Dileep Premachandran

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The Greatest Team. Ever

In the trailer of Fire in Babylon, destined to be top of the Christmas wish-list for any serious cricket fan, Viv Richards says: "It's history that you'll never forget". It's also a requiem for an Empire that time forgot, a team that evoked such awe that those who didn't watch them will never quite fathom just how good or intimidating they were. Years ago, when I asked Michael Holding about Steve Waugh and 'mental disintegration', he just smirked. "We spoke with the ball," said the Rolls Royce of pace bowlers. "We didn't have to say anything."


Just how good were they? Well, between March 1976 and March 1995, they lost just one series, in New Zealand, a contest marred by officiating so wretched that it should have hastened the emergence of neutral umpires. There was also a 2-0 loss in India in 1978-79, of little relevance when you consider that the cream of Caribbean talent was on show in Kerry Packer's World Series at the time.


Rob Steen, who reviewed the movie recently, put their achievements into perspective when he wrote: "Sports Illustrated, as likely to run an article on cricket as publish a Russian recipe for burgers, bracketed them with the San Francisco 49ers and Liverpool FC as the Team of the Eighties; imagine what accolades might have been bestowed had the editors been able to tell their byes from their leg-byes." 


While many point to the 5-1 drubbing at Australians hands in 1975-76 as the catalyst for greatness, Holding insists that it was "rebel" cricket – but perhaps not the vivid pink shirts – that was the crucible in which legends were forged. "I think the most important factor was World Series Cricket under Kerry Packer," he says. "We bonded together a lot better as a team, and we became professionals in the true sense of the word. Kerry demanded that."


India currently sit atop the Test rankings, and while the kind of domination that the West Indies enjoyed is outside the realm of even fantasy, what can be done to prevent the kind of downward spiral that followed the exits of Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Richie Richardson, not to mention a generation of peerless quicks?

Holding is one who believes in cycles, and the current travails of the 49ers and Liverpool bear him out. "You could never expect the West Indies team to beat everyone for ever and ever," he says. "We beat the world for 20 years. Before that we had some very mediocre teams. We might have had some great individuals, but they didn't beat too many teams. We went through a period when we had no fast bowlers as well.


"When India came to the Caribbean in 1971, there were no fast bowlers up against them. Just like now, we had some medium-pacers. It will come around, and the West Indies will develop great fast bowlers again. It has been proven all over the world that, unless you have a fantastic spinner, it is fast bowlers who win Test matches."


That's cautionary tale number one for India then. Without a decent pool of pace bowlers, success will be ephemeral, especially away from home. With itineraries being what they are, few will be able to bowl with raw pace for more than a season or two. But it's important to rotate and rest those that are there, to prevent a bland Twenty20 diet from sapping away at their vitality.


India's emerging batsmen are blessed in that they come into a squad graced by men who are not only all-time greats, but wonderful role models. As long as the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman are around, it's unlikely that Cheteshwar Pujara, Suresh Raina and others will take the national cap for granted. That was what hurt Richards so when he was chairman of selectors. When he resigned six years ago, he lashed out against the culture of complacency. "Let the guys at the academy watch tapes of some of the great players of the past until they fall asleep," he said. "And then wake them up again and say: 'This is what you are representing and this is how we want you to go about representing it.' There is no doubt that we have some ability, but it is no good having two good days and then not turning up for the other three."


It wasn't a lack of fire alone that brought West Indies cricket to its knees though. Ian Bishop, who might have been one of the all-time greats but for back problems [he still finished with 161 wickets at 24.27] says that success brought its own problems. "When I was starting out in club cricket, we still had guys who had represented the West Indies or Trinidad turning up to play from time to time," he says. "You'd hang around with them as much as you could, soak up everything that they had to say. But by the time the next generation came through, few had the time or inclination to play club cricket, or even for their islands. So they lacked the guidance." 


The great West Indies sides were a heady mixture of resilience and flamboyance. But as the years passed, the style quotient remained high while the substance waned. I watched the nadir being reached during a World Cup on home soil in 2007. Had they played with as much commitment as they partied, the West Indies wouldn't have exited at the Super-Eight stage with barely a whimper. In a Grenadan nightclub, an irate fan put a gun to a player's head when he showed no sign of heading home even at 3am. Despite such extreme measures, they were thrashed out of sight by a South African side that managed their own excesses slightly better.


When I see a young player preening after an IPL half-century or two, I'm reminded of Marlon Samuels, a genuine talent who impressed on debut in Australia as a 19-year-old, swanning about in a mall in Kuala Lumpur. Dressed all in white, he had the Richards swagger down pat. There was only one problem. Samuels made 0 and 5 in the competition, and the chunky gold chain was just about the only eye-catching aspect of his appearance in the middle.


Neil Manthorp put it best when he wrote: "It's true that Aunt Sally used to be a model, but that was 20 years ago and, to be frank, the cleavage she was once so proud of is now wrinkled and the highlighted hair should have given way to something more natural years ago. West Indian cricketers remain hopelessly image conscious. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with tight t-shirts, diamond studded ear-rings and gold chains, of course, but they do look so much cooler on winning players."


The biggest obstacle in India's path though isn't the attitude of young players or the itinerary. It's the administration, which has hardly distinguished itself during the multiple scandals of the past few months. Rightly or wrongly, many saw Lara as a disruptive influence and poor standard-bearer, but he had a point when he said: "I don’t think you’d see an indisciplined team if you have a disciplined board. If you have a disciplined board, they would know exactly what they want from their players. You need to see the whole spiral, where it starts from. You can’t just pinpoint the players and say: You guys are indisciplined."


As MS Dhoni's team look to consolidate that No.1 ranking against New Zealand, West Indies head to Sri Lanka to take on a side that they once bowled out for 55 in a one-day game. Perhaps under Darren Sammy, they will find their way again. If cricket is to thrive, it certainly can't afford West Indies and Pakistan, the two best teams of the late '80s, scrounging for scraps in the basement.


Until happy days are here again, there's always youtube and footage of the greatest one-day innings ever played. Having feigned sickness to skip school and with Texaco player cards to help me identify the faces, I wasn't very impressed when they slumped to 102 for 7. What was all the fuss about? King Viv soon showed me, and the bowlers followed suit.


That summer of the first Blackwash changed my life. Those magnificent athletes with skill, flamboyance and eye-catching Rasta wrist-bands taught me that the colour of my skin didn't matter. If you were good enough, the world was yours to do with as you pleased. Every time I've met Richards or Holding since, I've had to be careful not to lapse into gushing-fan mode. It hasn't been easy, because they illuminated my youth. Best team ever? Without a doubt. But so much more than a team.

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