Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Change is Gonna Come

Here's a very good article by David Conn in yesterday's Grauniad about the reducing numbers of people following the West Indies at this summer's tests.

Coincidently there's an excellent documentary on TV this Friday (originally shown on BBC4) which is based around the 1976 West Indies tour. That was the series of Tony Grovel, Brian Close using his chest as a bat, Vivian Richards scoring about seven thousand runs at an average of four hundred and the awesome sight of 'Whispering Death' - Michael Holding at The Oval.

The programme puts the series in its social history context. 1976 was the time of the rise of the 'sewage' (the National Front, to give them them their official title) SUS laws (SUS? - ask your parents) Steven Biko and Black Conciousness and the Notting Hill Riot at the end of the summer. The programme suggests that black people in the UK took strength from the West Indies team and used it as inspiration in their own struggles against the forces of oppression and reaction.

Dig out your old 'Rock against Racism' T shirt, unzip a can of Red Stripe, watch the programme and and have 'Handsworth Revolution' keyed up to play on your Dansette once its finished!

It might sound a rather trite statement, but Test cricket needs a strong West Indies side. There are few better sights than a Windies batsman in full flow, taking apart even the most consistent attack, or a couple of quick bowlers terrorising a previously imperious batting line up. In the same way that Irish rugby players are often described as the 'soul' of Lions touring squads, then the West Indies are the 'soul' of world cricket. The body can survive without one, but it's a pretty maudlin and unemotional body.

It's been a long term decline as key players have retired and and no one has taken their place, but the catalyst that has provoked everyone in the world of cricket to start facing up to reality has been the sudden retirement of Brian Lara. All the time Lara was there, his presence could paper over some of the cracks. IIf Lara had been playing at Old Trafford for example, the fourth innings run chase would have taken on an entire different complexion from the word go. There would have been genuine concern in the England camp that if he got going and posted a big hundred then the target would be perfectly attainable.

Two effects therefore -

1) England could breathe a little easier knowing that it would have taken something totally extraordinary for the target to be reached

2) The West Indies now have to adapt to life without Lara - Chanderpaul's long haul effort and the support he got from Bravo, Ramdin and Sammy shows that realisation is sinking in.

It's probably not exagerating to say that the current position is so fragile that a three year bad spell of results and performances echoing those in the Headingley test (and the first three days at Old Trafford) could seriously threaten the West Indies status as a test playing entity.

So what of the future? In addition to the Chanderpaul inspired rearguard at Old Trafford, there are a few positive signs that maybe the current decline isn't going to prove terminal. Probably the strongest sign has been the reaction of ex West Indies internationals on our TV screens to what's been going on in this series. Viv Richards, for example, has almost been omnipresent on television over the past couple of weeks. Sir Viv is a very proud man. Whilst he's saying all the diplomatic things in public, you can bet your bottom dollar than inside he's seething. It's becoming increasingly clear that, along with Jimmy Adams and Michael Holding he's reached the point of 'something must be done - and quickly'

The other positive sign is of the dollar variety. Allen Stanford is a Texas billionaire who, in his own words, 'wanted to prove that something positive for the world could actually come out of Texas'. In the past couple of years Stanford has pumped huges amounts of money into Antiguan cricket - more money than any individual has given to the sport since Kerry Packer. He sponsored and paid for the Stanford 20/20 tournament that was on Sky TV last year, and has now centrally contracted seventeen cricketers and will fund their progress and development.

It doesn't take much of a stretch to believe that if that kind of largesse can be extended to the other Carribbean islands, and harnessed to the drive and determination of a whole host of ex-internationals then, in a few years time, the West Indies could be a force in world cricket again.

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