritty Test hundred, a valiant chasing 50, a sudden flourish in a final. Unsurprisingly, the Test format was the one that exposed his captaincy and lack of top-level talent the most, but he snapped a long losing streak at the start of his stint.
Holder's elevation was in some ways similar to what producers do in sequels - they amp everything up. He was inexperienced, like Sammy, but also significantly younger; the second youngest captain in West Indies' history in Tests. Like Sammy, his elevation had much to do with the kind of administrative dysfunction that seemed by then to have become a part of the scenery.
Thrown in at the deep end, Holder immediately became a better version of Sammy's dignified trier. As a more talented cricketer, he has been able to assert his skills far better, but he has had to deal with the similar lack of a full-strength squad. While his ODI team has struggled, the Test side has slowly started finding an identity. Since his first Test win, against Pakistan in Sharjah, Holder's team has a record just fractionally poorer than England's and better than that of any Asian side other than India.
West Indies' recent series win against England has meant that there is now a similar sense of redemption for Holder too. It has helped that his appointment lacked the controversy and chaos of Sammy's, and his ability to raise his game and keep performing close to the level of a genuine allrounder has provided him a sense of security. Given his situation, this is nothing short of extraordinary.
What ties both these cricketers together, and makes for a remarkable story, is how resolutely they have led from the front. Sammy's travails are, in hindsight, more romantic because he was a more limited cricketer, and the dysfunction he inherited was new. Perhaps because of that, his transformation into a global superstar is even more remarkable. Just take a look at the uninhibited adoration he receives in Pakistan, where his exploits for Peshawar Zalmi have made him a household name.
Holder's career holds greater promise. The young man has already posted all-time great statistics while leading as captain, and has all the tools needed to become another Caribbean T20 superstar. But even if he doesn't, his courage and perseverance for the national team are incredible enough.
Perhaps, then, it is time that we come to see this decade as a completely different chapter in West Indies' history, which for better or worse has moved past the shadow of the golden age and lives in its own contradictions and achievements. The tales of Sammy and Holder are about a new form of defiance and dignity - which exist in the face of a new set of challenges to do not only with the domestic administration but the rapidly changing economic reality of the sport itself. It is against this behemoth of a challenge that we should learn to think of West Indies, and break away from regurgitating the distant past.

Ahmer Naqvi writes on cricket, music, film and pop culture. He appears on Journoeyes and Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal