India vs West Indies: Can the Men in Maroon Rise Above the T20 Conditioning?

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India vs West Indies: Can the Men in Maroon Rise Above the T20 Conditioning?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

 

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he most famous encounter between India and the West Indies is undoubtedly the 1983 World Cup final at Lord’s. Then, Kapil Dev’s side were the scrappy underdog against the juggernaut that was Clive Lloyd’s team. But today, as another World Cup unfolds on the historic cricket pitches of England, India and the West Indies will face off again, with the roles reversed. Now, India are the unstoppable juggernaut, and the West Indies, once the most-feared outfit in world cricket, are fighting above their metaphorical weight class.

This World Cup began on a promising note for the West Indies. They thrashed Pakistan and almost pulled off a great win against Australia in a match where the umpiring errors took more prominence. From there it has all been downhill. They came close to winning again when facing New Zealand, before stumbling to an agonising loss. How can a group of talented cricketers, many of whom are deft with both bat and ball, be still stuck in a transition phase that has gone way past its expiry date?

From the ’70s through the ’90s, the West Indies team was characterised by the thirst to achieve, the drive to prove a point, and the motivation to succeed. They were a young collective of island nations, some of whom gained independence as late as the year India lifted its first World Cup, that put the fear of God (and vicious bouncers and imperious batting) in every opposing team during that era. It is the same bunch of islands decades on, the same vibrancy in talent and skill, yet that drive and the fiery brand of cricket seems to be missing. 

Michael “Whispering Death” Holding, a member of the fearsome Windies pace battery of ’70s and ’80s rues the team’s decline. “When Clive Lloyd was captain in the ’80s, he used to refer to some of our batsmen who played shot after shot in Test matches and got out cheaply, as men batting as if they were millionaires… They are all millionaires now and bat accordingly, with nothing to worry about,” he says. He was seething in the commentary box when West Indies were attempting to chase down the Kiwi total, as if there was a T20-like target they had to achieve. And therein possibly lies the biggest reason for West Indies winning two World T20 titles in the last seven years, but zero World Cup titles since 1979. 

With their big hitting prowess, fearless bowling, and exceptional fielding skills, any league would fight to get West Indians players onboard.

Their meteoric rise as a T20 superpower has coincided with the explosion of T20 leagues globally and at home. With their big hitting prowess, fearless bowling, and exceptional fielding skills, any league would fight to get West Indians players onboard. The conflicts that have broken out between a handful of senior West Indies cricketers and a hapless WICB (West Indies Cricket Board) wherein they opted out of national duty to feature in T20 leagues that coincided with the tours has been well documented.

This focus on T20 cricket, to the detriment of the other formats, has led to what Holding sees as growing indiscipline in the West Indies batsmen. “They don’t seem to either have the patience or the inclination to structure an innings properly. Forty five off 30 balls is considered a great knock in that format (T20) but doesn’t get the job done in 50 overs. It’s failure to adapt to the longer format. I find a lot of young cricketers who have been brought up on T20 have lost their discipline to bat long,” he observes. 

On the other hand, the ones who have benefitted the most with all the T20 cricket, have been the bowlers. In T20’s bat-dominated format, the bowlers are pushed up against the wall, and experts believe that has only helped them develop new skills and think of various ways to outwit the batsmen. This invariably encourages them to think out of the box in other formats too. During his two stints with the Kolkata Knight Riders and Trinbago Knight Riders, Sunil Narine has possibly spent more time in the analyst’s room, reading his next opposition and planning ahead of every game, than anywhere else. 

West Indies continue to be an entertaining side on the field, showing off in a display of flair and unbridled passion.

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Can West Indies rise above the T20 conditioning that has come to define their game? Their World Cup, and indeed all future successes, hinge on the answer. But T20’s characteristic impatience is in fact uncharacteristic of the players themselves. Off the field, they come across as warm, friendly, and extremely laid-back people. Former India player Dilip Vengsarkar once joked about being stuck in a traffic jam while driving though Jamaica. He was beginning to get impatient after a certain point, but his local guide had already switched off the engine of the car and was waiting for it all to clear up, saying, “This is what we do in the Carribean islands. We take it easy.” So clearly the impatience isn’t a state of mind, and can be overcome.

 There is one other positive glimmer in all this. Despite their fall from the lofty pinnacle of the sport, West Indies continue to be an entertaining side on the field, showing off in a display of flair and unbridled passion. It’s a joy ride for the players, and spectators and TV viewers become a part of it. World cricket will surely be poorer if the side stopped playing the kind of cricket they have always come to be associated with. Perhaps they need to strike the right balance when it comes to flair and a cautioned approach to be more successful in the longer format. A West Indian side that is able to harness controlled aggression with a dose of bravado could prove to be a heady concoction that even an opposition like India would find difficult to subdue.

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