England tours to the West Indies will always be the subject of particular affection and nostalgia on my part. Affection because it was the first time you were able to watch series overseas on Sky’s new satellite service in 1989-90. To a 7 year-old, that seemed pretty amazing, as it probably did to just about everyone else.
Curtly smells the blood of another Englishman
Affection also because my Dad bought me a video of the 1993-4 tour entitled Caribbean Crusade, following Mike Atherton’s first tour as captain, a tour which included Brian Lara’s 375 at Antigua. And the 1998 tour when we were able to spend evenings after school watching almost every ball, timing supper to coincide with the tea interval. Apart of course from the first test which was abandoned due to Sabina Park’s infamous shining pitch. It is things like this which punctuate the youth of any young cricket fan.
But there is also plenty of nostalgia there not least because the one thing that all these tours had in common was that England got thumped. Granted they didn’t lose as badly as they did in the 1980s when they suffered 2 blackwashes, and they actually won tests on each of these 3 tours, but they still came unequivocally second. Although they were already on the slide by the mid-1990s, a tour to the West Indies remained the ultimate – an intimidating journey into the heart of the cricketing world where batsmen wanted to dominate you and bowlers wanted to kill you.
It is these tours which provide the most vivid early cricketing memories. I recall the joy of England’s victory in Jamaica and then the crash back down to earth, in particular when Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge were flaying the attack all over the place in Antigua, and Carlisle Best doing the same in Barbados. I also remember the immediate installation of Nasser Hussain and Wayne Larkins as personal heroes for no particular reason at all. The following summer my brother and I spent hours in the garden imitating the ridiculous bowling action of Patrick Patterson, and the way in which Curtly Ambrose waved the ball at the batsman in his bowling stride.
That series has taken its place as my earliest clear cricketing memory alongside the regular recitation of ‘Gooch, LBW bowled Alderman, 0’ on just about every test scorecard the previous summer.
4 years later, having lost the first 2 matches, England had put themselves in a winning position in the 3rd test. But I was utterly devastated to wake one morning to hear that we had been bowled out for 46. 46? That can’t be right, surely. But when I recall that our line-up contained Mark Ramprakash, Graeme Hick and Chris Lewis, bags of talent but about as much backbone as your average jellyfish, it all seems to make sense. I watched it over and over again on that video and even in the safety of my own living room, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh were pretty damn scary.
England salvaged something from the wreckage by winning in Barbados courtesy of Alec Stewart’s two centuries and Angus Fraser’s 8 wickets in the second innings. But the final test was all about Brian Lara. I woke up beside myself with excitement to hear the report of the 3rd day’s play, the day on which he advanced from 311 to 375. As an 11 year old with an interest in sporting statistics which bordered on the autistic this was about as thrilling a moment as you can imagine. Lara has remained my favourite batsman ever since. I almost felt that I had a stake in his career after that.
In 1998, the West Indies were very much on the decline but still had too much for England, almost purely due to the presence of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. Their graduation from mere decline to near disintegration can really be traced to the retirement of these 2. They don’t get mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding but they were playing in teams in decline. Some of Ambrose’s feats with the ball compare to absolutely anything served up by anyone in the past 30 years.
All this nostalgia makes the current plight of the West Indies even harder to take. They actually have the top-ranked batsman in both test and one-day cricket (Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Chris Gayle) but the collective is weak. They have won one meaningful test match since June 2003, their last serious series win coming a year before that. They have batsmen with talent but nothing in the way of discipline; they have willing bowlers but nothing in the class of the past. The bowlers of the past may have been fearfully scary and quick but they were also relentlessly accurate, leaving no escape. The current crop really share none of these qualities, possessing neither lightening pace, nor ruthless consistency.
The saddest sight though is that many of the players look as though they do not care. This is just about the most scathing accusation you can throw at a professional sportsman and, given the laid back nature of your average West Indian, could be misplaced. But the teams of old possessed an intensity and an exuberance which smacked of a team with complete confidence that they were going to win and that they were going to enjoy doing it. Mentally, they were the strongest around. Not so now. The mental fragility of the West Indies in recent years has been woeful – they have been skittled for double-figure scores with alarming regularity. One of their main nemeses, Steve Harmison, bowls when he’s on form in the same way as the men native to these islands once did. He should have contained no surprises for the batsmen but instead he took 7-12 in Jamaica and countless more wickets in the rest of the series.
The flow of talent may have dried up but too often so has the fight. Everyone in the cricketing world wants the West Indies to be strong again in the test arena. It is possible that they might be but with the continued advance of Twenty20, it is to that form of the game which many of the younger players are turning. The domestic competition has no sponsor and Sir Allen Stanford is threatening to put away his chequebook. The only thing which can really lift the West Indies, especially in the test arena, is success, a strong team of whom supporters can feel proud.
This is why I hope that the West Indies win a test against England in this series. The game there needs heroes to rally round, to be inspired by, to fill the gaping hole left by Lara, Ambrose and Walsh. Young talents need to step up and, once they have done, continue to apply themselves and become leading world players. Too much relies on Gayle and Chanderpaul and once they are gone the problems only look like worsening. Darren Sammy, Jerome Taylor, Xavier Marshall, Dwayne Bravo, come to the fore. Your islands needs you.
by Stuart Peel