By Jarrod Kimber in Kolkata
The ills of West Indies cricket may not be solved overnight, but the victorious teams – men, women and the U-19s – have brought much joy and no little flair
“As long as we rally, rally round the West Indies. Now and forever. Rally, rally round the West Indies. Never say Never.” That is their song. Literally their rallying cry.
During that song, for this faux cricket nation, Andre Russell stood with his hand on his heart. Others sang their words of their cricket anthem. They sang the words of what is essentially a pop song like it was the most important song to them. The rest stood straight, focused and proud.
On the ground they were freer, but just as proud. When they took a wicket, they did the dance from Dwayne Bravo’s music video. The “Champion” dance.
A length ball down the leg side was no one’s idea of defending 19 runs from six balls. Ben Stokes is an odd death bowler. As much as bowling good balls, his real strength as a death bowler is his unpredictability. Short balls, wide balls, length balls, yorkers, full tosses, good, bad and ugly. His main strength is no one seems to know what he is about to do.
But Carlos Brathwaite did know. That’s what it seemed like. He had been trying to hit over mid-off and cover earlier, with a little success, but not enough. There was also a skilful scoop. But this time his leg was already out there, splayed, pre-cleared, ready for power, and the ball was just delivered there. And he just helped himself. He helped it on its way, he helped it on West Indies’ way.
It doesn’t clear the boundary by a long way, it’s more a flick over backward square than a smash, but it couldn’t have more effect on England if he’d gone from player to player smashing them with his bat.
Instead Brathwaite just nods his head manically. Like some special force has taken control of him.
“My whole obligation was to West Indies cricket. As I have always said, I have never made a run for me,” says Gary Sobers. He starts to cry as he says, “I have always played for the West Indies team”. Now his voice is breaking as well. “It was such a pleasure and joy to be able to do what I did. Records meant nothing.” Sobers pauses and then says: “The team was important. I don’t think we have the kind of person today. We might have them in Sri Lanka, in England, in Australia, but I don’t think we have that kind of person in the West Indies cricket anymore. Who is quite prepared to play and give it everything, to their country.” Then Sobers pauses again, and his voice is breaking as well, “and that hurts”. Now he is upset and he is struggling to even get his words out. “Until we can get people who are willing to play for the West Indies, in the right way,” Sobers closes his eyes for a moment, “I think we are going to be struggling for a long time.” Later he says, “I believe that a lot of West Indian cricketers today want to make Test cricket and do well, because the IPL is around the corner, and they can go there.”
This was a press conference from October last year. It went viral as headlines around the world screamed about Sobers’ tears. The passion for West Indies cracked his voice, you could see it in his eyes and his pain dripped down his face.
But, he was also wrong.
When Learie Constantine first played cricket for West Indies, he had other things in mind. It was his second tour to England, and after the first he went back and worked on bowling quicker, on batting longer and moved himself to slip to conserve his energy for bowling. When he arrived back in the UK he was a much better cricketer. He was so popular that many started coming just to see him play.
Against Middlesex, West Indies were behind the follow-on target and Constantine brought up his 50 in 18 minutes, he ended up with 86 and scored 50 more than anyone else. Then he took the new ball and ended with 7 for 57, including 6 for 11 in one spell. Their chase was then 259, at No. 7 Constantine walked in and he made 103. In an hour. West Indies won by three wickets.
But something more important had happened. The reason he had improved his game wasn’t to represent West Indies in their first Test series, it was to secure a job playing cricket in England. He needed to make cricket his livelihood, and cricket was his chance. And when Nelson Cricket Club contracted him, all that hard work had paid off.
From then on, England became a second home for many West Indian players. Some also played in Australia. When Kerry Packer came along, he essentially hired the entire side. And part of that deal was giving them a physio which many of their players still talk about as a real turning point in their preparation.
Then there was Sobers himself. Sobers was also the first globetrotting professional cricketer. His job was playing cricket on whatever continent he was needed. He once played in Rhodesia, and said he would have played in South Africa if only people would have stopped giving him grief about it. On one occasion he had to be convinced to play for his country by Richie Benaud and Don Bradman, as the fee would be less than what he got in Lancashire League cricket for Accrington. He was Chris Gayle before Chris Gayle was, and he was better at being Chris Gayle, even off the field, than Chris Gayle ever was.
That is the truth of West Indies cricket. The T20 leagues haven’t changed anything. To be paid for their skill, to become professionals who improve as cricketers, players have always had to go overseas.
There have been four reports into the governance of West Indies cricket in the last few years. Other than Shivnarine Chanderpaul, nothing has been as consistent in West Indies cricket in that time, or as ignored. The basic tenet of these reports is that West Indies cricket needs to be independent rather run by each individual board. It is cricket’s ancient roots restricting growth, development and independence, again.
The latest report has only been out for a few weeks but the WICB have already decided to look at previous reports instead, and have already sidestepped this one. But in good news, they have decided to change their name to Cricket West Indies. Which was from a report in 2007.
In the same period of time they have also had two player strikes. They have become a laughing stock, the sort of team referred to as ordinary even by other boards, and they play politics at every level, even in selections. They have been dragged into professionalism, often against their own will. When the players went on strike in 2009 Bravo talked about the conditions. “They got my surgery done for me. They paid for the flights and that was it. From the time I got back home my whole rehab programme was on my own, everything.” This was one of their most important players, handling his own rehabilitation, and paying for it himself.
All of this after Australia had built one of the greatest sides in cricket history, on the back of natural talent, and the most professional structure cricket had ever seen. The West Indies don’t just have to beat other cricket teams, they have to beat their own system.
Even recently they suspended their own coach. Their administration are like a lost team bowling in perpetual death overs with wet balls.
Australia Women had played out their innings well. Their total was getting to heights that looked like it could be too much for West Indies Women. A big last over from Australia, and that could be the entire match. Ellyse Perry had just smacked a big six, and was on strike. But Deandra Dottin started with three dot balls. The fourth was even better. Straight, quick, and Perry went across the stumps to slog it and was out lbw.
Next ball Erin Osborne pushes to midwicket and runs. Stacy-Ann King swoops on the ball, fires it to Dottin who has raced back to the stumps and takes the bails off in a heartbeat. Five balls of the last over, the fireworks over, and no runs, with two wickets. The last ball a single is taken. West Indies kept themselves in the game, with skill and composure.
If Brathwaite was a normal sized guy, his batting style would look cute. He has a bounce at the crease, and he holds the bat up in an almost English-eccentric way. Like he should be speaking with an Essex accent and rocking a decent moustache. But he doesn’t look cute, partly due to his size, and partly due to the fact he has just turned a 19 off 6 chase to 13 off 5.
Stokes tries full and straight, it all makes sense.
Brathwaite’s back foot twitches like he is about to dance over and paddle, or try something fancy, but then that big front leg goes out again, he gives himself room to swing, and as the ball reaches him he hits straight through it. It’s not a slog, despite his position, it’s almost more like a scoop, Stokes’ ball is good, so he has to work for this one, and his hands move through the ball like lightning.
That shot, which for most batsmen might limp it’s way to long-on, goes. And goes. Long-on just looks up. Everyone looks up. Thirty-five metres behind long-on is where the ball ends. It’s big, real big. It’s huge. It’s a monster. It kills monsters.
It was from a good ball, a good ball that ran into fast hands. Stokes just stares at the batsman like he’s been cast as a villain. Marlon Samuels slams into Brathwaite, and is lucky Brathwaite doesn’t deposit him into the stands through muscle memory.
The entire ground is shaking. It couldn’t have made a bigger noise if a meteor had landed on Eden Gardens.
This West Indies team is very smart at this format of the game. They found a way of batting that suited their natural strengths, and then they stuck to it dogmatically even when they got themselves in trouble. It was dot, dot, boom. Which sounds so simple, but you need batsmen who believe, and you need batsmen who can boom.
The reason these guys know they can do this, is because they do it all the time. They do it everywhere. They do it for big cash, medium cash, and small cash. In Asia, in Australia, in South Africa, in England. They’ve played all the T20 cricket. This is not a team that plays together that much, or practically at all. But they have 15 match-winners. And they assembled for this tournament like the avengers, everyone knew their role in this team, everyone knew what super powers they had. And most of the time they just get out the way and let their guy save the day.
They have also seen all the tactics in T20 cricket. Their team may still lag behind when it comes to professionalism. But they pick that up when they get those big pay days. They have access to all the analytics of the world. They have access to all the tactics, training methods, opposition research. They were trained by other countries in this, and then it all comes together in this one team. All those franchises and domestic teams have helped create the world’s best T20 outfit. Franchises around the world have made money off them, and they’ve made a team of monsters.
In the semi-final, West Indies had one moment of doubt. A free hit was given by Dwayne Bravo, but he bowled a beautiful slower ball that bounced over the stumps. Virat Kohli got lost in the moment and ran down the wicket, Ajinkya Rahane didn’t come with him, and all Denesh Ramdin had to do was run up to the stumps, MS Dhoni style, and Kohli was gone. He didn’t. All Bravo had to do was hit the stumps from about two metres away. He didn’t. Gayle’s face suggested that he knew they’d missed their chance. The next ball they had a chance to run out Kohli again. They didn’t. The next ball Kohli edged through at a catchable height between the keeper and short third man.
At the end of the over Gayle walked over to Bravo and held out his hand for a low five. Bravo smashed it. It was probably one of the hardest low fives you can give. Gayle’s hand recoiled back. Bravo clinched at his fists, but even that wasn’t enough to get the frustration out. Gayle just kept walking, he never even looked back.
Stafanie Taylor, Deandra Dottin and Hayley Matthews played in the first Women’s Big Bash this year. Taylor has already played professionally in New Zealand as well. They are trailblazers for their women’s team, which is now becoming formed of franchise stars around the world as well.
On Sunday, Matthews made 66. Taylor made 59. And Dottin was 18 not out when they won. The only other two scorers were Extras and Britney Cooper, who both made 3.
They were playing the greatest women’s cricket team of all time. A team going for their fourth straight title. A team of new professionals, from a cricket board with big money, who had invested good money into their women’s cricket and were getting great investments from it. Then they decided on their big franchise league. It was a massive success. But they also helped train the three women who beat them.
Matthews wouldn’t have been playing a few years ago. She had two options available to her, become a track and field athlete, or try cricket. For many that would never have been a real choice, you know as a female track and field athlete there is a proper way to become professional, whereas women’s cricket, especially in the West Indies, had no option at all. But things are changing, and Matthews chose cricket.
Had she chose track and field, Australia would have won their fourth title.
Stokes is down on his knees. He’s staring at something. Nothing particular, there is nothing to look at. He drops his head down. He rubs his hands over his head. He’s rubbing his hair. His hands go to his eyes. When they move, it looks as if he’s been crying. He gets up slowly and breathes out deeply and walks back to his mark.
While this is happening the West Indies are celebrating their tie, like it’s a win. That’s because they know it is. This isn’t like Bangladesh. This is certain, solid, concrete.
This all happened because of the third six. The third six was simple. Stokes tried full and straight again, it was again a good ball, not great, again. It was again met by Brathwaite’s splayed front leg. It was again swung straight at. It was again a victim of those fast hands. Again it was a six. Again the fielders just looked up. Again the crowd had to watch out.
Six, six, six. 19 off 6. 13 off 5. 7 off 4. 1 off 3.
There was a pause after that six. The ball had to be changed, or found, or remade. That six just hung in the air for minutes above the ground. Even Eden Gardens didn’t catch her breath.
It was not that long ago that West Indies cricket was on the verge of bankruptcy, those whispers of them failing as a cricketing entity and all going their own way were coming back again. Their latest player strike couldn’t have come during a more important tour, right in the heart of India. And if the BCCI were ever serious about suing them, that was it, the end of West Indies.
Instead that threat has gone away. At least for now. But this is just one of those things that other teams don’t have to worry about, your team disbanding as a concept, your team being sued out of existence by another cricket nation.
That is scarier than a Liam Plunkett short ball. That is scarier than bowling to Virat Kohli. That is scarier than losing a World T20 final.
Andre Russell came hurtling down. There were officials, police and other obstacles in his way, but he ran around people, pushed past others, hopped over something on the ground and then he couldn’t find the gate. So he just jumped the fence. He wasn’t even the first one there. There were others from his team out there as well, dancing, hugging and enjoying the win. Not theirs. Their women’s team. It didn’t matter right then, it was a West Indies win.
The women were crying, screaming, dancing, it was wild and free. Had the ground not needed to be prepared for later, they could have kept dancing there until the lights went out. It was impossible to watch them celebrate the best day of their lives and not feel a tear well up. And as emotional as that was on its own, adding the men to it just made it more special. It was a great moment for women’s cricket. It was a great moment for cricket.
As the finals were played, the CPL announced its plans to play games in Florida. There has been over US$20 million invested into the league so far, and it’s not yet profitable. But the CPL could be the most important thing to happen to the West Indies since they got Test status. A profitable and well-run CPL means for the first time in their history they can pay for themselves. It will bring professionalism into their cricket, not via jet-setting players, but homegrown, self-funded, and a chance for their cricket board to finally make some real money.
Damien O’Donohoe said that the competition had “re-energised cricket in the region” and “if they had 5% to do with the results of today they should be very proud”. But what they could do, what they should do, with this league is completely change the game in their region. That is worth well more than US$20 million or a potential 5% on the field.
The CPL is a place where grandma and grandson go to the cricket with mum and dad. It’s reaching an audience in the West Indies that had been thought lost. It is bringing in the next generation. Last year they had 310,000 people go to their games. Their TV ratings were incredible. And it will make money. The one thing West Indies cricket has never really done.
They have always had the stars, now they have the format, the league, to show them and make them the money they deserve. They want to make a women’s league. They want to try a junior league. They are ambitious and aggressive as any of their players. And if they pull it off, West Indies will have something as special as their players.
Curtly Ambrose looked worried. We lived in an entire decade where Curtly Ambrose never even looked nervous. His eyes were darting, he didn’t know if his team could do this. West Indies had played the exact way they had all tournament, they hadn’t panicked. They’d kept the chase in hand knowing that when they needed to, they could hit the ball anywhere they need to. It’s just the boundaries hadn’t been quite as easy. Samuels was exhausted, Brathwaite looked like he was seeing them well, but still couldn’t get boundaries away. One more wicket and they were out of six hitters.
The best team in the tournament had set the match up perfectly, and they just couldn’t do what they needed.
After that third ball disappeared from sight, Carlos stood there not even noticing Samuels literally running around him in celebration. Then he turned to his dugout, and he slammed his fist on his chest. His heart. Over and over again. Quickfire. Hard. Passionate. With his power he was lucky he didn’t knock his heart straight out of his chest. Samuels grabbed him, and he just kept hitting his heart. Then he turned to the West Indies supporters and box, and he kept slamming, he kept slamming. Like it was a ball he was trying to hit for six. But it was more than that, he was slamming his West Indies heart.
You could probably claim that Stokes missed each of his yorkers by a bit. But the biggest problem with balls 19.2, 19.3 and 19.4 was that they were bowled to Carlos. Carlos was a champion before the ball even landed. He was standing in the middle of Eden Gardens screaming as his team of champions jumped on him. Samuels was running around topless, with his pads still on. Someone was carrying him at one stage. The women, who must have run from whatever box they were in, were dancing and screaming. They were doing Dwayne Bravo’s “Champion” dance.
This was West Indies’ day: they owned, they built it, they smashed it out the ground.
And all that worry about their terrible governance that Darren Sammy mentioned, about the BCCI lawsuit, about their dire finances, the ICC giving them less money, them being in the worst ever era, it was hit out the ground. It is now somewhere over long-on, still lodged in the Eden Garden concrete. This team rallied, they came to gather, and they are the best World T20 side on earth.
West Indies Under-19. Winners. West Indies Women. Winners. West Indies men. Winners.
Forty-five players. Every one a Champion. The West Indies’ teams. Champions.
(Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber © ESPN Sports Media Ltd.)