The second instalment in our new series where we have cricket conversations with keen students of the game, from all around the world. The topic this time is the impact of those three wins (U-19, Women’s World T20, Men’s WorldT20) on West Indian cricket.
At a time when T20 cricket is devastating Test cricket, especially in the Caribbean, is this really a “rebirth” for West Indian cricket or the death-knell to the most respected format of the game?
Jonathan Cumberbatch, based in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, has been a fan of Test cricket for years and still remains an optimist regarding West Indian cricket. He debates this with Jaideep Varma of Impact Index, who is concerned about the impending end of Test cricket in those quarters.
: There’s still a lot of processing going on but there is no doubt that the string of titles has largely returned cricket to the general daily Caribbean conversation. That the conversation is about game highlights rather than the established spectacle of player-administration politics is definitely refreshing.
: But, given that Test cricket shows no signs of being the focus in West Indies, does this really signify a sort of “rebirth” as some people are calling it? In fact, would it not do damage to the traditional form of the game even more?
: Well first off, to arrest the poor male Test record (in contrast to the female team which has remained competitive in all formats for several years), the WICB established a controversial ‘West Indies first’ (read ‘Test cricket first’) policy a couple years ago in an attempt to arrest the 15-year slide. This initiative has however been consistently short-circuited by the disturbing, if not defiant, scheduling of Test series in direct conflict with the major T20 leagues. This has ultimately led to the non-selection/ premature retirement of too many of our best players – with increasing regularity.
The aborted Indian tour of 2014 which featured a genuinely competitive first XI for the first time in several years left the population with a feeling of both hopelessness and resignation that we may never get it all together in this format ever again.
There are several promising players emerging, however I see little chance of a coherent strengthening of the West Indies in Tests in the immediate future. Apart from perennial schedule clashes (the upcoming Indian tour shall clash with our ultra-popular CPL!), issues regarding team dynamics persist. I mean, Test captain Jason Holder carried refreshments for the T20 players during the World Cup campaign. One for all and all that but wha??!!
: There are tougher ways to claim a championship medal I guess, but the symbolism represented to many a wrong-headed administration that keeps getting the key details wrong. Again and again.
Also, match fitness continues to frustrate as our woefully short domestic season continues to labour on poor surfaces. Further, the world continues to now only want West Indians for their T20 leagues and not for their respective county tournaments.
: But here’s the curious thing. We know West Indies’record in Tests and ODIs is very poor. But when it comes to T20, outside of the World T20, it is almost as bad. In fact, since IPL began in 2008, West Indies is sixth when it comes to win-loss ratio among the major teams – they have won just 36 of the 70 T20Is they have played since then. This includes their two World T20 wins, and despite the fact that Badree, Samuels, Gayle and Bravo are among the ten highest impact T20I players – the most from any one country in that lot. So, clearly, the players combine outstandingly in a world event and have the temperament to go all the way as well.
Could this be a sign that they could accomplish similar things in other formats if they got the same space? After all, they hardly play any first-class cricket. Pollard has played 27 first class matches and 302 T20s. Russell has played 17 first class matches and 197 T20s. How can they become proficient Test players like this? How can they be expected to?
Also, for any team to be good in any sport, home advantage has to be secured first. Since WI won the 2012 WT20, in a span of three-and-a-half years, West Indies have played the lowest number of home Tests (12) amongst the major Test nations (even Bangladesh have played more). Even in those 12 Tests, there were two tours of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe comprising of four Tests. How are spectators supposed to be excited? How are players expected to get turned on? How are players supposed to get a continued run at home in Tests to build confidence?
Basically, the question being asked here is – while it is not wrong to associate West Indians with being naturals in the Twenty20 format, is it not true that they have had more opportunity to play as a team in this format than the other two? If so, then is it wrong to assume they wouldn’t build a good ODI side or even a good Test side with players like Gayle, Simmons, Darren Bravo, Dwayne Bravo, Samuels, Benn, Taylor, Roach, Russell, Brathwaite, Narine and Badree if they got a longer rope as a team? These are seriously skilled players, comparable to the best in the world, aren’t they? Is it even fair to pronounce them T20 specialists and pretty much dismiss them beyond that?
: Well, you’ve given me several questions there. Regrettably, West Indies appears to be one of the few nations that holds to the concept of format specialists. My opinion is there is no such thing and I speak to the current example of David Warner and of course the West Indies team of most of the 1970s and 1980s who performed successfully in all available formats.
I make the above point to support your query of a consistent team composition to which I agree. It is only with selector agreement on one core West Indian team involving all of our best players being allowed to gel can we ever hope to emerge from our self-imposed bog.
The reality of the recent Test retirements bring my rhetoric back down to earth with a thud however and underlines the illogical curlicue of the administration’s present direction.
Today’s petition by former West Indian players to have the board be dissolved best summarizes the public frustration with the present circumstance: the role of the Board is now to ensure the players secure their future and complement their competence with timely international obligations. These obligations cannot interfere with any professional’s first priority – their livelihood.
Clive Lloyd’s recent reversal on his claim that T20 was ruining West Indies cricket is pivotal and a final affirmation that the Board now stands alone with its existing policy.
With the CARICOM leadership now openly courting the ICC for the dissolution of the WICB, the upcoming board retreat shall be seminal in our history.
: A recent review of the ICC future tours programme tells me that the actual future of the game globally is the short-format, be it ODIs to T20s. The people are voting with their wallets everywhere and clearly decisions have been made ‘at the top’ to quietly kill the Test concept. I find it hard to see how the long form game is continuing the engage the imagination of the present day spectator both here and abroad.
Regional games are now only anonymously streamed online rather than being prominently promoted on local national television channels. Talent is still scouted however the path of the U-19 world champs is being closely monitored regarding their genuine development. It was announced this week that six members shall make their CPL debut later this year. Think about that.
The question heard everywhere remains “Just what is THE game today?” An already near sold out CPL and the ongoing viral invasion of the world moving to the ‘Champion’ groove is answering my question pretty clearly.
: Yes, that is the reality, not just in the West Indies. But, personally, does it bother you (given that you have a sense of history) that Test cricket is dying and West Indies could be the first place where it will be a tangible casualty altogether?
: I am personally torn. While I’m quite proud of the collective West Indian contribution to the game, the progressive side of me has known for some time that the long format has become ‘out of step’ with the zeitgeist. With an unending high definition sporting spectacle awaiting the casual fan every weekend and increasingly throughout the week, where does a 7-hour per 5-day game fit in? Where/ how does said casual fan make the time to see it?
I have loved Test cricket but so much of it now appears to be framed in sepia with each recall. Players can now secure their retirements and every culture must have its sport designed to its evolved culture/ taste. The NBA and NFL administrations have been exemplars in both the ongoing adjustments to production values and fan appreciation innovations. We must now follow their lead.
Sport and entertainment have been assiduously chiselled over the years internationally to be consigned over 3.5 hour morsels tops. Soccer games are given a build-up and post-match analysis to comprise the same thing.
: Yeah, yeah, I hear the balanced view and I get that the market dictates what happens from here. But tell me, at the cost of belabouring the point, how it makes you feel. If Test cricket vanishes, will you feel a personal loss?
: The great John Lennon in response to the question of whether he missed being a Beatle remarked, “We were just a band. You can always put on the old records if you want to reminisce…” Life moves forward and Test cricket’s failure to secure a Championship format was its death knell. I shall miss the idea of an unhurried battle but I like results. Something had to give. With growing job and family responsibilities, I know I no longer have the time in my life to spend at the Oval following the required days of play and I don’t think my life is too different from many others.
(with inputs from Soham Sarkhel and Nikhil Narain)
Illustrations: Vasim Maner