Remembering when the Windies were merely ordinary

A young Marlon Samuels leads the West Indies off the MCG when they last played a Boxing Day Test Photo: John FrenchWest Indies, Jason Holder fined for slow over rate against Australia

The West Indies bowlers began well, but fell away. The batsmen were the proverbial rabbits in headlights, though Australia were missing their best bowler. For overs at a time, they couldn’t manage even a single. When they hit out, they got out. The crowd, well remembering the West Indians at their irresistible best, were stunned into near silence by this inept display. There was no sense of contest. The match finished early, and that was a blessing.

It wasn’t Hobart this week, but the MCG 15 years ago, the last time the Windies played a Test there. Australia made 364 and 5-262 declared. The Windies made 165 and 109. In the first innings, their first run came from the 37th delivery of the innings, a Glenn McGrath no-ball. They were two-out before opener Sherwin Campbell scored, and then he fell anyway. No. 3 Wavell Hinds gave two chances on his way to a duck. Captain Jimmy Adams made another. In the second innings, none of the first six to the crease reached double figures.

The wickets were shared by Jason Gillespie, Andy Bichel and Stuart MacGill, good bowlers all, but not all-time greats. Shane Warne wasn’t playing and McGrath didn’t take a wicket; he didn’t need to. His match figures were 25 overs, 0-25.

There were two rays of hope. One, more of a flashback, was wicketkeeper Ridley Jacobs, who was already 33 years old. The other was a teenager called late onto the tour and playing just his second Test. In the first innings, he calmly defied all-comers to make 60 not out. In the second, he was last out, caught on the long-on boundary for 46. Inescapably, Marlon Samuels drew comparisons with Viv Richards. He was 19 and had not yet played a first-class game for Jamaica.

This, remember, was only five years after the West Indies dethronement. Brian Lara was still playing, and Courtney Walsh. Campbell and Adams had made good Test runs. Shiv Chanderpaul was around. The Windies were still getting five Tests in Australia, on the big grounds, which seemed only right. But no one had realised how quickly and far the Windies had already declined. Australia won every Test in the series, their first clean sweep for 70 years.

Subsequently, Adams was sacked as captain and player. Campbell followed a year later. Walsh would be defeated. Lara pressed on, desultorily, Chanderpaul in vain. Australian tours were reduced to three Tests, in outposts. From that day to this, the Windies have beaten Australia once in 25 Tests, here and there.

Samuels flattered to deceive. In a convulsive career, he has been banned for matchfixing and from bowling, and after 15 years is averaging a meagre 34. T20 and its peripatetic circuit now appears to engage him more than Test cricket ever did. In Australia, he is chiefly remembered now for an ugly spat with Warne while playing for the Renegades in his one and only BBL season three years ago.

In Hobart, he made two single-figure scores and in the field projected disinterest, even resentment, attracting criticism from Lara among many. Around the boundary where he mostly fielded, an electronic hoarding flashed ads for the BBL. It was hard not to think that his mind was elsewhere. And not just his.

Whether Samuels is cause or effect of the West Indies’ collapse, he is embodiment. In 2000, the shock was that the West Indies could be so poor. In 2015, it is that they still are, and getting worse. There are no greats in this team. If they existed, they would be playing BBL. If one happened to emerge, soon enough, ditto. The West Indies tide has been out for so long that the coastline has changed for good.

The West Indies’ next appointment in a spectacularly ill-conceived fixture is an incomprehensible two-day game against a Victorian assortment in Geelong next weekend. Now they have two extra days to sit around their hotel rooms, waiting and watching on TV as the BBL gathers pace, West Indians at the forefront. For the nation worst affected by the T20 revolution, the timing is disastrous.

Next year might as well have been arranged to kill off West Indian Test cricket altogether. First comes the World Cup of T20, in which form of the game the Windies are ranked No. 2. Then follows four home Tests against India. Criminally, they clash with the next instalment of the Caribbean Premier League. You can be pretty certain what Samuels will choose to play, and who knows how many others in the Windies Test team, too. How much more weakening can it stand?

I don’t know the answers to the West Indies’ plight. If Australia continue to play the West Indies, the results will be embarrassing. If they don’t, and others also baulk, the long-form game will wither away in the Caribbean anyway. It is cricket’s own Siberian dilemma.

That said, this must also be said. Presently, 21 points separate the top seven teams on the Test rankings, a healthy jostling. The Windies lie 20 further points behind those, with Bangladesh and Zimbabwe trailing off. We need not despair of Test cricket yet, the death riders. But it is hard to keep heartfelt faith in West Indian Test cricket.

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