The Windies’ decline isn’t ‘sad’, it’s sport
Great international cricket teams aren't made, they are a lucky accident. The West Indies sides of the Seventies and Eighties weren't the result of some grand design. It just so happened that a group of the best fast bowlers to ever play the game emerged at the same time.
It happened that some of the most attacking, yet consistent, batsmen all matured on the international scene at once. It wasn't the result of brilliant infrastructure, amazing coaching or a fantastic talent identification scheme.
Right now in the West Indies there is a real issue with the way the game is administered, but the domestic set up is more organised and professional than in those world beating heydays. The difference is the players that are available.
All sport is cyclical. Teams rise and fall depending on the players that they have available and how well they perform as a whole. That the West Indies were as good as they were for as long as they were is close to miraculous.
So as we watched another lacklustre performance against India, many have harked back to those glory days, saying how 'sad' it is to watch the once great cricketing power that was the West Indies being so roundly beaten by an Indian side that have peaked for this event at just the right time.
This analysis of a steadily declining West Indies is one that has some merit, but it does miss that there is still a serious amount of talent in the West Indies. They are still a brilliant Twenty20 side, let’s not forget that they won a ICC world event in that format in 2012.
That means they have a world title more recently than every other international side apart from India and Sri Lanka. The players from the West Indies have been successful enough in T20 to command massive salaries around the world and at home. Now they are better paid by India franchises than by their board.
The board. That has been one of the major problems in all of this. While there has been a fall-off in the standard of players that the men from the Caribbean have available, the standard of those running the game at the West Indies Cricket Board has seen an even sharper decline.
They managed to mishandle their playing staff so badly that they watched as their cricketers went on strike during a tour to India that has now led to the whole board being effectively bankrupt.
The events that followed that tawdry disaster in India have been no less damaging. Dwayne Bravo, the captain for that ill-fated trip, has been left out of the squad for the World Cup along with Keiron Pollard. The reason given was one of form. Perhaps Pollard’s patchy returns can be used to explain away his exclusion, but Bravo was named in the ICC World Team of the Year just a matter of months before he was dropped.
So it was with this backdrop that the West Indies arrived at this World Cup, and promptly began it by losing to Ireland. It was an inauspicious start, but they have beaten Pakistan and Zimbabwe since then. Granted, they lost badly to South Africa, conceding 400 in the process, and lost to India, but they have two more wins against full member nations than England have.
There is an accusation that the West Indies players do not care, and with the backdrop of pay disputes, contract issues and fallings out with the board, perhaps that would be understandable.
However, as you saw bowling coach Curtly Ambrose giving a heartfelt team talk to a group of men attentively listening, it made that accusation of not caring seem hollow, but appearances can be deceptive. The players even responded to Ambrose’s words. They never had enough runs to beat India, but they made a decent fist of defending their under par total.
Maybe the West Indies teams put more emphasis on playing T20 than they do on longer forms of the game, but that's where they are most successful, in both a cricketing and financial sense. Maybe pulling on that shirt does not mean what it once did. There are few that would blame them if they felt that way.
While there has been a massive issue of mismanagement by the board, and there is no doubt that this team is not what it was, there are very few teams that were as good as the West Indies in the Seventies and Eighties. There isn't a single side playing cricket today that comes close. Maybe there has never been a team that good before or since.
There is a danger of something being repeated often enough that it just becomes a lazy cliche. 'Look at the poor West Indies, how must Michael Holding be feeling as he is forced to watch them lose game after game.' 'They lose because they are not as good as they once were, they struggle because their infrastructure is not that strong.'
The chances are that even if they had the best administrators in the world with a fantastic first class structure they would still never have a side as good as the one that had Big C, King Viv, Mikey and the Big Bird.
The real tragedy in all of this isn't the declining fortunes of the West Indies, although that is really sad. The issue is that cricket doesn't have teams that can pick up the slack of sides that have faded. There are only 10 teams that play Test cricket, when one of them goes into a downward spiral it is a massive issue for the sport.
There is still a huge amount of love for the game in the West Indies, as the success of the Caribbean Premier League has shown. It doesn't have the monopoly that it once did, but there are still people taking up the game, watching it in grounds, following this team.
But the West Indies fading is no more of a shame than Zimbabwe struggling, Pakistan not playing at home and Bangladesh stagnating.
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