Windies must now clean their mess

2007-12-08 00:00

WEST Indian cricket is in a mess and it is time to stop fiddling at the fringes. It will take more than a few victories over a youthful Zimbabwean side betrayed by corrupt officials, whose days are numbered, to convince anyone that things are getting back on track. Over the last few years hopes have been spasmodically raised by the latest revival in West Indian cricket. But, like news that the vile Mugabe was about to retire, or that the Otto’s Bluff Road is about to be tarred, it always turns out to be another false dawn. Sooner or later a fellow realises that it is best to fear the worst. The same can be said about the ANC leadership struggle. But optimism dies hard. After all, the Berlin Wall did eventually come down.

It has been a long time since the West Indies managed to beat anyone overseas. At home they remained competitive so long as Brian Lara held his form. The Trinidadian was so good that on one occasion he almost beat the Australians single-handed. In the end the Aussies held him to a 2-2 draw. In the first match, the hosts were skittled for 51 or thereabouts. (By now readers must be aware that all figures provided here are approximations — an oke does not have time to spend an entire day delving into Wisden to discover whether some wretch averaged 31.2 or 31.3). In the fourth and final contest Lara smashed 100 at a run a ball and still finished on the losing side. In-between he produced the most rousing exhibition of batsmanship seen for 20 years.

But Lara was merely papering over the cracks. His periodic brilliance flattered colleagues by exaggerating the team’s capabilities. Apart from the scintillating left-hander, the West Indies were almost entirely bereft of class. But the situation was worse even than that. Decades ago an old England batsman observed that in cricket it is “best to be a bit better than you think you are”. It taught a man to work hard, to compete and never to give up. Unfortunately, the opposite applied to remaining West Indian players. Many of them were not nearly as good as they supposed. Some were impostors.

Apparently, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But it is important to copy the significant parts of an admired sportsman or an inherited tradition, the substance and not the style. The new brigade could strutt around like their predecessors, but could not bat or bowl half as well. Subsequently, everyone has been blamed for the decline except the players themselves. Fingers have been pointed at administrators, facilities, basketball, television, soccer and so forth. West Indies has had more coaches than a coal train, more captains than the U.S. Navy and still defeats piled up.

None of the captains after Clive Lloyd advanced the cause. Viv Richards was too volatile, Richie Richardson was unduly accommodating. And the culture around the team was not strong enough for them to make the most of their talents and survive their weaknesses. It is always the same when leadership depends on personality and not principle. When responsibility passes hands a dangerous void appears. And so cynicism set in, with players complaining and filling their pockets while yesterday’s champions went in search of easy pickings. Cynicism indicates death of the mind.

In all the debate about the decline and fall of West Indian cricket, the players themselves have escaped almost scot-free. Everything was confronted, every issue debated except their own outlook on life. As decline took hold, endless meetings were held behind closed dressing-room doors. When the West Indies lost to Kenya in Pune years ago, they did not emerge for four hours. It was a waste of time. Where was the man to stand up and say: “You are a miserable bunch and the game has caught up with you?” No meeting worth tuppence lasts more than 10 minutes anyhow. Captains must lead not chatter. Players with poor attitudes must be dropped not placated.

But the game has put the performers in their place. In the heyday of West Indian cricket they were hot property. English counties were eager to sign them as overseas players. Their reputation was high. Most of the great players accepted contracts to play for counties and most served with distinction. Although the Richards and Joel Garner era at Somerset ended in tears, they had been outstanding servants of the club. Nowadays the same applies to Australians. It is not a coincidence. County cricket is a finishing school that widens experience and instils professionalism. It is also an examination of attitude because a man must try his hardest every day. Malcolm Marshall did not once let Hampshire down and it ill behoves lesser lights to act otherwise.

Hardly any of the current West Indians are in demand as overseas players. A few have been signed as Kolpak players, but that is another matter as then they are competing with spoilt English boys. Again the reason is simple. Too many West Indian players from the 1990s took more than they gave. Too many collected the loot but played carelessly. It was a betrayal of their employers, their team-mates and, most of all, West Indies cricket.

Regardless of results in Zimbabwe and South Africa, the West Indians must be harder with themselves. The time has come to sack the halfhearted and dimwitted. The time has come to build on the rock of character and not the sand of pretence. To that end it was good to see Dwayne Bravo leading the side to victory across the Limpopo. Enough has been seen of Ramnaresh Sarwan and Marlon Samuels and others, especially those from Antigua and Jamaica. West Indies must find more young cricketers of high spirit, men desperate and proud to play for their islands, youngsters whose lives echo the great and enduring words of JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country ?”

A team can be built around Bravo, Ramdin, Chanderpaul, Smith, Banks, Lewis and other emerging lads. They must be raised in a committed group. Perhaps Chris Gayle. It has never been clear whether he is the problem or the cure. Otherwise the bottom will never be reached and the long, slow climb back can never begin.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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