Sunday, 18 January 2009

West Indies on the Mend

The much hyped decline of West Indies cricket, seemingly never ending, started back in the early 90s or possibly even in the late 80s. Although 1995 is considered a watershed, I'm inclined to believe that '95 was not not so much an event, as it was the culmination of a process that had started well before it became apparent. For lack of definitive information (I was still a schoolkid back then, with little knowledge of the game), let me add that what I have written so far is conjecture.

Having said that, I am now going to stick my neck out and say that West Indies is a team on the ascent today. I run the risk of being laughed at, but I believe that the trend I've recently noticed will soon become apparent to a much wider audience. As a team, West Indies have been on the mend since some time now and assuming they keep progressing this way, its just a matter of time before they will be a pretty competitive side.

The first signs appeared in South Africa last season, when West Indies won a test match there- unprecedented in their history. Granted, things lapsed back to normal thereafter but West Indies winning a test abroad against quality opposition is well nigh unheard of for people of my generation who never witnessed the mighty West Indies sides of the 80s. That win too might have been written off as a one-off, but for their performance against Sri Lanka at home a few months later.

It may be recalled that the hosts lost the first test of the series. The second test threw up signs of a new-found determination. With just one half-century (57 by Sarwan), they took a small lead in the first innings and had to chase 253 on a tough wicket against an attack that boasted of Murali and Vass on a sub-continent like wicket. To the surprise of all who cared to watch West Indies and Sri Lanka in action, the hosts chased it down comfortably. Still more surprisingly, Chanderpaul was not the sole contributor.

Then came the Aussies. Everyone remembers that they took the series 2-0. Look beneath the result, and the real picture was somewhat different. Remember the scenes at Sabina Park that may evening? Walking out all guns blazing with a 119-run lead behind, the Kangaroos came out looking to smash their hosts out of the game. Amidst scarcely credibly scenes, the World champions came crashing to 17-4. The assault from the West Indies pacemen brought back memories from a bygone age when West Indian sides bludgeoned opponents into submission. Their experience saw Australia home eventually, but it was evident that this West Indies team, unlike their predecessors since the mid 90s were not going down without a fight.

After a hard fought draw, the Australians took complete control of the final game, setting their hosts a seemingly impossible 475 to win. Recent form dictated that West Indies would fold in meekly to a crushing defeat. Instead, the West Indians came out looking a side that actually believed the target was gettable. At 300-3, the Australians were staring at the possibility of a possible embarassment. Eventually the self-doubt of the hosts and the self-confidence of the tourists titled the scales. Normalcy had been restored, but for the discerning viewer, it was evident that something had changed: West Indies were supposed to meekly surrender. They were not supposed to fight tooth and nail and make the best team in the world stretch hard for victory, but that's precisely what we were witnessing.

And coming to more recent times, West Indies have only just returned from a tour of New Zealand with a 0-0 draw. Perhaps New Zealand is not the best of opponents and a draw against them isn't quite the kind of result one would be bragging about, but is it a coincidence that it was the first time West Indies were coming back from a tour abroad (Bangladesh and Zimbabwe just don't count) without losing guessed it right, 1995.

Its true that they have not beaten quality opposition in an away series in over a generation and have won few tests even at home in recent years. But whereas West Indies sides of recent years have been an imminently floggable lot, surrendering abjectly without the least vestige of a fight, Gayle's team looks a side that's determined to make its mark. They look a team that's not going to surrender without a fight. A Little more of that spirit and some self-confidence could see them recapture some of the glories of the past.

West Indies may never recapture the glories of old. They may never again be a champion side going without a series defeat for 15 years, but they could be a very competitive side and who knows, a formidable side in some years. Sounds premature, doesnt it? But did anyone make such predictions for Australia when they won a dead rubber at Sydney in 1987? How many people spoke about West Indies' decline after their back from behind win in Australia in 1992-93? Sometimes reality is not so apparent, but it is there to be seen, realised only at hindsight.

Mark my words, West Indies is back.