It’s a convenient narrative to accept that a dearth of talent, apart from all the other factors, has been a significant contributor to the near-quarter-century of strife that has been the experience of West Indies cricket since Mark Taylor’s Australians brought the 15-year era of Test series invincibility to an end in 1995.
How valid is that observation though? Is it reasonable to think that a region which produced quality players consistently for decades would suddenly become almost barren? Okay, so the 20-year period from the inaugural World Cup triumph of 1975 was almost freakish in the seemingly inexhaustible supply of world-class performers, especially fast bowlers, which transformed what was already a quality team into the most dominant force in the history of the game.
Now that the Trinidad and Tobago leg of the Regional Super50 is underway we are reminded of the talents who were expected to carry the baton then (late 1990’s onwards) and can see quite clearly the ability that is available now, if only a handful of these many young players on show can turn that rich promise into consistent world-class performances.
Mervyn Dillon is now head coach of the Trinidad and Tobago Red Force. Reon King is a match referee for this tournament. Both were expected to follow in the footsteps of the outgoing Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh and with the likes of Franklyn Rose, Nixon McLean, Pedro Collins and Corey Collymore in support, the West Indies should not have plummeted so quickly from the dizzying heights of extraordinary invincibility to abject mediocrity.
All those bowlers mentioned had their moments. Some even starred for a series or two. Looking at numbers of their careers you see the ability to develop into the genuine article and are left to wonder why they couldn’t properly fill the considerable boots of their immediate predecessors.
Dillon took 131 wickets in 38 Tests (average 33.57) and had a good series in Australia in 2000/01 and an even better one at home in 2002 where he dominated India. Rose (53 in 19 @ 30.88) showed with five-wicket hauls against the Indians on debut in 1997 and in South Africa a year later the high quality he was capable of producing. Left-armer Collins (106 in 32 @ 34.63) and swing bowler Collymore (93 in 30 @ 32.30) also looked have genuine attributes, although a serious back injury early in Collymore’s career severely hampered his development.
And while McLean’s numbers – 44 in 19 @42.56 – were the least impressive, he had genuine pace, the kind capable of intimidating the best batsmen, except that inconsistency and injury conspired to consign him to the category of “What Could Have Been” in this increasingly trying era of West Indies cricket.
And then when you look on the batting side of things with Brian Lara at the very top of the tree and the likes of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Carl Hooper, Jimmy Adams, Sherwin Campbell, Chris Gayle and Wavell Hinds in support, it begs the question how teams featuring these quality performers and a few other decent players could become the whipping boys of world cricket almost overnight.
In the absence of any definitive answer we have all been engaged in widespread speculation. We talk of the absence of pride which we assume manifests itself in players not wanting to work as hard in perfecting their respective skills. We have dabbled in conspiracy theories ranging from the hierarchy of the International Cricket Council to the bosses of the English counties. And there’s always the ever-popular sense of victimhood fuelled by the belief that the international umpiring panel – with or without available technology – is out to get us.
Yet none of this answers the real question as to why West Indies cricket didn’t so much enter a period of gradual decline as fall straight down from the edge of a towering cliff to the extent of losing 18 of 20 Tests away from home between November, 1997 and January, 2001.
None of the many explanations offered over the years even begin to adequately explain what happened then and why it has had such a lasting impact on the game in the region to the extent that we are reduced, in some quarters, to hailing consecutive One-Day International wins over Afghanistan and a first ODI series triumph in more than five years as another new dawn.
When you see Darren Bravo regaining his appetite for runs and the youthful promise of a Jeremy Solozano and Tion Webster in these early Super50 exchanges, you know the lack of talent argument doesn’t fly.
One day we will get the real story of those turbulent mid-1990’s from an authoritative source which will, hopefully, help us better understand why we still are where we are, even with all the ability on show.