Some stories sound too good be true. That’s how the great era of West Indian cricket was passed on to future generations. Through stories.
October 7, 2012: It was as if a curse was lifted. The men from the Caribbean danced with abandon, their spirits running free and wild on a night that was predestined to be forever young. The speakers boomed to the thumping beats of Gangnam Style and Psy must have been proud that his magnum opus had traveled far and wide and landed in the middle of a cricket pitch in Sri Lanka. The attempts at matching his steps notwithstanding, it was a dance that was a long time coming.
It was in 1979 that the West Indies last won a world cup. 33 years. That was more than a generation ago. And a lot had changed since.
The Caribbean is a land given to the good life in all of its splendor. It is a land that conjures up visions of an exotic vacation or a peaceful retirement, and evenings that brim with possibilities as limitless as the freely flowing Caribbean rum. It is where one sways to the seductive beats of Calypso and sets their worries afloat onto the vast expanse of the Caribbean sea, hoping they never return. And in the days of yore, it was this land, where the beat of life transports you to something that resembles paradise, that gave the game of cricket one of its finest and feared teams. Actually, make that one of the best teams in the history of sport.
But their story was anything but a fairy tale.
Subservient to their colonial masters, their self-worth was tied up in knots. Cricket gave them something that had eluded them all along – a voice. Their game mirrored their culture. Known for their brand of ‘Calypso cricket’, they were ordained entertainers, not cut-throat competitors. They played to the galleries, but didn’t play to win.
From all corners of the Caribbean they converged. Vivian Richards, whose swagger was as imitated as his batting and inspired a generation of batsmen, had bowlers scurrying for cover with his aggression. The bowling unit read like fast bowling royalty – Colin Croft, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Malcom Marshall. They were led by their talismanic captain Clive Lloyd, the young tyro who would take them to the promised land – the champions of cricket.
Great teams don’t just win, they create cathedrals. They’re worshiped. They raise the bar until there is nothing left to raise. They cannot be produced with the aid of a formula, nor can they be bought by cold-hard cash. Nor can teams that win always be classified as great. For the non-religious who treat words like miracle as an anathema, it is hard to find a synonym to describe what makes a great team. Great players playing in the same era, for the same team, for a common cause. That’s what the West Indies were. They were a great team that created a cathedral.
How many seminal moments can a lifetime make allowances for? And do seminal moments become legends over time? How much of it gets lost in transition, until all that is left is a magical unicorn, best left to the imagination? And how many seminal moments get passed on to future generations as stories? That’s how I heard of how great the West Indies once were. That batsmen facing them didn’t just fear for their wickets, they feared for their lives. That in their prime, they ruled the cricket world. That was the story we were told.
It was a time when helmets protected the head, not the face. Chest pad and arm guard? You sure you’re here to play cricket, sonny? It was said that teams lost just at the mere sight of those unrelenting pacers. The Calypso boys would make the cricket world dance to their tunes. They won the inaugural cricket world cup in 1975 and followed it up with the second one in 1979. 184 runs separated them a three-peat in 1983, when underdogs from the sub-continent, India, led by Kapil Dev, upstaged them on the grandest stage of all and laid waste to their all-conquering status. Even that seminal moment, when India beat the West Indies at Lord’s, was passed on to my generation in the guise of a story.
Before India won their second World Cup in 2011, the improbable win over the West Indies in 1983 was, and is, still a part of folklore. And every time someone recounted it to us, it painted these indelible images in our minds – the crackle of the radio; images in sepia tones; the crowd rushing onto the field after the final wicket was claimed. India were the world champions. The mighty West Indies had fallen off their ivory tower.
By the time I fell headlong into the game, the West Indies were a far cry from all that was being described to me. Where a great fire once burned and engulfed everything that came in its way, all that remained were the embers of a glorious era. Past glory isn’t a pleasant sight to behold. It’s like a palace that has fallen on hard times, the chandelier coated with mounds of dust. Yes, they had Brian Charles Lara, one of the greatest batsman to ever play the game and a feared bowling pair in Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. But it seemed as if the kings had abdicated their thrones. I grew up in an era where their greatness was on the wane and at the center of power in the cricketing world had shifted to the sub-continent. Australia was now what the West Indies were at their zenith – the invincibles.
They didn’t fall off the cricket map. Their good days appeared as specks in the wide cricketing ocean. Brian Lara scored 375, the highest score in test cricket, which was eclipsed by Matthew Hayden from Australia in 2003. Not one to sit back when his turf had been infringed upon, he scored 400 against England the very next year- a record that has stood its ground since. In the 1996 World Cup semi-final, they lost 8 wickets for 87 runs in one of the most inexplicable collapses in cricket. In the World Cup they hosted in 2007, they didn’t make it past the group stage and Brian Charles Lara’s time ran out. In his farewell speech, he posed just one question to the tearful crowd that had come to bid him adieu – ‘did I entertain you’? The answer wasn’t lost in the midst of the cheers. The cheers were the answer.
Which brings us back to October 7th, 2012. Two islands, one still re-configuring its spirit that had been ruptured by years of civil war and another casting a hook in bid to capture old glory. The odds were stacked against the West Indies. Everywhere you turned, a Sri Lankan flag waved proudly. It was a night when every cracker that was waiting to be burst, every prayer that was chanted, every placard that was vying for attention, were all funneled toward the home team, Sri Lanka. Then they imploded. And the West Indies, who had won their last major tournament in 1979, tore Sri Lankan hearts into a million pieces.
That night, a part of the story became real. The West Indies were champions again.
They danced and filled the stadium with their infectious energy. In 2012, the West Indies weren’t the greatest team. They possessed none of the aura of the West Indian team of old. But for that one night, they danced like they were.
That night, they wrote a new story.
P.S – Fire in Babylon, a documentary that documents the best years of West Indian cricket is a must watch.