What happened to Windies cricket?
The latest issue of The Spark, the paper of the Workers party of New Zealand (formerly the Anti-Capitalist Alliance), includes an article by sports journo Fazeer Mohamed on the decline of the West Indies as a cricketing power, and some of the social and econmic factors behind this decline. I share Fazeer's evident sadness about the slide of the Windies from world champs to easybeats.
Apart from the innate aesthetic superiority of cricket over rugby, one of the reasons I support the Black Caps but not the All Blacks is the tendency of the latter team to win far too often. In New Zealanders at least, world domination breeds an arrogance which becomes unconscious, and thus thoroughly unlikeable to those who are made conscious of it. The Black Caps are never in danger of achieving world domination, and their supporters seem less inclined to lapse into the sort of showboating that is par for the course for rugbyheads in this country.
Even when the Black Caps manage to win, their fans generally manage to refrain from gloating - there's sometimes even a certain empathy for the defeated team, as long as the defeated team isn't Australia or England. I detected a genuine sense of sadness amongst Black Caps supporters over the ease with which Stephen Fleming's men beat the once-great West Indies last summer, a sadness which became focused on the figure of Brian Lara, who arrived in New Zealand a superstar and departed with question marks over his playing future. Lara's persistent failures disappointed Kiwi cricket fans as much as the handful of West Indian supporters who came to watch him: often crowds seemed to be willing the grand old man to play at least one more great innings. The best he could manage was a quickfire half-century in the rain-ruined last test in Napier.
One of the reasons for the sadness the Windies team arouses nowadays is the memories so many of us have of the great Carribean teams of the 70s, 80s and early 90s. In the era of Michael Holding, Clive Lloyd, the late Malcolm Marshall and the incomparable Viv 'Smokin' Joe' Richards the Windies put every team that faced them to the sword. It wasn't just their win to loss ratio that made them a great team, though: if stats were all that counted, the current Australian team would be revered rather than reviled by the cricket community outside of Oz. It was the way the Windies played that really wowed cricket fans around the world. What Brazil have long been to soccer, the Windies were to cricket - aggressive without being nasty, and committed to a fast-paced, risk-taking, extremely entertaining style of play.
The great Windies sides had some cool players, but none was as cool as Viv Richards: from the mid-seventies to the end of the eighties Viv engineered a revolution in batsmanship, playing every shot in the coaching manual and more, and scoring at a rate not seen since the halcyon days of Sir Don Bradman. With his refusal to wear new-fangled protective helmets, his rastafarian wristbands, his boxer's stare, and his belief that the Windies tours to the white cricketing countries were punishment for the hundreds of years of colonialism Africa and the Carribean had suffered, Viv was a larger than life figure, an idol of the magnitude of Bob Marley. Like Marley, he was as popular in New Zealand as the Carribean - the type of genius he had couldn't help crossing race barriers.
In 1986 I got a chance to see the 'Master Blaster' at a one-day game between the Windies and Auckland at Eden Park. The Windies had only just arrived in the country, and they looked tired as Auckland ran up a sizeable total. I remember Richards, who was never the most conscientious fieldsman, being absent from the paddock for long periods of Auckland's innings. The Windies started their reply slowly, and were soon in trouble. Richards didn't seem to want to bat - one junior batsman after another was sent in in his place. Finally, with his team five down and needing ten or eleven runs an over to win, the great man deigned to walk out of the tunnel under the Number One stand. The crowd held its breath. Had Viv left it too late? How could he pull off a win from here? Did he even care? What did a minor fixture against a provincial New Zealand team mean to a great player in the twilight of his career?
Over the next half hour, Viv smashed fifty-one not out off twenty-odd balls, while at the other end the Windies' stalwart wicketkeeper-batsman Jeff Dujon ran up a quick thirty. The climax came when Viv, who had been content with smashing straight fours from good length balls and late cutting seamers to the fence at the terraces, took things to another level by lifting a yorker from the hapless Martin Snedden onto the roof of the Park's Number One stand. The ball's probably still up there. The Windies won that game with overs to spare, and we walked back to our cars in awed silence.
Viv didn't let me down in 1986. Twenty years later Brian Lara, who is the only batsman who can have pretensions to Viv's mantle, did let New Zealanders down. The magic was gone, and we were poorer for its absence.