The reason I personally started watching cricket on a regular basis in the early 90s wasn’t because of the Indian cricket team, or because of a young firebrand called Sachin Tendulkar or even Vinod Kambli. It wasn’t because of Shane Warne’s Ball of the Century, or even Sri Lanka’s explosion onto the world scene overnight. Nope – not Jonty Rhodes, not Javed Miandad, Sahara Cups and not even the Waugh brothers.
I loved – and have always loved – the West Indies cricket team. Something about watching them early on in my life has forever remained etched in my mind. It’s not only the raw brand of cricket – a far cry from the textbook coaching manuals preached and taught in cricket fields all over India or England, it’s the way they take the field, and the way they treat cricket for what it is – a game between two teams. It’s never a matter of life and death, as most commentators would like to have us believe – the boys from the Caribbean, even during their drastic downturn after 1995, have always brought smiles to the faces of the discerning viewer.
Even though I was too young to understand what ‘an end of an era’ meant, my first really emotional memory of the game revolved around these inimitable cricketers. I remember fighting back tears as a 10-year old when Richie Richardson tried – and tried in vain – to avoid one of the greatest upsets of the 1996 Wills World Cup. Chasing 213 or so, with the likes of Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, they collapsed from 165/2 to 209 all out.
I’ll always remember the way Damien Fleming celebrated after bowling a hopeless Courtney Walsh in a pulsating last over – in which captain Richardson was threatening to win the game single-handedly, much like Lance Klusener almost did against the same bowler four years on at the same stage. Damien Fleming – that man remains remembered for those two crunch overs four years apart.
It was the end of West Indies’ cricket as we knew it. After 1996, it was only Lara – my favorite batsman of all time – who kept me watching them year after year, hoping that they would give me a glimpse of the glory I had missed so sorely, simply because I hadn’t been born. I forever listened to tales of Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, the four fast bowlers and others told to me by my father and others from a generation fortunate enough to experience a 20-year long stranglehold – and not the ruthlessly cold one that Australia has executed since then – but a fun, brilliant dominance. Nobody could not like the guys that destroyed teams around the globe, and here I was, watching them get destroyed year after year since 1996.
However, Lara kept me going. His dancing around the crease, his dangerously high backlift, his pivot-on-one-leg hook. I miss Brian Lara, and I remember his last ODI innings in the 2007 World Cup, when he was run out against England because of Marlon Samuels.
In between, though, I remember some of my greatest moments in cricket as a fan came because of this down-and-out underdog team. In 1999, they drew a test series 2-2 with world champs Australia with two of the greatest test innings ever played by Lara. The Antigua 153*, that last cover drive off Jason Gillespie, the Walsh leaves – stuff of legend. In 2004, they won the Champions Trophy against England in England, with Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw stealing victory from the jaws of defeat. Their celebrations alone was worth all my loyalty to them over the years. I’d dread when they played India, and even secretly celebrated when they defeated India in that infamous test series in which India failed to chase down 120.
In 2004, Lara also scored 400* at Antigua against England. I watched every ball of his innings, hoping against hope, that at age 34, he would reclaim the record so cruelly snatched away by Matthew Hayden against Zimbabwe.
I had to wait long for their next moment of glory. I watched them defeat Australia at the Brabourne stadium in the 2006 Champions Trophy – in which Lara scored 70-odd. It was a dream moment, until I watched them capitulate against the same team in the final at the same stadium a week later.
Finally, during a testing phase of my life, the team lifted me when they won the 2012 T20 World Cup Final against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. It was another come-from-behind win, after being 39/2 in the first 10 overs. Nobody will forget Marlon Samuels’ innings, and nobody will forget the Gangnam steps Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and co. attempted to execute after they bowled Sri Lanka out for 105. It was a watershed moment for perhaps the best T20 team in the world, and the worst test team in the world.
But then, such is West Indies cricket – a tale of extremes. They don’t settle for middle ground. One day, they’re dreadfully bad, and the other – they can demolish any team in cricket. They still remain fantastic to watch in T20 cricket, but are depressing to watch in the longer formats. There’s no Lara anymore, and Gayle doesn’t care for anything but T20 cricket.
But I will continue watching them. Because they’re the underdogs. They’re my first love in cricket, and if, miraculously, they begin dominating cricket again, I could just be the happiest (West) Indian fan in the world.