We worshipped the West Indians because they were larger than life. Everything they did was idiosyncratic, stylish, and gilded with their pleasure in playing.
The vacuum left in world cricket and in our imaginations by the wretched decline of the West Indies hasn't been, and can't be, filled by Australia, any more than Germany could hope to replace Brazil in the affections of the world's football fans.
LARGER THAN LIFE: Clive Lloyd at the height of West Indian supremacy. PHOTOS: ADRIAN MURRELL/ALLSPORT UK
Something has gone, and ink and print
Will never bring it back;
I long for the great days again,
When the kings in white were black.
"The Bookworm" by Walter de la Mare
WHEN I was in school there was a country called the West Indies, which was and always would be the undisputed champion of the cricket-playing world. Like Atlantis or Macondo, this country had no coordinates; it was an exotic land, proximate to nothing its cricketers were gods.
Except one or two who weren't. There were West Indians like Roy Gilchrist who bowled beamers and Charlie Griffith who chucked. Ken Barrington used up a chapter of his book to demonstrate that Griffith threw his bouncer. He had a photo of Griffith in his delivery stride with his arm cocked like a javelin thrower about to spear the air. Charlie wasn't a god; he was a demon, a rakshasa, who had broken Nari Contractor's head with a bouncer that didn't bounce. Nobody in my class knew much about Contractor. He was an old cricketer, not a working model, a captain with a queer name who had been retired by a demon bowler. Our captain was the Nawab of Pataudi. We didn't think of him as the current captain because we didn't think we'd need another one. He was young and whole except for one eye, which didn't hold him back; it made him an epic Hero.
This didn't mean he could beat the West Indies. No one could, on account of them being gods. The captain of the West Indies, Frank Worrell visited my school in Delhi. I didn't meet him; it was after class hours or something, but the cricket team got to shake his hand. Then a year later he was dead. Leukaemia. We knew what leukaemia was; it was blood cancer. Dying of it took time so he must have had it the day he came to visit. The thought of Worrell dying on his feet even as he shook our hands made us solemn. His death was a tragedy, a public tragedy, something that I remembered for years, something that I knew my classmates wouldn't forget, like the death of Martin Luther King. That's how important the West Indies team was for boys who followed cricket. This meant nearly everyone in my class except a boy who was fat and played tennis. He claimed he didn't know who Worrell was.
Wesley Hall, the better half of the fast bowling firm Hall & Griffith, was as godlike as his fast-bowling partner was wicked. Hall had bowled the last over of the tied Test and kept the Aussies from winning. His run-up began where the sightscreen ended. His gold cross bounced off his enormous chest as he ran in, hypnotising frightened batsmen. There was no television then but we had a picture of him in our heads, put there by commentators like V.M. Chakrapani and Pearson Surita, who presided over a little golden age of Indian cricket broadcasting before Suresh Saraiya filled the airwaves with syntax-free noise. We knew (or were reliably told) that Sobers had beer brought out for him during drinks breaks. They beat us, somewhere in the early-1960s, then they beat us again and when we finally beat them in 1971 in the West Indies, we were wildly happy, but deep within we knew that we had beaten an ageing team. Hall had retired in 1969; Sobers had one great innings left in him, the extraordinary 254 for the Rest of the World against Australia, and while he and Rohan Kanhai played Test cricket till 1974, they were both well past their prime. For a year or four, West Indian supremacy, the cornerstone of Test cricket, wobbled.
LETHAL GRACE: Marshall, (below) Holding and Roberts menaced opponents with genius or a speaking look. PHOTOS: CHRIS COLE/ALLSPORT UK and ADRIAN MURRELL/ALLSPORT UK
Defeating the West Indies was unsettling because we liked having the West Indies in charge of world cricket. They were brilliant to watch and we didn't want England or Australia on top. We knew we weren't good enough to be the world's best team; till we were, we wanted the Windies to rule.
* * *
Why did West Indian supremacy seem part of the natural order of cricket for Indian boys? We knew nothing about the Caribbean outside of cricket, being too young for Derek Walcott or C.L.R. James or rum. That the West Indians were black made no difference to us: 12-year-old boys, even post-colonial boys, don't run to political correctness. Considering how keen Indians are on being light-skinned, in the matter of cricket we were completely colour-blind. (Given the generally racist prejudice against people of African origin in India it's an interesting sidelight that the two foreign cricketing heroes Indian actresses went out with were both West Indian: Sobers (Anju Mahendru) and Richards (Neena Gupta)). We disliked English teams for their dullness, admired the Australians from a distance because they didn't tour India much, knew nothing about the South Africans or the Pakistanis because we didn't play them, but we worshipped the West Indians.
We worshipped them because they were larger than life. Everything they did was idiosyncratic, stylish, and gilded with their pleasure in playing. Style in the Indian fan's vocabulary is synonymous with flourish; we loved the West Indian cricketing manner because it confirmed our understanding of style. Extravagant backlifts, Kanhai's falling hook, Lloyd's improbable speed at cover, Richards slapping Chandrasekhar one-handed for four, Malcolm Marshall sprinting through his bowling action without pausing to leap, Alvin Kallicharan's left-handed loveliness, the furious exertions of fast bowling made ethereal by Michael Holding's lethal grace, even as we rooted for India and even as the West Indies inevitably beat us, we recognised that the specialness of their play had as much to do with self-expression as competitiveness.
To put this in comparative perspective, for us the antithesis of the West Indies was England. With the exception of David Gower, Ian Botham, Alan Knott and Derek Randall, English cricket for 40 years was staffed by joyless journeymen. Since Barrington retired in 1968 England hasn't produced a single great batsman. Geoffrey Boycott was what Gavaskar would have been without the genius. Graham Gooch and Colin Cowdrey have their admirers but their mothers wouldn't claim greatness for them. Then there were the Southern African imports, Robin Smith and Allan Lamb, who played seam bowling like well-made wind-up toys but never came within reaching distance of the first rank. Gower was wonderful: a left-handed waif from Neverland, he was a maestro with the bat. Bowling sides did his bidding like obedient orchestras. But he was never the fulcrum of his side, nor dominant enough to qualify as an immortal: he remains, as Christopher Isherwood once said of himself, in the front row of the second rank.
Interestingly, English teams have always amounted to more than the sum of their parts: the glue of a dour professionalism made them harder to beat than their meagre talent suggested. They had a certain life-denying skill best illustrated by Nasser Hussain making Ashley Giles bowl left-arm over the wicket, wide of the leg-stump to thwart Tendulkar, a low canniness that compensated for a near-complete absence of flair. Among the many things the West Indies gave to world cricket, being not-England was an important gift.
* * *
Since you have to take sides if you're listening to or watching a Test match, our rule of thumb was this: if India wasn't playing we rooted for the West Indies. It was an odd business, this referred loyalty. I remember the West Indies tour of Australia in 1975/76. Lloyd, in a pre-tour press conference was a happy man. His team was stuffed to bursting with once-in-a-generation young talent. The West Indies had discovered Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards the year before in the course of their tour of India, they had Andy Roberts, then the most fearsome new ball bowler in the world and now they had found a young Michael Holding. Then there was Lloyd himself and that pocket berserker, Roy Fredericks. If they give us fast pitches, said Lloyd, we'll deal with them. It was a six test series the West Indies lost 5-1. I was devastated. India had been well beaten by Lloyd's men; that we could deal with. We were Indian fans after all, used to losing, but having our conquerors routed was demoralising; it devalued our defeats.
Switching our if-India-isn't-playing loyalty to Australia wasn't an option; the West Indies were irreplaceable in that role because they managed to be formidable and likeable at once. If the alleged gentlemanliness of cricket was ever embodied, if there ever were any cricketing gents, they played for the West Indians. Think of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Matthew Hayden, pretty much the whole Australian team that's ruled the world these past 10 years and the spitting and sledging and effing that's been their theme song and then think of the West Indies in its pomp: Sobers, Lloyd, Richards, Marshall, Holding, Roberts, Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, champions who didn't need `mental disintegration' as a verbal strategy, who menaced opponents with genius or a speaking look. Having the good guys in charge was a comfortable feeling; now we're ruled by thuggish enforcers.
When I read Brian Lara on Sachin Tendulkar, I find nothing but generosity, the recognition of a great contemporary; similarly, asked to comment on the likelihood of Ponting overhauling his records, Tendulkar talked of playing Ponting in the 1990s when he showed early signs of his special talent; in contrast, my memories of Australians commenting on their peers are a) Ponting's characterisation of Lara as a selfish batsman after Lara had established a new Test record for the highest individual score when he scored 400 runs, of putting personal glory before the interests of the West Indies team (implicitly congratulating himself as a team player), and b) Warne trashing Murali's record as one inflated by cheap wickets against weak sides. It isn't hard for the neutral fan to spot the difference between men who let their work speak for itself and players spinning for posterity before their careers are done.
* * *
The historical reason no other team can fill the special place that the West Indies held in the imagination of Indian fans is that Indian cricket came of age during the high noon of West Indian dominance. There were other great triumphs, most notably the Chandrasekhar-led victory against England at the Oval in 1971, but the big story of modern Indian cricket is, as Raju Bharatan might have put it, our duet with the West Indies. Starting with Gavaskar in 1971 and ending with Gavaskar in 1983-84, India made its bones against the West Indies. And because the world champions had such mystique, India's occasional but spectacular successes against them in this period were limned with a special radiance. Gavaskar's debut series 774 runs in four Tests, a double century and a century in the same match and all in the cause of a series win away from home would have been sensational in any context, but against the West Indies in their backyard, these became the stuff of legend. An obscure calypso writer, Lord Relator composed a verse in praise of Gavaskar so sublimely awful that it passed as naively good and helped transport Gavaskar's achievement to the realm of knightly lore. On a smaller scale, the menace of Roberts and company in Madras in 1974-75 raised Gundappa Vishwanath's unbeaten 97 to the rank of possibly the Indian innings against real pace on a fast pitch. West Indian greatness was such a given that anything achieved against them was magnified by their presence.
The next landmark in this narrative of Indian heroism was the time the team chased down 403 runs in the fourth innings in 1976 at Port of Spain (again starring Gavaskar with Mohinder Amarnath, Vishwanath and Brijesh Patel in supporting roles) which nudged Lloyd towards the four-pronged pace attack that underwrote West Indian dominance for years afterwards. Then came that storied conquest of the World Champions at Lord's, winners of the first two World Cups, vanquished, against all the odds, by Kapil's devils in the finals of the 1983 World Cup. Finally, as a coda, we might end with the savage 94-ball 100 struck by Gavaskar against a rampant Marshall in the Delhi Test of 1983. India had a special relationship with the West Indies: Caribbean greatness was the stern context for individual heroics and epic (if occasional) team triumphs.
Australia rules world cricket now, and has done for nearly 10 years; so it could be reasonably argued that Australian dominance is the arena for Indian derring-do. Warne and McGrath have a decent claim to being the greatest slow and fast bowlers in the history of Test cricket, and Steve Waugh, Gilchrist, Hayden and Ponting are, or once were, among the batting greats of the modern game. We have had the rousing spectacle of Tendulkar (and V.V.S. Laxman and Navjot Singh Sidhu) dismantling Warne from the late 1990s onwards, Harbhajan's single-handed destruction of Australia's batting juggernaut over a three-test series, Rahul Dravid's match-winning centuries in Kolkata and Adelaide and above all, the greatest innings ever played by an Indian batsman, Laxman's 281 at the Eden Gardens that reversed the momentum of a follow-on, broke Australia's winning run and set up a series win for India.
But glorious and satisfying as these achievements are, the vacuum left in world cricket and in our imaginations by the wretched decline of the West Indies hasn't been, and can't be, filled by Australia, any more than Germany could hope to replace Brazil in the affections of the world's football fans. Brazil was more than a national team: it was proof that competitive professional football could be a thing of beauty and pleasure and delight. Pele, Garrincha, Socrates, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho were great individual players, geniuses even, but there have been great players elsewhere: Beckenbauer, Eusebio, Cruyff, Maradona, Zidane. What made the Brazilians different was that when they played together, they made magic, they offered the most chauvinist fan passages of transcendence, in earthbound stadiums they conjured up football's heaven. That's why, when good footballers die, they go to Rio.
Not Munich. The Germans were a formidable football machine: at their best they generated awe, at worst, fear and loathing, but never did they inspire reverence or affection or love in anyone who wasn't German. Their victories bred resentment because of the manner in which they were won: I can remember the German goalkeeper hospitalising a French forward with a frighteningly cynical tackle in a World Cup match. Their defeats were cues for schadenfreude.
Australia is contemporary cricket's Germany. Hayden and Ponting and McGrath are the Teutons of the modern game, superbly fit, their regimens based on the latest sporting science, their talent organised and marshalled in academies, their series preceded by organised outbursts of trash talk. Australia's supremacy, hard-earned and deserved though it is, highlights how little the cricket world can afford to do without a West Indian side strong enough to demonstrate that cricket needn't be graceless to be competitive.
The West Indies could be less than nice: four fast bowlers bowling 12 overs an hour didn't always make for pretty cricket and Indians my age remember the Indian captain, Bishan Singh Bedi declaring the innings closed with five wickets left to fall, in Sabina Park, 1976, because the remaining batsmen were either injured or tail-enders who couldn't cope with the diet of short-pitched balls Lloyd's bowlers were serving up.
And, as we noted in the beginning of this essay, there was the bad Charlie Griffith and Contractor's broken head. But on the whole (as fair-minded pedants like to say) West Indian cricketers gave my generation of spectators more pleasure than any three cricketing nations put together; more, their brilliance and grace helped us see that the game at its very best was bigger than nationalist feeling.
So I hope Dravid's men play wonderfully when they tour the Caribbean. But if Lara's West Indians play better and take the series, somewhere inside me, a boy's ghost might stir to grin and cheer as cricket's world turns right-side up again.
Mukul Kesavan's Men in White, a book on cricket, will be published by Penguin later this year.
Windies at high noon
1948: The series against England saw the rise of the Three W's Walcott, Worrell and Weekes of what went on to become the greatest batting middle order combination in Test cricket history.
1950: Historic win at Lord's. West Indies lost the first Test at Old Trafford but the Windies jumped back in the second Test at the Mecca of cricket. With Worrell making 52 in the first innings and Walcott 168 in the second, Valentine and Ramadhin broke through the England batting order with four and five wickets respectively in the first innings. In the second innings, Ramadhin's figures were six for 86 from 71 overs.
1959: Sobers' record making 365 at the Third Test against Pakistan at Sabina Park. Sobers batted for 10 hours and eight minutes and shared a record second wicket partnership with Conrad Hunte for 446.
1960: The famous Tied Test (December 9-14, 1960) in the series against Australia. The West Indies made 453 with Sobers on 132. In reply Australia made 505. In the second innings, the Windies fell for 284 and Australia made 232, the first tied match in test cricket.
1975: West Indies win the first World Cup Finals at Lord's on June 21, 1975. Led by Clive Lloyd, the Windies beat Australia by 17 runs. A captain's knock of 102 (two sixes and 12 fours off 88 balls in 108 minutes) saw the West Indies through to 291 for eight. In reply Australia made 274. From 11.00 a.m. to 8.45 p.m., it was the longest one in the history of cricket.
1976:This year saw the emergence of two outstanding cricketers Michael Holding and Viv Richards. Both shone in the series against England. In the fifth Test at the Oval, Holding took 14 wickets for 149 runs. No other bowler took more than 3 wickets. Despite missing one Test through an injury, Richards finished that series with 829 runs in four tests with an average of 118.42 and the year with 1811 runs.
1979: West Indies emphasised their domination of world cricket by lifting the second Prudential World Cup. Collis King (86) and Viv Richards (138 not out) with a partnership of 151 runs took the West Indies to 286 for nine. In reply, England were bundled out for 192 with Joel Garner taking five wickets for 38 runs off 11 overs.
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