Between March 1976, when they beat India at home, and April 1995, when the Waugh twins were instrumental in a famous victory at Sabina Park, West Indies lost just one Test series – in New Zealand in 1980. In 1975 and 1979, they also won two World Cups, losing a third final to India in 1983.
Vivian Richards was central to that triumphant narrative, batting with a majesty and panache seldom seen before or since. Had the Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World award been in existence in his playing days, he would have won it thrice, in 1976, ’78 and ’80. In the years since the crown was relinquished, Richards has watched with some dismay, as West Indies became one of the also-rans.
Now, they are in even worse shape. Eighth in the Test rankings, way behind Sri Lanka in seventh, West Indies also failed to qualify for the Champions Trophy in England in June. And unless there’s a significant upturn in their One-Day International fortunes soon, they will miss out on automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup as well. The World Twenty20 victories in 2012 and 2016 have merely papered over yawning cracks.
“I think we’re still searching for leadership at the highest level, administration-wise,” Richards told Wisden India. “Until we get that, and a clear understanding that we’re not just T20 players, things won’t change. Our Under-19s won the last World Cup, the ladies won the World T20, but we should be much better at the different formats. We have too much talent not to have made enough progress. We’ve lost some of our best players because of the tug of war that goes on.”
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Apologists for the board suggest that success is cyclical and that the Caribbean simply doesn’t produce the cricketing talent it once did. That’s an excuse, insisted Richards. “You look at the ongoing issues, and how they affect the way guys perform on the field,” he said. “We’ve seen players go, players being disciplined, but still the administrators remain. That, to me, is a huge stumbling block for any progress. It’s staring us in the face.”
“The people responsible for the mishaps you see with West Indies cricket do not see resignation as something that could be of help. Passing the baton to someone else to see if they can make a difference or not, in terms of the camaraderie between board and players. When you have so much friction off the field, it’s tough to ask your players to go and deliver on it. I think that’s one of our weaknesses.”
In Fire in Babylon, the documentary based on the halcyon years, and elsewhere, Richards and his teammates have spoken of how they were driven by the quest for greater respect. That’s in short supply these days. “We were the standard-bearers for West Indies cricket,” he said. “To sometimes see the treatment dished out to some of these individuals … these were the guys whose efforts on the field would have made a job in administration seem attractive.
“But they’ve dropped the baton in my opinion. When you do that, the other members of the (relay) team don’t get a look in. It’s all about personalities at the highest level. I would like the administrators to know that they are not the ones who are personalities as far as West Indies cricket is concerned. But instead of taking the game to the next level, they’ve failed to bring about the continued success that Caribbean fans crave.”
According to him, they also don’t listen. “They didn’t take the advice that was necessary to become part of a great administrative team,” he said, harking back to the start of the decline in the 1990s. “What happened on the field (in terms of success) was not replicated off it. That would have made all the difference.”
West Indies exists as an entity only when cricket is played, and Richards spoke of how being a unifying force for millions of people from diverse backgrounds had represented the pinnacle of his sporting achievements. “The greatest satisfaction came from seeing the camaraderie in the West Indies, the happiness that it brought Caribbean folks, the togetherness among those that came to watch, and how well that team represented the West Indies,” he said. “We hardly get folks in the grounds today. We are the present T20 champions, but looking at the performances in the UAE and recently at home against Pakistan, we don’t look like a successful team. It’s amazing how quickly that success seems to have subsided.”
Even now, with the success of old a fading memory, cricketers from the Caribbean continue to be popular wherever they go, even if the conspicuous lack of success in all but one format has meant that the ‘neutrals’ favourites’ are no longer quite the game’s Harlem Globetrotters.
“The people responsible for the mishaps you see with West Indies cricket do not see resignation as something that could be of help,” said Richards, ending on a withering note. “Passing the baton to someone else to see if they can make a difference or not, in terms of the camaraderie between board and players. When you have so much friction off the field, it’s tough to ask your players to go and deliver on it. I think that’s one of our weaknesses.”