Where are the Calypso Charmers?

I’d originally written this article more than 12-13 years ago on Sulekha.com, which was subsequently re-published by a Trinidanian newspaper/ website called CaribVoice. I was reminded of this article and the glorious days of West Indian cricket when I recently watched the wonderful documentary ‘Fire in Babylon’.

If cricket was the religion in the Caribbean, the thread that strung together the scattered islands, then the malaise of conversions is gnawing away the thread rapidly. Call it disillusionment or betrayal of faith. When I heard of it from a friend who was on a software assignment in Jamaica, I was pained. “Do you get to play cricket there?” I had asked him enviously. “Cricket?” he had said. “People here are more interested in basketball, or they’d rather become athletes, the way they run on the beach.”

Pained. Maybe even pity. Those are the feelings evoked when artistes lose their touch, when entertainers only embarrass, and charmers’ charms are rendered impotent. Less than a decade and half ago, the West Indian cricketers were the invincible, indomitable, Calypso Charmers. Feared as an opposition, but immensely lovable, they were like a tribe of warriors who fought for their pride and conquered anyone who came in their way. But it all seems like ages ago, isn’t it?

Back in 1983, as a ten-year-old boy, my father and I used to wake up at four in the morning to listen to Dicky Rutnagur and Tony Cozier (then a radio commentator). That was the series where India first gave signs of the shock-in-waiting — the Prudential World Cup victory. But it was the first test at Sabina Park in Kingston when I felt myself falling in love with the Calypso Charmers. My father, an ardent fan of the Caribbeans himself, had contributed to kindle that feeling with tales of Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Sylvester Clarke, Clive Lloyd and Alvin Kallicharan. The Windies needed some 170 odd (or was it 190 odd — the memory is a little rusty) in the post-tea session on the final day to win the test. And didn’t they do it in style? Vivian Richards and company blasted Kapil Dev and party out the attack. Since then, I’ve always looked forward to at least reading about the exploits of the Windies, no matter in which part of the world they were playing or against what opposition.

Indeed, I missed the great Caribbeans at the peak. I have never seen Holding, Roberts, Garner, Croft at their fiery best or the dominance of Lloyd and Kallicharan. But I’ve been fortunate to see the late Malcolm Marshall charging in on his slightly diagonal run-up to a field of three slips, two gullies and a forward short-leg. And an occasional blast from Sir Viv, Greenidge and Haynes. But by the mid-eighties, when my understanding of the game matured, the West Indian citadel had started cracking. Each of the above-mentioned aging pillars of that citadel gave way. All of a sudden, a side that had an enviable abundance of talent was faced with the daunting reality that talent is after all a non-replenishable quantity.

Of course, the journey downhill did see the emergence of the two great Cs — Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose. For a decade and a half, these two bore the burden of holding it all together and attempt to arrest the slump. Time and again, their performances flashed back images of the team under Lloyd, turning around matches from hopeless situations. Take for instance, Walsh in Australia under Richie Richardson taking the last wicket with the Kangaroos needing 2 to win. Or Ambrose against India at Barbados or against South Africa. For all their greatness, it is saddening that the two Cs leave the game defeated, but thankfully, at least with the right to hold their head high.

Brian Lara came on to the world cricketing arena carrying the hopes and aspirations of the entire Caribbean. He may still hold the record for the highest test innings or that for the highest first class score, but he is most likely to be remembered as a case of unfulfilled promise and under-utilized potential. Handling and nourishing talent is as important as having talent, and Lara is perhaps the best instance in contemporary cricket of talent going to the head, and an obvious lack of synchronization between natural abilities and temperament. No wonder then, that after being head-to-head with Sachin Tendulkar in the race to be acclaimed the best batsman in the world, it is the latter who is now head and shoulders above the pack. For a brief while, though, Lara raised hopes of belying the question marks on his mental toughness. That was against Australia two years ago, when he almost single-handedly led the Windies to victory, playing in the process (at least, some former West Indian cricketers say so) one of the best knocks ever. Unfortunately, he never could continue in that vein, and for a side so bereft of natural talent and so shamefully dependent on Lara, that is disaster.

And now we have a team that is getting whitewashed each time it plays. 0-5 against South Africa, 0-3 against Pakistan, 0-2 against New Zealand! Are we talking of the once-mighty West Indies? It only seems to be getting worse. Look at what’s happening Down Under right now. The fragile-as-a-soap-bubble batting line-up struggles to collectively get to three-figures even against the Australian state sides. Importantly, they’ve lost a record held for almost 17 years by that great West Indian side under Lloyd and with that the striking landmark of invincibility of the Windies has been erased.

It all seems hopeless and beyond redemption. And as my friend in Jamaica said, when hope is lost and faith eroded, followers convert. That is the last straw. But as an ardent lover of West Indian cricket, I still hope for a miracle. Each time the West Indians bat, I wish that a Chanderpaul or a Hinds or a Sarwan can stand tall and play like Richards or Greenidge. Or a Nixon McLean and Mervyn Dillon will rip through an opposition line up like Holding and Roberts did. Yet, I can’t help wondering if it is hoping too much to see the Calypso Charmers again?

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