New decade but optimism is low

West Indies cricket reached its deepest trough in 2009, surely. A players strike led to an inadequate substitute team losing a Test series to Bangladesh which hopefully marked the absolute nadir in Caribbean cricket.

Bangladesh are the world’s worst Test playing side by the width of the Grand Canyon. Losing to them was inconsolable to die-hard Windies supporters.

But sadly it looks as if things will get even worse before improving because the West Indies Players Association is in contention with the West Indies Cricket Board again only a couple of months after they kissed and made up and both parties agreed to bury their differences.

This time it’s over the revamped, abbreviated first-class season, which starts in Jamaica this weekend. The players expected a longer season so that they don’t have to travel more than necessary to earn their keep and to improve first-class standards.

Ah well, the fragmentation looks set to continue inexorably.

The crumbling of the West Indies empire began in 1991 when Viv Richards was summarily dismissed as captain and forced into exile.

Slow erosion of the West Indies once proud dominance continued until the home series in 1995 against Australia when the slide became an avalanche.

With the Waugh twins scoring at will and Brian Lara out of touch, the Aussies took home the Frank Worrell trophy and have not relinquished it since.

Lara’s Test career was equally measured by personal triumph against team achievement. He set many records which still stand but his divisive influence had a polarising effect on those that truly love the team he represented often heroically but sometimes abhorrently.

The acrimony and bitterness continued with another monumental low point when the players, led by Lara, went on strike in London on their way to the tour in South Africa. No prizes for guessing how that series went.

It was a 5-0 whitewash for South Africa, the first time in West Indies’ history and a new low point.

Throughout the noughties the turmoil continued with embarrassing regularity for those who genuinely cared.

The merry-go-round of new captains, board presidents and officials reached whirlwind levels. Even now, nearly 20 years later, Richards was the last long-term skipper.

At least there were encouraging signs that if worked upon, regional cricket can restore some dignity.

The Trinidad and Tobago national side showed that in winning the Champions League that a team that sticks together, wins together. Their best quality is evidently team spirit, epitomised by the easy victory against Jamaica in the Stanford 20/20 final two years ago.

The Trinis have flirted with the notion of breaking away and forming their own Test side. Excellent team they may be led by the competent Daren Ganga, but even Bangladesh would fancy their chances if they eventually got Test status.

The mercurial nature of the present West Indies side was reflected in the recent Test series in Australia. Humiliated in the first one, they redeemed themselves in the second and had chances to win but lost. Even in losing the third and final Test they had an outside chance of winning.

Events on the pitch were overshadowed last year by the Allen Stanford saga. He pumped millions into resurrecting Caribbean cricket before being handcuffed away possibly for many years as an alleged perpetrator of a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.

Hosting the 2007 World Cup should have given West Indies the fillip it so desperately needed but so many aspects of that tournament went awry that staging it in hindsight seemed counter-productive.

Gigantic stadia built for the tournament rarely see more than a sparse crowd in attendance now.

The recession kicking in since has obviously not helped.

The rise of the 20/20 format may be the only blessing for West Indies cricket. The lack of concentration, resilience and perseverance shown by Chris Gayle’s side in the Test arena seems more suited to the abridged version of the game. It’s a reflection of modern times actually, the quick and shallow gratification in an instantly disposable age.

Gayle himself famously announced that he dislikes the Test format and prefers shorter games. True, five-day cricket is in terminal decline. Modern lifestyle and TV and sponsorship demands dictate that, but while it still exists there is no excuse for limply accepting being rock bottom in the rankings.

As the next decade kicks off there are at least some positives; Trinidad youngster Adrian Barath has prodigious batting talent which is why Lara has nurtured the 19-year-old like a mother hen.

There are many other emerging youngsters anxious to prove that it’s more than bling and a Benz they crave in donning the maroon uniform. Batting duo Lendl Simmons and Andre Fletcher have also shown promise.

Arch rivals England arrive at the end of January, so restoration of pride may begin then.

With a new, more accommodating attitude at the helm of the West Indies board, the main hope of cricket fans worldwide – and not just in the Caribbean – is that this region will soon produce a team that can hold its head high for the next decade. It’s possible, many fear the worse.