The date was 19 August of this year and the knives were out. The West Indies cricket team had just been crushed by England by an innings and 209 runs with two days to spare in the first test of a three-match series between the sides. Numerous individuals, ex-players and pundits alike, lined up to deliver their own withering assessment of the dismal performance they had just witnessed by a side widely regarded as too young, woefully inexperienced, and badly lacking in the necessary talent to even compete at international level. The result also arguably represented a new nadir for a team that had been in decline for the best part of 20 years and for whom there was no conceivable light at the end of what had been an arduous and painful tunnel.
Many England supporters (and no doubt privately English players and coaches) were also concerned that despite winning so convincingly, the team wasn’t preparing themselves properly for a tough winter series away in Australia — after all, how on earth could England be expected to build up the necessary match competitiveness to retain the Ashes down under when they were preparing against a side that would struggle to beat most English domestic teams?
But then something remarkable happened. In the second test match of the series, the “Windies” produced one of the most incredible turnarounds in cricketing history by putting in a performance widely regarded to be well beyond them to win their first test match in England for 17 years and level the series. Although they were ultimately to lose the deciding test match — a game that was a lot closer than the nine-wicket victory England enjoyed — this series, and in particular the second test match, had given cricket lovers across the globe fresh hope that this once-great cricketing side were on the comeback trail after so long in the doldrums.
The decline of the West Indies cricket team has been a strongly lamented storyline within the context of international cricket for many years now. To see the current side struggle as badly as they have done for years is a source of much sorrow for cricket lovers who can recall their heyday of the 1970s and 80s when, fuelled by legends such as Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Viv Richards, they dominated all before them while exhibiting a swashbuckling brand of aggressive cricket, delighting fans across the globe. They lost just one test series throughout the whole of the 1980s; were the number one-ranked side in test match cricket from 1976 to 1994 (just this year they slumped to ninth in the rankings, second from last); and added two World Cup victories in 1975 and 1979.
There are countless theories as to why they have failed to recapture these highs since the mid-90s. The most common of these being organisational dysfunction and the West Indies being compromised of multiple independent states. It was always going to be difficult to keep all parties content, although while the side was enjoying success, it was easy to keep these different factions on side. Yet the intervening barren period has seen these factions become more prominent and the governing body, the West Indies Cricket Board, has therefore become more dysfunctional as a result.
Cricket’s prior status as the most popular team sport in English-speaking Caribbean countries has also come into question, with other sports like basketball and football now threatening the hegemony that cricket once enjoyed. A serious pay dispute between the WICB and the players’ association has also been very destabilising for the team’s prospects, as it has ensured that many of their star players have refused to play in test matches for the side.
Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Marlon Samuels are just three examples of those who haven’t represented their side in test matches for years (although Gayle, in the wake of the Windies’ victory over England in the second test, did announce his desire to return to the test team). Ultimately, this current side will never reach their true potential unless they have a stable governing body to support them.
However, to suggest that West Indian cricket has been beset by nothing but constant misery in recent years would also be inaccurate. The side has won two of the last three Twenty20 World Cups and also tasted success in the Under 19s World Cup in 2016. The newly formed Caribbean Premier League, a Twenty20 competition involving most of the cricket playing nations in the region, has also proved a huge hit and could potentially be the catalyst for cricket to return to its previous status as the most popular team sport in the region. To suggest that the test side has also been seriously hindered by the lack of star players such as Gayle is also false; the side struggled just as much when he was captaining the team.
The absence of these star players however could now be seen as a blessing in disguise, as it has given younger players the chance to shine and fulfil their potential, many of whom did exactly that during the series against England. Shai Hope was perhaps the most obvious case, as the batter who had until the second test against England endured a poor start to his international career, seemingly came out of nowhere to become the first player to score consecutive centuries in a single test match at Headingley. Jermaine Blackwood is another case: he impressed in multiple occasions throughout the test series with his strongly aggressive style of batting that embodies the thrilling philosophy most commonly associated with the all-conquering West Indian sides of yesteryear. In the bowling department, the fusion of younger prodigies such as Alzzari Joseph and more experienced campaigners like Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach has given supporters hope that they can produce a bowling attack capable of mixing it with the best sides in the world.
Ultimately, this West Indies side is far from perfect, and there is no guarantee when you consider the organisational dysfunction they operate under that they will reach their potential as a team. However their performances in England this summer, most notably of course in the second test match, has given many hope that maybe, just maybe, better times are around the corner.