Many Test matches involving the West Indies these days offer insipid contests and predictable outcomes. It is in stark contrast to the halcyon years of Caribbean cricket in the 1970s and 1980s, when the team evoked awe and fear among opponents, onlookers and followers.
One of the protagonists of that era, Michael Holding, notes the falling standards. “Cricket in the Caribbean is no longer what it was as there are nowhere near the number of people watching the game now as in the past,” he says.
The former fast bowler, who took 249 wickets in 61 Tests at 23.68, was part of a fearsome quartet of pacers — Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, and Joel Garner — that made batsmen shiver in their shoes.
But, those are distant memories. Payment disputes and availability and selection of players for One-Day International (ODI) and Test cricket have led to a steep fall in the popularity of the game in the Caribbean. Empty plastic seats or the deserted concrete stands greet a West Indies Test match today; in the 1970s, on the other hand, there were pitch invasions as fans’ delight reached a crescendo with each winning performance.
Michael Holding…”I’ve never been a fan of Twenty20 cricket.” Picture: Getty Images
“The charm that was evident then is no longer there,” Holding says.
Source of pride
And, there was more to it than just cricket. “The social impact of the West Indies victories in the past, especially in England, was felt more in that country than in the Caribbean,” Holding reminisces. “People of West Indian heritage living in England in those days needed upliftment. They didn’t feel as if they belonged and felt as if they were being treated as inferior beings in their adopted country, so when people they could identify with were beating England that uplifted them in no mean order,” he adds.
Holding’s spell, at the Oval in 1976, brutally exposed the English batsmen. Snorting bouncers at express pace hurt their bodies and bruised their pride. But, away from the 22 yards, the Caribbean populace had found an outlet for its energies. After all, many, who migrated to Great Britain from the Caribbean in the 1950s, experienced discrimination.
“It encouraged them to feel proud of who they were and to seek equality in the workplace and in the society in general,” Holding — whose 14 wickets for 149 in the last Test blew the host away — says.
West Indies won the five-Test series by a resounding 3-0 margin and heralded a new age in world cricket, which would see it rule the sport for nearly two decades. However, the world order has changed since then. Cricket has grown manifold, players have become richer, but Test cricket — considered the pinnacle by most — seems to be suffering.
Chief among the innovations in recent times has been the rapid evolution of T20 cricket. West Indies has been at the receiving end of it, with many of its star cricketers prioritising overseas T20 leagues over domestic cricket. Despite West Indies being the first nation to lift the World T20 title twice, Holding makes his reservations about the shortest format very clear. “I have never been a fan of Twenty20 cricket as I couldn’t see how it could bring much good to the game, neither in the development of young talent, nor in the popularisation of Test cricket, which is the ultimate form of the game,” he explains.
Bowled! England captain Tony Greig is dismissed by Andy Roberts in the first Test of West Indies’ 1976 tour of England. Picture: Getty Images
“I think the ill effects are quite evident with (a) cricketers retiring early from Test cricket in order to prolong their earnings in T20, (b) in the lack of proper technique being shown by Test batsmen all over the world which has lead to Test matches hardly ever going beyond four days in modern times and (c) spin bowlers losing their art of attacking and positive intent because of how they have to approach bowling in T20 cricket, (Ravichandran) Ashwin, in my opinion, being a prime example.”
“Not many fans, if any at all, who are attracted to Twenty20, then go on to be attracted to Test cricket, so its popularity is not being helped, in any way, by T20.”
The bottom line
“I think it’s quite clear that the people entrusted to manage and nurture the game, the administrators, no longer care about the game itself. They care only about the money that can be generated from whatever they decide to get cricketers to do on a cricket field,” Holding says.
“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?,” asks C. L. R. James in his abiding classic ‘Beyond a Boundary’. Holding is a throwback to an era when culture and cricket were virtually inseparable. For as ‘death whispered’ on the field, a nation found a new lease of life.