Back before ropes in from the boundary, helmets protecting the whole skull, railway sleeper bats and benign drop-in autobahn pitches, explosive Caribbean pacemen and stroke-players ruled the cricket world. My formative cricket junkie-dom was haunted by the searing, rearing spectre of Roberts, Holding, Garner, Patterson, Marshall, Croft, Walsh and Ambrose. Of late the Windies have fallen from decline to ridiculous.
In the past decade, the West Indians have played 87 Test matches. They have won just 15 of them: one against Sri Lanka, Pakistan and South Africa, two against England and Zimbabwe, three against New Zealand and five against Bangladesh. In the same time frame they have won 83 One-Day Internationals from 211 starts. Anchored to the foot of the ICC rankings, the men from the Caribbean have been downgraded since 2008 to three and even two test series. The pace arsenal has faded from furiously forceful to farcically facile, the batting from explosive to execrable.
Once anticipated keenly, in a “this-time-we-can-do-it” way, now the primary interest in a series against the Calypso Collapsos lies in the extent of the smashing. The 2015-16 Cricket Australia home summer Test match program put all focus on November. The inaugural Adelaide pink ball centrepiece Test against New Zealand featured pressure-packed cricket on a sporting pitch against an exuberant backdrop of sunset and convivial society. Cricket Australia sighs of relief were audible in ODI publicity.
After Ian Chappell’s side lost the 60 over World Cup final in 1975 to Clive Lloyd’s team, but tore them apart 5-1 in 1975-6, the World Series of 1977-8 kicked off an extended period of evolving Australian elevens being knocked over by superior line-ups from the Caribbean. The tide was briefly turned in Melbourne on Boxing Day, 1981, when Kim Hughes defied the first-mentioned four pacemen over four and a half hours to record an heroic unbeaten hundred. Lillee removed Haynes, nightwatchman Croft, then Viv himself with an off-cutter, last ball of a tumultuous day. The Calypso Kings wobbled at 4-10. Australia won by 58 runs.
The next memorable upset coincided with Clive Lloyd’s last Test, the Sydney New Year match-up of 1987, in which Australia batted first, dug in for two days and ground out 471. Then 38-year-old Bob Holland exploited the one dodgy link in the Caribbean batting armoury, their uncertainty against probing leg spin. In a master class of flight and variation, ‘Dutchy’ extracted 6-54 and 4-90 from a combined 55 overs as the tourists followed on. Australia won by an innings and 55. The SCG Hill was in ecstasy. The Kings went down this time, but they reigned for eight more years.
In the home summer of 1988-9 Merv Hughes grabbed a hat-trick in Perth and Allan Border turned spin-wiz for once with an amazing eleven wicket haul in Sydney, our fifth Test win merely a consolation as we went down 3-1. In 1991 in the Caribbean, AB’s men fought hard, but rain in the Third Test washed away a winning chance and a caning in Barbados, courtesy of hometown legend Greenidge’s 226 closed out the Worrell trophy. We managed a consolation Fifth Test win…again, when all was lost. Perhaps the champs took the foot off the pedal when Frankie was in the bag.
But chinks were opening in the armour. When the Windies landed in Australia in November 1992 for five tests, true believers dared to dream. In Brisbane they were chasing 231 to win and we had them 3-3, but ‘Mo’ Matthews couldn’t spin them out and they finished 8 down and 98 adrift. So near, yet so far. But no one foretold the Coming of Warnie. The flipper that bowled Richardson began his second-innings seven-wicket rout and it was 1-0. Sydney featured rain and Lara’s coming-of-age 277.
Then came Adelaide. Heroes emerged: Justin Langer, on debut at three, ground out a magnificent 54 in the second innings. Tim May was 42 not out at the death, having cleaned up the day before with 5 for 9. Nowadays a third umpire would have ruled not out the Walsh ball that missed MacDermott’s bat and glove. The one-run soul-destroyer might have been a series-winning one-wicket triumph. 1-1 would have been 2-0. But it became 1-2 when Ambrose destroyed us on an old-style Perth trampoline.
Then, it happened. In 1995 we returned to the Caribbean. McGrath announced he would bounce the West Indian tail. He did and we went 1-0 after three days in Barbados with MacDermott already injured and home. Ambrose might have lost a yard, but levelled the series with his nine wickets on a Trinidad green-top after the Second Test was drawn. It all came down to Jamaica.
Steve Waugh (429 at 107.25 over four Tests) crafted his matchless seven-hour 200 in the Kingston cauldron. In partnership with brother Mark (126), Steve got so far up Ambrose’s nose that his skipper had to hold him back. Winston Benjamin wept. The Windies lost their unofficial World Champ status. The ICC then formalised the title.
How things have changed. Australia retained the Frank Worrell trophy 3-2 at home in 1996-7 and 2-2 away just before the 1999 World Cup, despite Lara’s lone-hand heroic 153 not out that manufactured the one-wicket triumph at Bridgetown and his match-winning 213 in Kingston. For the now-seasoned cricket tragic still haunted by Viv, Holding and company McGrath’s Perth hat-trick and the full majesty of our 2000-01 home boot-on-the-other-foot 5-0 smashing of Jimmy Adams and his men was sweet.
Australian redressing of the balance continued in the Caribbean in 2003, until an amazing record 418 run chase at Antigua killed our dream run at eight in a row, the Windies now having to settle for the consolation win in the last Test. Still, 3-1 to Australia was comprehensive. By 2005, Brian Lara and to a lesser degree Shiv Chanderpaul were getting most of the runs. With his team 2-0 down in Adelaide, Lara made 226 of the Windies’ 405, but it wasn’t enough to avert whitewash.
By 2008 IPL riches were beckoning for the first time. Skipper Chris Gayle’s head was probably already turned. He was unable to prevent a 2-0 home loss. Chanderpaul, arguably a better choice for leader, crafted two unbeaten knocks of 107 and 77 in the drawn Antigua Second Test. In November 2009, Australia repeated the comfortable 2-0 victory at home, the Windies only showing resistance in the drawn Adelaide Test. April 2012 in the Caribbean saw an Aussie 2-0 hat-trick. In April 2015, same place, same result. The 2016 Sydney washout made it 2-0 to Australia in the last five series.
The 2015-16 Australian romp looks comprehensive, but stats show more. Australia rampaged to 4 dec for 583 in the First Test, then sliced through the visitors: 223 and 148 following on. In the second we deigned to bat twice on a flat Melbourne dropin pitch, declaring at three down in both for 551 and 179 (in just 32 overs). The Windies struggled to 271 and 282. As Boxing Day Tests go, it was underwhelming, flogged in the ratings by the nascent 20-20 Big Bash. On two rainless Third Test days the Windies managed 330. Warner whacked a ton from 82 and the captains shook hands.
Australia scored 12 for 1,489 at a run-rate of 4.66, an average of 124.25 per wicket. The visitors fell a century shy of that: 50 for 1,254 @ 25.08. Voges, Smith, Khawaja, Warner, Burns and Shaun Marsh all made centuries, to one from Bravo. Australian bowlers pack-hunted series averages between 21 and 29. Bravo and the Brathwaites managed batting averages above 40. The rest collapsed like a pack of cards…nine, ten and Jack. Bowling numbers might look good if they were for batting. The Brathwaites would have taken 150 and 162 with the bat. Holder managed two wickets at 93. Ouch.
There is nothing on Caribbean radar. No Marshall, Garner, Holding. No Viv. No Lara. The West Indian board can’t compete with the cashed up IPL, or even the BBL in the 2015-16 summer, with at least five West Indians, including headlining bad boy Chris Gayle, turning out as hired-gun entertainers for the lollipop-coloured franchises. By the time the Windies tour again, Gayle, 37 in September 2016 might have passed his use-by age to tour as a Test cricketer and add to his 7,214 runs at 42 or 73 wickets at 42. His Big Bash dash is well and truly done due to his foot-in-mouth syndrome.
With the West Indies, Barisal Burners, Dhaka Gladiators, ICC World XI, Jamaica, Jamaica Tallawahs, Kolkata Knight Riders, Matabeleland Tuskers, Melbourne Renegades, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Somerset, Stanford Superstars, Sydney Thunder, Western Australia and Worcestershire, Gayle must surely hold the record for the most “major teams” represented in cricket. This appears to be the way of the cricketing world for the West Indians. Their men will go where the money is, unless the Windies board dredges from the deep an unlikely pirate chest of untold riches.
Caribbean cricket hopes disappear into the vortex. A player contractual revolt in 2014 led to the cancellation of a Test series in India. Pots of gold entice from ends of rainbows elsewhere, with basketball and athletics stealing fringe talent as yet unclaimed. Usain Bolt might have been the next Michael Holding, if the planets had aligned a little differently. The days of new pacemen falling like coconuts from palm trees are past. Jason Holder spoke soberly of modest, incremental targets this 2015-16 summer. Batting gradually improved, but bowling descended further into farce.
As one who dreaded the coming of the Caribbean Kings and rode every vicious bouncer at the throats of AB et al, I have come a full circle myself. Joy and fear in equal measures have evolved into indifference and a sacrilegious kind of boredom. The fall and fall of the West Indies looks to continue and I feel an emotion so alien to my 1977-2000 self in relation to West Indian cricket that I am disturbed.
I feel pity.