That England should have a 3–0 lead in the present Test cricket series against West Indies is something that, only a few years ago, would have exceeded the most insane expectations of its supporters. In great measure the success is down to the discovery of excellent talent — Flintoff, Strauss and Key notably — and to the maturing of some older ones, such as Thorpe and Giles. But a significant part of England’s success has been the dismal and gutless way in which our once formidable opponents have now started to play the game of which they were — recently — not only the premier exponents, but also the leading entertainers. As Mr Geoffrey Boycott pointed out on the afternoon of West Indies’ terrible defeat this week, if they were not able to beat England from that position — a handsome first innings lead on a notoriously deteriorating wicket — then it was hard to see when they could ever do so. There is something desperately wrong with West Indian cricket, and if it is not quickly righted the game all round the world will suffer.
Part of the problem is cultural, part of it political, part of it down to personalities. To take the last first, the side is being led by a great batsman — Brian Lara — who is also a hopeless captain. His work on the field has been unintelligent, unmotivating and uninspiring. He seems to have little authority over a team that looks at times amateurish, and at other times like a rabble. His removal must be the first priority. It is hard to see who from the present team could replace him, so imbued do his teammates seem with the casual attitude that so undermines the side. One of the problems West Indies have — and this is a characteristic that long predates the present malaise — is that when they start losing, they keep losing. For them, failure does not motivate: it simply breeds failure. Once adversity sets in — such as with the removal of their captain and star batsman for a low score — hope is abandoned. With honourable exceptions, such as Sarwan and Chanderpaul, the batting side folds like a pack of cards. When in the field, punishment from the opposing side’s batsmen results in immediate surrender — such as was graphically seen on the first day of the Lord’s Test this year, when England made 391 for 2 in a truncated day’s play — and there is no route back. The bowling becomes wild and thoughtless. This defeatism has to be rooted out.
The individual islands and territories that make up West Indies cricket have rivalries and different standards that increasingly bedevil the administration and development of the game there. If West Indies are to remain a coherent cricketing entity, then they have to be governed as one. A captain of determination and steel must be chosen, and rigid standards and objectives set. Above all, the cricketing authorities in the region need to concentrate on encouraging and breeding talent, something they have singularly failed to do since the glory days of Sir Viv Richards. From the age of Ramadhin and Valentine through to the early 1990s, West Indies could rely on an unending procession of great players. They can no longer. Sadly, those who now wear the side’s colours have deceived themselves into believing that they can succeed without discipline, hard work and commitment. West Indies’ current humiliation ought to convince all but the most obtuse of the players that that is simply not the case.
However, the side’s failure is also attributable more and more to a cultural problem. The West Indian islands and territories have no shortage of fit, athletic and strong young men. The trouble is that, under predominantly American influence, those who are suited to professional sport want to become basketball or soccer players. Cricket no longer offers the lifestyle or the income that attracts such ambitious young men. The International Cricket Council might like to take some notice of this problem, and see what more it might do to help in promoting the game in the Caribbean and finding new and better sources of funding. There is a real risk, if things continue to decline at their present rate, that the once mighty West Indies will soon only be competitive in a match with the boys from Zimbabwe or the Test match tyros of Bangladesh. The consequences of that on the wider game hardly bear thinking about.
Perhaps the decline of cricket in the West Indies can be pinned on the Americanisation of that region. As any visitor there cannot help but notice, the sheer geographical proximity of America has brought a tremendous, and not always helpful, influence to bear on the West Indies. More to the point, black men in America — who by and large do not play cricket — are now the unchallenged role models for young West Indians; and the obsessive interest many in the Caribbean have with the careers of black British soccer players is another aspect of the same problem. What we have seen in England these last few weeks seems to suggest that the people of the Caribbean are taking a decision, consciously or otherwise, that cricket is something they no longer want to do. Should they wish to challenge that perception, they should be aware of just how perilously few wickets they have left to fall.