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When the West Indies ruled the world
Nowadays, you’re more likely to catch an NBA game in a Caribbean sports bar, but if there’s the chance of dropping in on a cricket match, seize it. Whether it’s for a fast and furious T20 game under floodlights, or the more staid but no less intense five-day Test match all in whites, the Caribbean puts its unique spin on what is, after all, one of the most followed sports on the planet. For the uninitiated, here a few pointers to get things going…
An International Anomaly
The West Indies team is one of the few international teams in sports which does not represent an actual country. Instead, the team represents 15 countries across the Caribbean, ranging from the smallest island Montserrat to the largest, Jamaica. In regional competition, the smaller islands combine as the Leeward and Windward islands respectively. All but one of the countries are island nations; only Guyana is on the South American mainland.
Picture the headache of picking a Ryder Cup or NBA Olympic Team and you have only a fraction of the trauma which goes into selecting a West Indies cricket team. Historically, four nations have provided the backbone: Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, and Guyana. The rivalry between these four is fierce, particularly between Jamaica and Barbados or Barbados and T&T. In international terms, Tests between the West Indies and England are always boisterous, but the real battle of wits is with Australia, the team which took the West Indies’ crown as world-beaters.
Although the West Indies team started out as a white-dominated outfit, home-grown players came to prominence in the 1960s. From 1974 to 1991, the West Indies cricket team was indomitable and inspiring, winning the World Cup twice in 1975 and 1979 and unbeaten for 27 straight tests. This untouchable side, full of swagger and grace, went 15 years without losing a series. After a seemingly irreversible decline, signs of a recovery emerged in 2012 when the T20 side won the World Cup.
The Three W’s
I was once asked at Immigration in Barbados to name the ‘Three W’s’. Although a correct answer was not explicitly a condition of entry, it felt like it. Barbados is fiercely proud of three of its great batsmen in the 1950s, Weekes, Worrell and Walcott, who dominated the game at home and abroad.
The Four Horsemen
Two decades later, four fast bowlers dubbed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse came to encapsulate West Indies cricket and terrify opponents. Holding, Croft, Roberts and Garner were gentlemen off the field, but unplayable on it. The inability of modern West Indies cricket to produce fast bowlers of similar class has been a major factor in the team’s decline. On field, they tore into sides with breathtaking precision. Off-field, their exploits and mannerisms were recreated by hundreds of children with tennis balls and makeshift wickets on the street in the gaps between traffic.
West Indies cricket grounds are some of the most picturesque in the sport, and famed for their atmosphere. Trinidad’s Queen’s Park Oval is the oldest, nestling at the foot of the Northern Mountain range while Barbados’ Kensington Oval is atmospheric and always feels full. Both are the scene of some epic innings and tests. Antigua, too, used to be famed for its Recreation Ground, but the move to a blander concrete stadium has characterized an overall change across the islands for more modern, but less inspiring grounds. Gone are the days when DJ Chickie in Antigua played salient Calypso cuts to taunt opponents between overs. Modern cricket has sacrificed a great deal of atmosphere for corporate branding and organized fun.
In the 1960s, Sir Garfield Sobers stood head and shoulders above the competition as the game’s ultimate all-rounder and held the record for the highest individual total. Fittingly, it was his young Trinidadian “compatriot” who eventually broke his record. Brian Lara in action was a masterclass in unruffled elegance. In 1994, he set a new record in Antigua against England to delirious scenes, kneeling down to kiss the turf before being mobbed by spectators. When the record was soon passed, he reclaimed it again, this time in 2004, but still against England and again in Antigua. His score of 400 remains the benchmark of greatness.
West Indies cricket does not perhaps excite the passion it once did, but it remains an important aspect of Caribbean life. The 2010 documentary Fire in Babylon beautifully encapsulates the rise of the Golden Age and the struggles which led to its decline, weaving in the music and personalities from the time when West Indies cricket ruled the world.
If you'd like to offer your solution to West Indies cricket or reminisce about the golden days, head to the forum to add your thoughts.
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