It’s obviously just coincidence that this month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of a movie that came to define a generation. Star Wars, the most iconic movie franchise in history, hit theatres on May 25, 1977, with an episode that would later be titled A New Hope.
Watching two West Indian fast bowlers in action at the Kensington Oval on Thursday (May the Fourth), supported by one who made up for his lack of raw pace with smarts, was to be transported back to those days – when phones were shiny Bakelite, keyboards were part of a typewriter and vinyl wasn’t just something you walked on.
It was a time when the most fearsome side in the history of Test cricket was slowly taking shape. For all the majesty of the batsmanship – led by Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Clive Lloyd himself – it was the flotilla of fast bowlers that defined that era. A cursory look at the records and reputations of those that barely played – Sylvester Clarke, Wayne Daniel and Franklyn Stephenson, to name just three – should tell you all you need to know about the qualities of Messrs Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft and Marshall.
Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph and Jason Holder don’t intimidate in the same way. Nor does this Pakistani batting line-up come close to approaching some of the sides that West Indies routinely bullied in those halcyon years. But for two glorious sessions at a venue where the West Indies once went 27 Tests unbeaten, it was tempting to kid yourself that it was business as usual again.
Of course, it isn’t. And it won’t be either. Shimron Hetmyer, making his debut in this series, wasn’t even born the last time West Indies sat atop the Test rankings. By the time he was of school-going age, they had taken up residence in the basement. They haven’t budged from there since.
Over the course of nearly two decades as a journalist, I’ve been fortunate to breathe the same air as Richards, Holding and Ian Bishop. Few things have pained me as much as the despondency in their voices when they speak of West Indies’ Test travails. Yet, any criticism of the players has always tempered with the acknowledgement that the mess was almost entirely the administrators’ making.
Those ground realities haven’t changed. And neither have the financial imperatives. When you make more money playing a couple of weeks of Twenty20 cricket than you do a full season of Tests, it’s ridiculous to expect players to prioritise a format that administrators still hypocritically proclaim to be the game’s pinnacle.
On Thursday, all of that could be forgotten for a few hours. The ball kicked off a length, it thudded on to the splice, flew off the edge, and batsmen looked as clueless and harried as in the 1980s heydays when they were little more than marionettes at the end of Caribbean strings.
It also laid bare the preposterous notion that West Indies have struggled because there isn’t enough talent coming through. The Under-19s won the World Cup in 2016 under Hetmyer’s leadership, overcoming an Indian side whose star, Rishabh Pant, was setting the IPL alight as Gabriel hustled Pakistan towards a demoralising defeat. The kids are there. Some of them would surely love to have significant Test careers as well. But it needs to be worth their while.
After a fortnight in which so many of the cricket headlines have been about the carving up of the ICC’s TV pie, it was lovely to be reminded of some of the reasons why we follow the sport in the first place. Players make the game. They always have. And always will.
To make them hostages to an agenda, as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) appear to be doing with their brinkmanship on the naming of a squad for the Champions Trophy, is a disgrace. The Indian board can have grievances, some of them legitimate, about the way things went down at the ICC meeting in Dubai, but using the team as a pawn to try and settle scores is despicable.
It’s precisely the kind of hubris and shortsightedness that left West Indies cricket in its current state. And India’s players – who are now the world’s best Test side, in addition to being the most consistent white-ball one in the events that matter – deserve far better from those tasked with looking after their best interests.
Each time they were challenged or pushed into a corner during the recent home season, the players showed calmness and maturity to scrap their way back into contention and eventually overwhelm the opposition. It’s that maturity that their administrators need to take to the negotiating table. Threatening to take bat and ball and run home, or using the broadcaster to put pressure on the ICC, is the attitude of the playground bully. Indian cricket needs to be bigger and better than that.
At least for a few precious hours, Cricket Lovely Cricket overshadowed these sordid power games. Back in January 1993, around the time West Indies were putting the finishing touches on their last epic series win – a one-run triumph in Adelaide was followed by the Ambrose-Bishop demolition job in Perth – Jonathan Demme asked Bruce Springsteen to write a song for his movie, Philadelphia.
Demme passed away a little over a week ago. But the classic the Boss produced, the perfect soundtrack to the story of a man dying of HIV/AIDS, has over the years become a metaphor for the decline of Test cricket on the Caribbean islands. “I was bruised and battered, I couldn’t tell what I felt, I was unrecognisable to myself, I saw my reflection in a window, I didn’t know my own face…”
For a few hours on Thursday, it was possible to glimpse that face again. And it was beautiful.