World cup cricket: How West Indies learnt to behave and forgot to win

West Indies forgot to win - The Federal
West Indian fast bowler Courtney Walsh. Photo: Twitter

Nice guys just get carpets, not the World Cup. And who would know this better than West Indian fast bowler Courtney Walsh.

In 1987, Walsh had his team knocking on the doors of the semi-finals of the world cup. Snared by the opportunity, Walsh stopped for a brief moment. And then, instead of walking through the door, he turned back with a wry smile. Since then, the world cup has been a distant dream for the West Indies.

We will return to this poignant story about Walsh, his carpet and the world cup. But, before that, let us travel a further down the memory lane and recall what West Indies were before that Walsh moment.Till 1983, when India beat them in the opening game of the World Cup, the Caribbeans were to cricket what Amitabh Bachchan was to Indian cinema during that time: the sole claimant for the slots between No 1 and 10.

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They were invincible at home. When they travelled, opposition teams quaked at the thought of playing their pace battery and bowling to their heavy hitters. On fast and bouncy pitches down under, the likes of Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Andy Roberts spilled blood. On the dusty tracks of the subcontinent, their batsmen pulverised the opposition for two days and then their bowlers skittled out the opposition in one session. Back then, cricket would be played only so that the West Indies could win.

Even 1983 seemed like an aberration. If you were to war-game that match a million times, there is every possibility that, like in the Avengers, India would have had one opportunity to win. And when they did at the Lord’s, for the next few years, India faced the wrath of
the West Indies like Thanos scorned, leading to one cruel decimation after another, both home and away. In the 1983-84 “revenge series” that followed, for instance, the champions lost 0-3 in Tests and 0-5 in one-dayers, in their own backyard. Those who remember that series have painful memories of India losing its top order in almost every
innings for less than 50 runs on the board.

And then came the carpet and the Walsh moment.

In a group game of the World Cup played at Lahore, Pakistan needed two runs to win from the last ball of the match with just one wicket in hand. Walsh, who was to later become the first bowler to take 500 wickets, ran in to bowl to Abdul Qadir. With his nerves jangling at the other end, Salim Jaffar didn’t notice that he had walked out of the crease before Walsh could bowl. Finding him outside the crease, Walsh stopped in his run up, considered the option of breaking the stumps and winning the game for his side.

But, as a million Pakistani hearts stopped, a billion hands in India got ready to applaud, Walsh smiled wryly, warned Jaffar and walked back to bowl. Pakistan went on to win the match, knocking West Indies out of the tournament. For his brave sporting gesture, Walsh got a carpet from General Zia, the Pakistani dictator. But the team went back
with its hands empty. For the first time in the history of the game, it didn’t reach the knockout stage.

If you believe in the karma theory, in the promise of good begetting good, West Indies should have been rewarded by destiny for Walsh’s gesture. Unfortunately, everything about the Caribbeans changed after that world cup. From there on, they lost their aura, the sheen of invincibility and could never reach the semi-finals of the marquee event. That one moment in Lahore, redefined the cricketing journey of the great cricketing side.

The 1987 world cup was the last one to be played in white clothing, with a red cherry, in the glare of sun light. In the next edition, coloured clothes, Kookaburra balls, flood lights and South Africa made their world cup debut. In this new world, West Indies, like India
and Pakistan in hockey after the introduction of astro-turf, lost their position at the top of the pyramid.

Why did West Indies decline since 1987? One of the primary reasons was the inability to find replacements for batting greats like Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards, who either retired or became shadows of themselves one by one.

Though Brian Lara burst onto the scene soon after, the team struggled with the openers and the middle order. In the bowling department they were served well by Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall and Patrick Patterson. But, the batting just collapsed.

The defining memory of the West Indian decline is the 1991-92 world cup match against South Africa. After Marshall and Ambrose sent the Proteas packing for just 200 runs, West Indies collapsed for a paltry 136. And in their final encounter, against Australia, they failed to chase 216, and got knocked out. (Incidentally, had they won, like in 1987, Pakistan would have not progressed to the semi-finals).

In every sport, some sides are feared. Some are hated. A select few are loved universally. To the credit of the West Indies, it has evoked all these emotions during its cricketing journey. From the side that was feared for its ability to demolish every rival, hated for its ability to spill blood on the pitch by bowling short, fast balls targeting the batsman’s skull, it has now morphed into a merry band of entertainers.

These days when Chris Gayle, Andre Russell, Jason Holder and Carlos Brathwaite walk out to play, everyone watches them with a sense of delight for their carefree batting, penchant for kamikaze-type hitting, bowling short and fast and innovative Sheldon Cottrell-brand celebrations.

But, not many expect them to win. Like good boys and gentlemen of the game, they are just expected to entertain and go back home.

That evening in Lahore, Walsh changed something about West Indian cricket. His legacy is still walking the red carpet.

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