Sadness in the season of gladness: The state of West Indies cricket By Winston McGowan
Stabroek News
December 28, 2000

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No season in Guyana is marked by as much joy as Christmas. Admittedly, much of this joy is cosmetic, material and sensual rather than the spiritual happiness which should be associated with the birth of Christ.

For many Guyanese the joy normally experienced at Christmas is enhanced or reduced by one factor, namely, the performance of the West Indies cricket team. Though first-class and Test matches have never been played in the Caribbean in December, the West Indies have frequently been involved in such games at Christmas during tours to three distant continents - Australia, Asia and, more recently, Africa.

This development first began in 1930 in Australia and occurred next eighteen years later in India in 1948 in the initial Test series between the West Indies and these two countries. The originally periodic cricket encounters overseas in December have become regular in recent years. In 1996 the West Indies team was in Australia, in 1997 in Pakistan, in 1998 in South Africa, in 1999 in New Zealand and this year again in Australia.

In 1996 Guyanese were thrilled by the performance of Courtney Walsh's team in the third Test which began on Boxing Day at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground before a massive crowd of 72,000, the largest attendance at a Test there for 21 years. The West Indies, after having lost the first two Tests by 123 and 124 runs, won this decisive game in three days by six wickets. This welcome victory was due above all to the penetrative bowling of Curtly Ambrose, who captured 9 wickets for 72 runs in the match, and good batting by Jimmy Adams (74 not out), Junior Murray (53) and Shivnarine Chanderpaul (58 and 40), his 11th fifty in only 21 Test innings.

The joy over this success, however, was transient. The Australians won the next Test at Adelaide by an innings and 183 runs, the heaviest defeat suffered by the West Indies in Australia, and the series by three games to two.

Since that victory at Melbourne in December 1996, Christmas, the season of gladness, has been a period of increasingly deep sadness for Guyanese cricket lovers. In the following December, we suffered both the sadness and shock of an unexpected humiliating massacre in Pakistan. There the West Indies experienced overwhelming defeats on excellent pitches in both the one-day quadrangular Wills Golden Jubilee tournament and the three Test matches against Wasim Akram's team, who won by an innings and 19 runs at Peshawar, an innings and 29 runs at Rawalpindi and 10 wickets at Karachi.

This was the first occasion since their initial Test series in England in 1928, 69 years before, that the West Indies had lost all the matches in a rubber. It was their worst defeat since Caribbean cricket had come of age in the late 1940s - their heaviest defeat since the disappointing tour of England in 1957, when John Goddard's side lost three Tests by an innings but drew the other two matches.

The trouncing in Pakistan made Christmas 1997 a very sad occasion for ardent Caribbean cricket fans. As Tony Cozier, the region's leading cricket journalist and commentator lamented in a newspaper article on Christmas Day of that year "It may be the season to be jolly, but it's jolly difficult for those concerned about the state of West Indies cricket to get into the festive spirit. There is at present, nothing to celebrate."

Worse was to follow in 1998. The West Indies experienced a politically more unpalatable defeat in its historic initial official tour of formerly apartheid South Africa. The team suffered another embarrassing "whitewash", losing all the Tests in a five-match series for the first time in its long and distinguished history.

This rare result had occurred only six times before in Test cricket, and on each of the last three occasions - in 1962 against India in the Caribbean, and in 1984 and 1986 against England in England and in the Caribbean respectively - it was the West Indies who had inflicted such a humiliating defeat on other teams. With the exception of the first Test at Johannesburg which the West Indies lost by four wickets, the South African victories, though not as massive as the Pakistani wins a year earlier, were very emphatic - by 178 runs at Port Elizabeth, 9 wickets at Durban, 149 runs at Capetown, and 351 runs at Centurion.

Admittedly, Brian Lara's team managed to win one of the limited-over games against South Africa, losing that series by six matches to one. This, however, could not reduce the pain and shame felt by its supporters.

The pattern of capitulation overseas continued in the following year, 1999. Amazingly, the West Indies lost both Tests and all five one-day international games to New Zealand. It was, as a New Zealand journalist rightly described it, "one of the greatest upsets in the 122 years of cricket". It was the first time that New Zealand had won two Tests against the West Indies in any of the eleven series between the two teams dating back to their first encounter in 1952.

This unexpected defeat was surprising to Guyanese cricket fans for several reasons. Firstly, New Zealand has always been and continues to be at best a moderate force in international cricket. Secondly, the Kiwis had only one previous series victory over the West Indies, and that win in 1980 was due largely to partial umpiring. Thirdly, the West Indies had defeated the New Zealanders easily in their two previous encounters in 1995 in New Zealand and in 1996 in the Caribbean and had not lost a Test to them since 1987.

Guyanese cricket fans were at a loss to explain the two decisive Kiwi victories - by 9 wickets in the first Test and an innings and 105 runs on the fourth day in the second, the first ever New Zealand victory over the West Indies by an innings in 30 Tests between the two teams. In the process the Caribbean team had achieved two unenviable records. In the first Test, when Sherwin Campbell and Adrian Griffith put on 276 for the first wicket, they became the first team ever to be beaten in a Test after an opening partnership of more than 250 runs. Furthermore, the team experienced its tenth successive defeat overseas, a sequence never previously suffered by any team in Test cricket.

Understandably, Christmas 1999 was a painful occasion to the West Indies team, selectors and fans. As Captain Brian Lara rightly acknowledged, "Everyone is hurt... It's a greater hurt than in South Africa because it's a year later and you expect to make a difference." Similar sentiments were expressed by Mike Findlay, the chairman of the selectors, who remarked: "I am extremely disappointed over the humiliating results on the West Indies tour of New Zealand as I am sure millions of West Indians are."

It was with this incredibly poor record overseas in the last four years - endorsed by their recent first defeat by England in 31 years - that the West Indies arrived in Australia a month ago to engage the current world champions. Not surprisingly, the fourth regional team is being overwhelmed by the Aussies, making Christmas 2000 the fourth consecutive sad season for Guyanese cricket fans. With three Tests completed, Australia is in a position to achieve its first ever "whitewash" against the West Indies in the twenty Test series between the two teams.

Another experience of sadness in the season of gladness has highlighted the terrible plight of current Caribbean Test cricket. The reasons for the poor state of West Indies cricket will be presented in the next instalment of this article.

Last week the West Indies suffered its fourth defeat in the current Test series in Australia by the wide margin of 352 runs. This loss means that Australia is on the brink of achieving the first ever "whitewash" in the twenty series contested between the two teams, dating back to their initial clash "Down Under" in 1930-31.

The dismal performance of Jimmy Adams' team in Australia was a source of sadness to Caribbean cricket fans at Christmas, normally a season of gladness. It confirmed previous evidence of the poor state of Caribbean cricket at the highest level. Some of the causes of this situation will be presented in this article.

It is widely accepted that the marked decline of West Indies Test Cricket in recent years has come largely as a result of the retirement from international cricket of several of the region's most gifted players and the inability to find adequate replacements for them. These outstanding cricketers enabled the West Indies to exercise an unprecedented degree of dominance over world cricket for fifteen years in the 1980s and early 1990s, when they established a phenomenal record of 27 Test series without defeat. Notable among them were Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner and Jeffrey Dujon.

The presence of these players, especially the batsmen, has been sorely missed. In the last ten years the West Indies has not produced any batsman of genuine world class apart from Brian Lara. As a consequence, the team's batting continues to be extremely vulnerable, being based on an unhealthy dependence on one man. Particularly detrimental to the team's fortunes has been the failure to find a suitable replacement for the successful opening pair of Greenidge and Haynes.

The inability to replace these gifted players is due partly to the shortsighted policy of the West Indian cricket authorities, when the team was at its zenith, in not grooming players for the future. As Richie Richardson, who led the team when it was dethroned as world champions by Australia in 1995, rightly observed after the thrashing received in Pakistan in 1997:

"The problem is not just with the present team. Ten years ago if we had the vision we would have restructured our cricket to deal with the present situation. We did not protect our cricket. We did not put in place systems then to produce quality players. We were existing on the talents of a few guys who worked hard at their game."

While the West Indies were more or less indifferent to the critical need of developing future players, their rivals in Australia and South Africa were addressing the issue seriously and were managing to produce young players, such as Ricky Ponting, Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis, who were better equipped for Test cricket than their counterparts in the Caribbean. In short, the current state of West Indies cricket, especially when compared with that of Australia and South Africa, exemplifies well the truth of the adage, "To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail".

West Indies cricket suffered another setback after 1995 because of the initial failure to recognise and acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis which was engulfing the regional game at the highest level. For a long while the regional and national cricket authorities as well as some sections of the print media were not even willing to admit that West Indies Test cricket was facing a crisis. For example, as knowledgeable a person as Clive Lloyd was unduly positive in his assessment of regional cricket when there were clear signs of its decline.

In November 1997, just after the West Indies had easily lost all three of its matches in the quadrangular Wills Golden Jubilee one-day tournament in Lahore against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the winner, South Africa, and immediately before the three-match Test series against Pakistan, Lloyd, the team's manager, remarked:

"People seem to think that it (West Indies cricket) is at the crossroad but we haven't been beaten by anybody other than Australia. We have good players, we have some experienced players and it will probably take a little bit of time ... getting back to the top of the ladder. We have one or two older players who are finding it very difficult probably in the one-day game as such but I still think that we are a very formidable force where test cricket is concerned ... I think we are not too far off, we are just there, thereabouts. We have just a few things to iron out and try to get our cricket back on top but we are hoping that we will be able to come out on top in this tournament and make the West Indies proud again."

Contrary to Lloyd's ill-founded optimism, however, the West Indies were soundly thrashed by Pakistan, who won the three Tests by the wide margins of an innings and 19 runs, an innings and 29 and 10 wickets. This was the first occasion since its initial Test series in England 69 years before in 1928 that the West Indies had lost all the Tests in a series and the worst beating it had experienced since the 1957 tour of England when it lost three Tests by an innings but drew the other two matches in the rubber.

Even after this embarrassing humiliation by Pakistan, Lloyd surprisingly continued to overrate the West Indies team. Though admitting that the players' performance was "embarrassing and disappointing", he still asserted: "I don't think our team is that bad. We have to effect the sort of changes here and there and the selectors will have to choose carefully and do what is needed for the future ... We have the talent. We are in the rebuilding process and these things do not happen overnight... Once given the type of leeway to work with we can't be far away from being a great side." He went as far as to indicate that it would probably take West Indies another two years to regain ascendancy in international cricket.

A similar optimistic outlook was shared by the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), selectors and coaches. Even some prominent members of the regional press also refused to believe that Caribbean cricket was in terrible straits. For example, Valentino Singh, the Sports Editor of the Trinidad Guardian newspaper, contended that it was unfortunate that the word, "crisis", was being used by some observers to describe West Indies cricket.

According to him, "there really is no crisis". In short, like people with serious personal problems, the instinctive response of many to the crisis in Caribbean cricket was denial and the ailing patient received no immediate remedial attention.

The subsequent trouncings in South Africa in 1998 and New Zealand in 1999 eventually made the West Indies cricket authorities grudgingly wake up and recognise and accept the sad reality of West Indies cricket. However, because of the long delay in coming to this position, the authorities have been slow in beginning to take the far-reaching action urgently needed to rejuvenate West Indies cricket.

Other reasons for the poor state of West Indies cricket will be discussed in the next and final part of this article.

The historic unprecedented loss of all the Tests in a series to Australia has confirmed earlier evidence of the poor state of West Indies Cricket at the highest level. Following similar comprehensive defeats in Pakistan in 1997, in South Africa in 1998, and in New Zealand in 1999, this recent thrashing in Australia meant that for the fourth consecutive year Christmas, normally a season of gladness was a period of sadness to many ardent Caribbean cricket fans. This article will continue and complete the examination of some of the causes of the current plight of West Indies Test Cricket.

Regional cricket has been suffering partly from the dilatoriness of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) in adopting the modern, more scientific approach to the game being taken with considerable success especially by the world's two leading cricket nations, Australia and South Africa. Surprisingly, the WICB took an extremely long time before it became convinced of the value of a cricket academy, although this institution has produced most of the players in the current Australian team. Furthermore, the Board still is not utilizing sufficiently or at all computerized analyses, videos and other technology in its planning and coaching strategies.

West Indies cricket urgently needs an administration which is much more creative, perceptive, efficient and accountable than the current one - an administration with a more coherent, comprehensive and effective long-term plan for rejuvenation and development of regional cricket. The WICB also needs to take much greater personal responsibility for the present sad state of West Indies Test Cricket. In response to the deepening crisis of the last five years, the Board has discarded managers, coaches, captains and players. In spite of repeated organizational blunders, however, it has not yet dismissed any of its senior administrative staff. The truth is this - success in modern international cricket requires efficient, professional administration, which Caribbean Cricket presently lacks at the level of both the Regional Board and most Territorial Boards.

In addition to major defects in administration, West Indies cricket is suffering because most of the current players have serious deficiencies at least in three crucial areas, namely, attitude, technique and talent. The attitudinal problems, including the unwillingness of the current senior team to undergo rigorous training and preparation, will not be discussed here.

Most of the leading specialist batsmen in the Caribbean today also have weaknesses in technique. These deficiencies are not as obvious in encounters with teams of moderate ability such as India, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, but become very evident in contests with stronger teams like Australia and South Africa which not only have outstanding bowlers, but also study the opposition very carefully and have a well-conceived plan to exploit these weaknesses. The concentration of the Australians on a line on or outside the off-stump when bowling to Sherwin Campbell, who has a problem with foot movement to deliveries pitched there, is just one example.

The batsmen in the senior team are much more comfortable and productive on the flat pitches of the Caribbean which usually give bowlers little turn, bounce or movement. Largely because of technical flaws, however, they struggle in the less favourable and less familiar batting conditions encountered overseas. This largely explains the marked disparity in the performance of the team at home, where the West Indies have not lost a series in the last five years, compared with the humiliation experienced overseas, where they have lost 18 of the last 20 Tests - the most dismal record by any team in the entire history of Test cricket.

The poor performance of the senior team overseas is also a reflection of the limited talent possessed by many of its members. Although they may be the best players available, most of them are low or moderate achievers even in regional first-class cricket, where the standard is increasingly questionable. Batsmen with a career average of less than 30 runs an innings in such cricket cannot be expected to perform satisfactorily in Test cricket. It is therefore totally unrealistic to expect players like Darren Ganga, who was never a heavy scorer even at youth level and has only one first-class hundred, afortuitous innings with several chances, to be productive in Tests, especially against good bowling attacks, such as those of Australia and South Africa, to which he has been prematurely exposed.

Yet young players like Ganga, Ricardo Powell and others with little significant achievement in their careers are frequently acclaimed as being "very talented." The crucial question, which is seldom posed and answered, is: What level of talent? Is it talent, which is sufficiently good to enable the players to do well in first-class cricket but not to proceed to the higher level of Test cricket? Alternatively, is it talent, which will produce poor or at best barely satisfactory results against moderate or weak international opposition, i.e. the kind of results achieved by individuals like Stuart Williams, Roland Holder and Leslie Reifer? Or is it world-class talent, i.e., players with the ability or potential to perform excellently against the best international opposition?

Where batting is concerned, the term "World-Class Talent" means players with the ability or potential to emulate individuals like Conrad Hunte, Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Garfield Sobers, Seymour Nurse, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharran, Vivian Richards, and Richie Richardson. These truly talented batsmen at the zenith of their career, or when they were in their best form, achieved an average of at least 40-50 runs an innings regularly in Test series and enabled the West Indies to become world champions.

The critical question is this: Are any or how many of the allegedly "talented" players in the current West Indies Senior and "A" team likely to become as accomplished as these successful batsmen? Only players of such calibre are likely to enable the West Indies to regain the ascendancy in international cricket. History indicates that teams, which have triumphed over the rest of the cricket world, have had at least two world-class bowlers and four such batsmen, including at least one outstanding opener. The triumphant West Indies teams of the mid 1960s and the 1980s had five world-class batsmen and four such bowlers.

The stark disturbing truth is that the current West Indies senior and "A" teams have few young players with obvious world-class ability or potential - possibly only Wavell Hinds, Reon King, Ricardo Powell, Marlon Samuels, and Ramnaresh Sarwan. This judgment is not hypercritical, pessimistic or unpatriotic, but sadly realistic. It may, however, not find ready acceptance in the contemporary climate, marked by a tendency greatly to overrate young West Indian cricketers.

In these circumstances the hope of producing a West Indies team, which will become the world cricket champions should realistically not be placed in the current senior team or even in the reserves, but rather mainly in the present Under-15 and Under-19 players. These players now are at least on par with their counterparts anywhere in the world. Effective steps, including appropriate coaching, mentoring, encouragement, education and exposure, need to be taken to ensure that this situation of parity or superiority is maintained. In short, care needs to be taken to ensure that the skills of these younger players are developed and the requisite attitude to the game is inculcated so that they can make a successful transition initially to first-class cricket and then to Test cricket, eventually becoming quality players at this level.

Until a cadre of world-class players emerges to displace most of the members of the current senior team, Guyanese and other Caribbean cricket fans are likely to have to endure several years of disappointing results before experiencing again the joy and pride of supporting a team that is recognised as world cricket champions. This requires patience and the abandonment of unrealistic expectations of the current team, for history indicates that it often takes at least ten years for a team, which has lost the ascendancy in international cricket to regain it. Hopefully, however, the results in the remainder of this inevitable intervening period will not be as distressing as those overseas in the last four years, especially at Christmas, making this normally joyous season a period of sadness for many Caribbean cricket lovers.