A Champions Trophy without the West Indies? Here's what we'll miss

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West Indies has come to become the perfect example of how management apathy can render a former titan ineligible to even compete in an international tournament. But we can always relive the glory days.

The West Indian juggernaut was already winding down when the team won the 2004 Champions Trophy. Now, as the Caribbean side fails to even qualify for the 2017 edition, fans get nostalgic about the glory of a decade ago. | Getty Images

When one flips through an old photo album or watches an old wedding video, one experiences a wave of nostalgia, as one relives those feelings and emotions. The experience is made even more pleasurable or poignant because we know who the characters are, and what they have been through — the metamorphosis from before those pictures were taken to the period after. We know of their adventures and triumphs, their highs and lows, and are able to appreciate the picture as a snapshot in their lives. And if one is so inclined, one tries to put oneself in their shoes at the time. The picture or a video is suddenly a window in time travel, as one relives or attempts to recreate a different time and make sense of a complicated narrative.

The West Indies as a cricketing nation has long been tinged with nostalgia. Till a decade or so ago, the retrospection would involve casting the mind's gaze back to the Clive Lloyds, Vivian Richards and the rest of the near-invincible lot from the Caribbean. Now, sadly, the cricket nostalgic can feel that sense of hiraeth simply by looking back at the 2004 Champions Trophy, the last big ODI tourney that the West Indies won.

With the tournament around the corner, I happened to watch the highlights of the ’04 Champions Trophy final on television, a thriller between the West Indies and England. As I watched Browne and Bradshaw pull off a spectacular chase for the West Indies in the fading light, and the celebrations that followed, I found myself travelling back and forth in time, a sort of cricketing Dr. Who journey.

 

Brian Lara looked on from the balcony, as his team mates inched closer to their target — a beleaguered captain, under fire from journalists and former players many of whom believed that they had the license to question his commitment, and examine his every move under a magnifying glass, even as they pronounced judgment on this modern great, chipping away every day.

‘Flawed Genius’, ‘Inconsistent’,’ moody’, ‘mercurial’, ‘prima donna’ and ‘petulant’ were just some of the words that journalists used to describe him, almost as frequently as they used words like ‘sublime’, ‘brilliant’, ‘graceful’, ‘explosive’ and ‘the greatest’.

At various points in his career, both sets of adjectives were equally applicable — and yet on this special day, he failed with the bat in a famous West Indian victory, and was consigned to biting his nails in the balcony as his lesser known teammates somehow pulled off a miracle.

As I saw Lara break into a huge grin before embracing his team mates, I realised that the Champions Trophy in ‘04 was the only ICC silverware that the great man had ever got his hands on. It was one thing to be the most feared batsmen on the planet — it was quite another thing to be part of an elite group that could call themselves World Champions, however briefly. Surely, when Lara looks back at his glittering career, that evening will be one of the highlights.

Embracing Lara, after the West Indies squeaked through, was his old friend, and innings top-scorer Chanderpaul. Chanderpaul was Lara’s trusty partner when he first embraced destiny by breaking Gary Sobers’ record against England in 1994, and now, ten years later, Chanderpaul was by his side, his comrade, his brother-in-arms through thick and thin.

As ungainly as Lara was sublime, and as consistent as Lara was unpredictable, he probably never got the limelight or credit that he deserved for being second only to Lara among the highest run-scorers of all time for the West Indies, or playing the most number of Tests for the West Indies, or for holding fort when everything crumbled around him. People somehow never appreciated the tough little battler who created a batting technique of his own that worked well for him at home and away, in all kinds of conditions and against all types of bowling. Lazy journalists wrote about him as a stodgy and dourly defensive player, and yet he was capable of violent strokeplay and powerful belligerence.

 

Perhaps it would have been fairer to Chanderpaul to describe him as a batsman who was often overly defensive by choice, rather than a batsman was defensive because of his limitations. After all his strike rate in ODIs hovered around 70 — Lara was the quicker scorer, striking at 79, but Chanderpaul wasn’t as ‘dead-batted’ as journalists portrayed him to be. But cricket journalism, like the game that feeds it, can be cruel. Perception sometimes matters more than numbers do.

Dancing around with unbridled joy, was a young Chris Gayle — not yet a superstar, not yet ‘The Universe Boss’. Not yet the self-proclaimed embodiment of all things ‘cool’, not yet in love with himself, at least not publicly so. And not yet the six-hitting, immutable T20-franchise-cricket phenomenon. He couldn't possibly know that he would go on to score a triple-hundred in Test cricket, captain the West Indies, and then, rather famously say that he wouldn't really feel sad if Test cricket died.

 

Back in ’04, he was a talented young left-handed opener who could hit the ball a long way when it was ‘in his zone’. Some said that his build, stature and his immense power reminded them of a young Clive Lloyd. A few purists tittered about his footwork (or the lack of it), while a few others believed that the young left-hander could be extremely dangerous ‘in certain conditions’. No one, least of all Gayle himself, had any idea of the roller-coaster that he would embark upon. After all, in ’04, the word ‘franchise’ evoked imagery of a McDonald's outlet or a Car Dealership — it wasn't a word that you would have associated with cricket.

Dancing gleefully with Gayle, was a young Dwayne Bravo. Still in his first year of international cricket, the young man had already given the world a taste of his superbly concealed slower delivery. He had shown us that he was a supreme athlete and a ‘natural’ in the field. He may have heard of Chennai, but may never have imagined of representing the city in the world's biggest T20 league.

 

In 2004, most of Dwayne Bravo's dreams involved playing in a maroon jersey, not a yellow one. Nor could he have imagined that he would one day lead the West Indies as captain, nor would he know in 2004 that he would lead a player strike which led to the West Indies aborting a tour of India, resulting in a banishment from International cricket.

Also squeezed into the frame, waving his hands about, thrilled to even be there, was Darren Sammy — a last-minute replacement for Jermaine Lawson in the West Indies squad. Few would have recognised him or even remembered him a week after the tournament. In that successful campaign, Sammy had played only one match and had bowled only six overs. We had no idea then, that this young man would later be elevated to the captaincy, more by circumstances and default than by his own merit or record at the time.

 

We didn't know how well he would assume a difficult mantle, nor did we know just how likeable or humble he was, even as he made peace with the fact that he was leading a group of stars far more talented than he was. To effectively lead a group of talented-yet-frustrated young men is no easy task. We didn't know that he would lead the West Indies to two famous T20 World Cup victories. Nor did we think that this quiet young man, whom we had always assumed to be a ‘company man’, had it in him to speak out openly against his own cricket board, and jeopardise his own career. The jury is still out on whether his outburst was appropriate — none can question his intentions, his commitment or his courage, nor does anyone doubt the genuineness of the frustration that triggered it. All of that was way in the future, however. On that evening in 2004, however, Darren Sammy looked like a young man living the dream — sharing a dressing room with Brian Lara, and partying it up as a member of a world-beating team.

One of the protagonists in that fine victory was Courtney Browne, the wicketkeeper. Browne had done little of note before or after that game, but on that fateful day, he played the innings of his life to pull off a cricketing heist against all odds. Browne would go on to become Chief Selector, and the man who had to take a call on whether the West Indies could or should select players like Gayle and Bravo — his teammates on that fateful day.

 

Another interesting name on the West Indies scoresheet was Wavell Hinds, Chris Gayle’s opening partner — who would later become President of the West Indies Players Association, only to fall out with several players that he claimed to represent, resulting in an appallingly public degeneration of trust as the rift between players and the establishment grew wider in the years to come. Many of the players involved in the sorry saga, which culminated in the West Indies pulling out of an ODI in India and aborting a tour, were playing that match in 2004 as teammates, celebrating their victory as though nothing could come between them. What would Gayle, Bravo, Hinds and Browne think of when they remembered that day in 2004? And what does it speak of camaraderie, of the so called ‘team spirit’ within a cricket team? Is it merely a pleasurable afterglow of victory shared among the victors, only to melt away in the face of adversity? Is team spirit overrated, or worse, a figment of wistful imagination?

And what of the other hero of the day for West Indies, Ian Bradshaw? A steady medium-pacer, from a land known for producing fast-bowling demons, a clever operator who relied on the more old-fashioned, understated variation of pace, swing and seam movement, rather than the more glamorous Bouncer or toe-crushing Yorker. He was in many ways the converse of the West Indian stereotype — steady medium-pace bowling, coupled with safe, canny batting — a sensible, hardworking, effective cricketer that most school-cricket coaches would approve of, and yet, so unglamorous that no school boy would even notice on a cricket field, let alone idolise.

 

The West Indies’ excruciating decline over the last two decades has been painful to watch, and has as much to do with poor management and administration, as it has to do with weak grassroots interest.

Never a superstar, and smart enough to understand his own limitations, Bradshaw played a heroic role, but did so with pragmatism and common sense as the bedrock of his innings. There were no wild slogs or flamboyant flourishes as he took the West Indies home. No superstardom, no lucrative T20 contracts to follow. This was Bradshaw’s day in the sun, and no one who watched that match will say otherwise.

The West Indies’ excruciating decline over the last two decades has been painful to watch, and has as much to do with poor management and administration, as it has to do with weak grassroots interest. Those of us who have rooted for this team over the years wanted to believe that the Champions Trophy in 2004 was a turning point, a kernel of success around which the team could rebuild. We were proved wrong, as the relationship between the administration and the players degenerated rapidly over the next ten years.

Arrogance, apathy, ego and mismanagement have plagued West Indies cricket, to the point where this once mighty team has not even qualified for the 2017 edition of the Champions Trophy. It must be said also, that while they have been in free-fall in the more traditional formats of the game, the West Indies have won two World cups in the T20 format, although (and this isn't really surprising, given their history), many of the architects of those triumphs have been subsequently ignored by the selectors.

Perhaps the 2004 Champions Trophy was an anomaly — an event that shouldn't have occurred. Perhaps it was the last glowing ember of a great fire that had slowly died out over the past decade-and-a-half. For, however, a young man watching, huddled among several others, the drama unfold on a little black-and-white TV screen in his college canteen, cheering and whistling every run, it was pure magic. Thirteen years later, the screen is larger and flatter, the picture is clearer and the experience is eminently more comfortable, if somewhat less exciting. The outcome is already known, and yet, the heart leaps just a little bit when Bradshaw and Browne score the winning runs and even though I am alone in the room, I break into a smile as Lara raises the trophy.

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