The Dying Light: England, West Indies and a Forgotten Test

So I wanted to prove these guys wrong, prove that I am a soldier where the bat is concerned. Wherever the fight is, I’m going to be fighting. I didn’t want to be rude to anyone, but anyone who is rude to me, then I was going to be rude in the right way: my bat was going to tell the story. You had guys who didn’t believe in the black man. If you feel you are superior to me, then you should be knocking me over every goddamn time.” – Viv Richards.

“I’m an entertainer, I try to entertain as much as possible… Sometimes I get knocked over first ball, I would love to ask the bowler as well ‘Do you feel sorry for me’. We’re paid to be competitive out there, serious event the IPL, lot of money being spent, you want to put on your best performance at all times.”                                                                   – Chris Gayle.

They say it’s always darkest just before the dawn. The Edgbaston Test match of 2000 was among the last murky moments of English cricket’s Stygian decades, before Fletcher and Flower led them into the light of Ashes success and on to the summit of the Test rankings. For the West Indies, England’s opponents in the series, the match was a final flicker of excellence, the dying embers of empire glowing for the final time before the gloom set in.

For this reason, the game is often overlooked; it doesn’t fit the narrative, it is the exception that proves the rule. The West Indies won by an innings and 93 runs, 397 playing 179 and 125. The West Indies’ captain, Jimmy Adams, steadily accrued a match-winning 98, and Courtney Walsh moved the ball dramatically to claim eight wickets in the match. The West Indies’ victory is eclipsed by England’s success in the rest of the series, the Windies’ dramatic collapse at Lord’s, the two-day chaos of Headingley and England’s final triumph at The Oval, winning the Wisden Trophy for the first time since 1969. The series showed England’s newfound ability to survive difficult periods of matches, turn around lost causes and dominate a weaker team. Abetted by the selectoral consistency of the newly-implemented central contracts, the backbone of Duncan Fletcher’s Ashes-winning team of 2005 emerged. Trescothick, Flintoff, Vaughan and Hoggard all played during the West Indies series, and Ashley Giles played a crucial role in the winter wins in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The profits of these cultural changes can be seen in the achievements of the current England team.

For the West Indies, sliding from dominance, the series entrenched many of their flaws. The overdependence on a few excellent, but aging, players; ill-disciplined batting and fielding; the inability to produce strength in depth to call upon when needed.  The batting collapses at Lord’s and Headingley, utterly ceding control of close games, were particularly galling for their fans. The bowlers supporting Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose were erratic and too often released the pressure build by the parsimonious openers. Walsh and Ambrose were helped little by poor catching and ground fielding. A diminishing team hindered by structural and administrative weakness, their flaws were the very problems England seemed to be rectifying.

Hence the curiosity of the Edgbaston Test, where England reverted to pre-Duncan type, the shambles of the previous summer against New Zealand, the petrifying memories of Trinidad and countless other defeats stirring at the sight of Curtly and Courtney limbering up. For the West Indies, it was the ballast of Chanderpaul and Adams, rather than the flair of Lara that guaranteed a decent total, and the unerring accuracy and skill of the two great fast bowlers that secured victory. As Wisden put it, they “regularly honed in on a spot the size of a dinner-plate, [while] England’s spread was more of tablecloth dimensions”. England’s batting collapses were straight out of the ‘nineties; The West Indies’ fast bowling equally so. In a transitional summer, old habits died hard.

The sense of evolution is evident, the twenty-first century beginning to crystallise. Watching highlights on YouTube, Edgbaston looks more like a humble county ground than the international arena it is now; Jimmy Adams and Sherwin Campbell wear open-faced helmets. Yet Chris Gayle, a man who has embraced cricketing modernity like no other, opens the batting, the first debutant of the generation who have questioned whether loyalty to the ideals of the islands is pre-eminent in modern cricket. Ramprakash and Hick struggle against Ambrose and Walsh, but Flintoff dismisses to Chanderpaul. The world turns, an empire falls, a dynasty rises.

~ ~ ~

England’s lacklustre batting undoubtedly cost them the match. Haunted by ghosts of failures past, Ramprakash, Hick, Atherton, Steward et al lapsed into the fading, fumbling disarray of many a previous Test. The collective trauma of repeated West Indian victory was evident in limp shots, a lack of belief that runs could be scored off Ambrose and Walsh, a sense that crease occupation was only ever necessarily limited. Atherton’s first innings dismissal, a back foot poke at a Walsh leg-cutter, could have come from any clash of their careers. The former captain’s opening partner was an intense Ramprakash, out of position and out of sorts. Wisden noticed that he looked “anxious and diffident” and the footage shows a furrowed brow and restless demeanour, his eventual dismissal, caught at short leg, indicative of his hard hands. Wisden also noted Hick’s pair was reminiscent of his torrid debut series, when, tormented by Ambrose, his star first began to wane.

Predictably, the two fast bowlers played a crucial role in the victory, as multiple England batsmen fell caught in the cordon, the extravagant seam movement and disciplined lines too much for them. It is notable that the best of the top order’s first innings resistance came from Nasser Hussain, whose pragmatic, gritty batting and ¡No Pasarán! captaincy were crucial in preventing batting subsidence over the next few years. Hussain’s pride and professionalism was central to making England into a team that didn’t lose games easily, an important step in their progress to becoming a winning team. Flintoff’s innings consisted of characteristically meaty short arm pulls and drives; despite its fleetingness, it showed a glimpse of his counter-attacking potential.

More hope was evident with England’s bowling, especially Darren Gough’s skiddy, spunky swing and seam and Andrew Caddick’s nippy, zippy bounce and pace. Their performances, allied with Craig White and Dominic Cork’s contrasting swing bowling methods later in the series, were important in England’s reassertion of dominance on lively pitches. At Edgbaston, however, they were only supported by Ed Giddins, who lacked penetration and quality, and Robert Croft, who found little in the wicket and failed to create pressure. Giddins was a county cricketer in the right place at the right time, one of the final picks of pre-central contracts decades and their tombola tactics. He was dropped for the Lord’s Test, replaced by Matthew Hoggard, a player groomed into a fine international swing bowler, having been given a very modern consistency of backing by the selectors.

Other players to emerge from the series played equally important roles in England’s rise. As well as a showing a flicker of batting potential, Flintoff dismissed a well-set Shiv Chanderpaul, a feat that often proved beyond far better England attacks over the next ten years, and bowled ten maidens out of twenty-three overs. Whilst he was absent from the rest of the series, other key players of the next five years began to establish themselves: Matthew Hoggard debuted at Lord’s, Michael Vaughan came into the side and Marcus Trescothick made a fine half-century on his debut at Old Trafford. Moreover, Ashley Giles provided England with a penetrative, disciplined spinner during the winter tours. The foundation for the team of 2005 was being laid. That victory, like 2000, was a paradigm shift in English cricketing hopes and expectations – a change in mindset and confidence.

At Edgbaston, five years before England’s great two run victory, such advances would have seemed very distant, if not fantastical. As the Windies tail wagged, England drifted slowly back to the sloppy practices of old. Despite Flintoff holding on to a stupendous catch at point to dismiss Adams – arguably his best for England, lurching low to his right, knuckles jammed into the grass near his right boot – his team had surrendered any momentum they had. Wearied and ground down by Adams’ six and a half hours at the crease, they capitulated weakly. Tentative and sloppy against Ambrose’ and Walsh’s disciple, buttressed for once by the pace of King and Rose, the batting evaporated. Atherton, Stewart, Ramprakash and Hick had staggered out of the wreckage in Trinidad six years earlier; the cold hard figure, 46 all out, a tribute to ruined ambition. There they had dared to hope of victory. Their nemesis, Curly Ambrose, had avenged that hubris. But after their Lord’s victory, England could realistically hope for victory again. The spell cast by repeated defeat was broken, just like at Edgbaston in 2005. Edgbaston 2000 was a last reminder of the power of remembered capitulation against the West Indies.

~ ~ ~

The West Indies were driven by memory too. Courtney Walsh had debuted in 1984 on a tour of Australia, as one of the team’s customary four-pronged pace attack. The other three on that occasion were Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall. When Curtly Ambrose debuted in 1988, he was captained by Gordon Greenidge. Viv Richards was his captain for his first Test in England later that year, when he bowled alongside Walsh, Marshall and Patrick Patterson. Curtly and Courtney were steeped in the mythology of West Indies past, part of a world-beating team. They were the last link to the representatives of island togetherness and racial solidarity, Viv’s Rastafari wristbands powerfully symbolising the cricketing dominance of the world by black men, fighting together against apartheid and Establishment prejudice. Come 2000, the status of Brian Lara, the sublime batsman, within the team had been somewhat altered by his resignation of the captaincy and subsequent self-imposed break, missing two home series. His genius was undoubted; his mettle and form was questioned. His runs were necessary to make up for his destabilising influence, indicative of the flaws within the team and of the problems to come in future years. Walsh and Ambrose, in contrast, continued to persevere, stoked up and rolled out like grand industrial machines, all smooth pistons and well-oiled levers, metronomic and unswerving.

The performance of the remaining greats, steeped in history and success, could not hide an increasing number of flaws. The discipline of Walsh and Ambrose only highlighted the waywardness of Reon King and Franklyn Roses’ spells and the way they released any pressure the opening bowlers had built up. The fielding was shoddy and the batting, Lara apart, lacked either quality or stickability. Jimmy Adams’s 98 was the only substantial, game-changing innings by a West Indian in the series, apart from Lara’s stylish Old Trafford ton. This was a team, like England, changing in nature. However, England were evolving from inconsistent to professional, whereas the West Indies were drifting from champions to an erratic, dispute-riven team. Clashes over contracts already existed by 2000, but nothing to match the shambles of 2009, where a shadow side, barely good enough to make up an A team, were thrashed by Bangladesh. Moreover, the touring side in 2000 acknowledged a Test tour as the highlight of their careers – by contrast, modern players have the competing lure of the IPL, unmatchable in terms of financial reward and potential name recognition in a larger market. Clive Lloyd’s team briefly flirted with Kerry Packer, leaving behind a weakened Test team, but they returned stronger and were justly rewarded for their success. Now players like Sunil Narine, Kieron Pollard and Dwayne Bravo, potential Test stars, are Twenty20 journeymen, hopping from continent to continent, earning their dollars four overs at a time.

Opening the batting at Edgbaston was Chris Gayle, a lanky, tentative left-hander, dismissed for nought, LBW prodding forward to Darren Gough. Umpteen sixes, and two Test triple-centuries later, he is the behemoth of Bangalore, a gold-hatted, six-hitting batter, revelling in the carnival of the IPL. Gayle’s insouciance, combined with raw power, is reminiscent of the great West Indies sides – Roy Fredericks’ Perth hundred could be seen as a proto-Gayle innings. However, his performances, and willingness to perform, for the West Indies have been inconsistent. Instead of reuniting the islands with his bat, he has offered it to the highest bidder, defining Twenty20 batting at the time. He is perhaps the first great postmodern cricketer, his record made, not by dominating the international game, but transcending the domestic. He has achieved this wonderfully; perhaps this is the way forward for West Indian cricketers, but the team will never carry the same connotations again. The racial solidarity and political symbolism of West Indian achievement belonged to the polarised twentieth century; Gayle’s success belongs to the twenty-first, globalised and market-driven, short-form and endlessly reproduced.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s success has been more traditional, focussed on Test cricket and the consistent accumulation of large amounts of runs. He is a man for an eight-hour 150, rather than a twelve-ball thirty. In 2000, his cross-crease scuttle was less pronounced, but he was still inelegantly effective and entrenched at the crease. His partnership with Jimmy Adams, the highest of the match, was a rebuttal to those who fetishize left-handed batsmanship, but a game-changing performance. As he would so often in the future, Chanderpaul offered solidity and self-restraint. At Edgbaston, it was match-winning, the bowlers able to reward his hard work. Afterwards, it seldom was. Throughout the 2000s, a Chanderpaul or Lara hundred was squandered by the profligacy of the likes of Daren Powell, Pedro Collins or Jermaine Lawson. Jerome Taylor, Fidel Edwards and Corey Collymore have offered control or class, but the production line of great Windies quicks seems to have seized up. Ambrose and Walsh’s combined figures at Edgbaston were 74.5 – 37 – 106 – 9. That the former only took one wicket was remarkable; that the latter was Man of the Match was inevitable. Such quality could paper over any cracks.

But cracks continued to gape: the West Indian edifice was crumbling. The victory at Edgbaston was the last success of a great power; once Ambrose retired, followed shortly after by Walsh, only Lara and Chanderpaul carried the flame. Both were reluctant bearers. The success of Ambrose and Walsh at Edgbaston make it perhaps the last win by a West Indies side that could claim direct descent from the teams of the glory days. Every win after the series was somehow different. They were the surprise wins of a struggling team, still wearing the badge, but with a different mindset to their predecessors. As with England, memory tied in with performance, entrancing the opposition, galvanising players in times of need. As with England, Lord’s broke it, the air of invincibility lifted. Michael Atherton described it as “one of the most important matches of my career, and the start of the team’s turnaround”. The efforts of Ambrose, Walsh and Lara, their continued presence in the team, were the Emperor’s new clothes; it only took one session of cricket, the batting disintegration at Lord’s – 54 all out! ­– to reveal the flaws of the West Indian cricketing body politic to all.

Many attempts have been made to diagnose, and, as with England in the 1990s or Australia today, the diagnoses are often contradictory. Off the top of my head: the wrong pitches, the wrong stadiums, player power, administrator power, too much international cricket, not enough Test cricket, poor crowds, crowds watching the wrong sort of cricket, crowds watching football or basketball or baseball, poor domestic tournaments, Twenty20 tournaments, Twenty20 techniques, young players, old players, too many retired greats, too few retired greats, Allen Stanford, Darren Sammy, individual islands, the united island ideal… Part of the problem may simply be attempting to live up the extreme standards set by past teams. The West Indies need stability and a sensible target. There are signs that this is beginning to happen, and the team is benefitting from it. The future, however, is uncertain, as the rise of Twenty20 and the shift in players’ priorities changes what it means to be a professional cricketer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the West Indies, and future generations will have to make important decisions at a young age in order to define the direction the team will take.

~ ~ ~

For me, an uncertain West Indies and a consistent England are not odd developments. Quite simply, they are what I have known for most of my time as a follower of cricket. Edgbaston is a forgotten Test for me too. The Old Trafford Test later in the summer is the first I watched with interest; the clatter of wickets at Headingley and England’s second afternoon success had me hooked. I asked my Dad constant questions: why isn’t that out LBW? Why don’t those runs go to the batsman? If the ball hit the non-striker, then the stumps, then the bowler…? The Lord’s Test, especially the West Indian collapse and England’s stomach-churning run-chance, emotionally neutralised by the knowledge of success, felt familiar by the end of the summer, the footage repeated on summaries and in rain breaks. Edgbaston, the aberration, the slip-up best forgotten, was ignored. The class of Ambrose and Walsh, their ability to manipulate the ball, and Atherton’s dogged defiance, his careworn but comfortable method, his ability to resist the examination of his technique like a politician rebuffing an ideological probing, caught my attention. Perhaps this introduction to high-quality, low-scoring Test cricket secured my regard for it over shorter formats and gargantuan run gluttony. Curtly Ambrose made me want to be a bowler who went for less than two runs an over (occasionally achieved) and Mike Atherton, at times his bunny, at others his frustrator, made me want to occupy the crease and play solid cover drives (rarely achieved).

Perhaps more relevantly, I am a child of Fletcher’s England and Lara’s West Indies. Knowing that things were once different is quite different to living through them. I discovered Hick and Ramprakash as unfulfilled talents, knowing they were never to perform for England. I never had the agony of watching them fail to live up to their potential the first few times. Similarly, I knew the West Indies had once been great, that Curtly and Courtney were the last of a dynasty that had dominated all, but watching Nasser Hussain lift the Wisden Trophy, I didn’t feel the relief or triumph of a seasoned fan. My team had merely beaten a side weaker than them. The win of 2005 meant much more, having watched Warne and McGrath, Ponting and Waugh marmalise England repeatedly. Fans who have recently started watching cricket today might similarly wonder why Ashes success means so much to the previous generation, why the merest hint of an Australian fight back has older fans cowering. The image of Steve Waugh lying on the Oval turf, blank bat raised to celebrate his hundred on one leg, explains why, defining an era. More puppeteer than skipper, the air of inevitability emanating from him traumatised a generation. England players fell under his spell. I’d imagine a parallel would be 46 all out or Viv’s fastest Test hundred in the Wisden Trophy; every wicket Curtly or Courtney took, every boundary Lara flashed, triggering a flashback to the grim days of subjugation. Victories may become less meaningful when the opposition hold a psychological edge, but liberation from the past makes them possible.

~ ~ ~

In 2000, when the ball goes in the air, you can see the trees around the ground. Their green is verdant against the grey and beige of the stands. You can’t see them anymore. The 1500th Test, in the millennium year, is before the first professional Twenty20 match took place, but the first great practitioner of the new format, a revolutionary who took batting to a plane where risk-free six hitting exists, is playing. His opening partner’s helmet has no grille, merely great white plastic disks like dinner plates over his ears. From behind, it looks like a maroon West Indies cap. Viv Richards hit effortless sixes off the fastest bowlers in the world wearing one of those. His pride wouldn’t allow him wear a helmet. He wore it with Rastafari wristbands, symbolic of the struggle and his respect for his African descent. Chris Gayle hits effortless sixes off the fastest bowlers in the world, mostly wearing a gold helmet emblazoned with the logo of an Indian spirits manufacturer. The bat designed for him by his sponsors has stickers in the Pan-African colours. On 15 April 1986, Viv hit a hundred off 56 balls for the West Indies against England in Antigua. On 23 April 2013, Gayle hit a hundred off 30 balls for Royal Challengers Bangalore against Pune Warriors in Bangalore. Red ball, white ball. White shirt, red shirt. Maroon cap, gold helmet. Red, green and gold. Plus ça change.

~ ~ ~

Two teams heading in opposite directions passed each other in the 2000 Wisden Trophy. This coincidence, this meeting in the night, made for an exciting series, the flaws in both teams waiving comfortable positions. The three best players were on the West Indies side, but the individuals who performed, Walsh and Ambrose apart, were English. The West Indies showed why they were declining from superpower to IPL feeder; England showed both the mastery of favourable conditions and new-found durability that would lead them to the memorable Ashes victory of 2005 and a place at the top of the world rankings. The winter tours of 2000/01 confirmed the trends of both teams. The West Indies were white-washed in Australia in a ceremonial handover of power, a ritualistic humiliation, Vercingetorix prostrate at the feet of Caesar. If it wasn’t for the connotations and Tony Greig’s infamous misuse, “grovel” would be an illustrative word. By contrast, England conquered new frontiers. If Graham Thorpe’s heist in the dusk and dust of Karachi was momentous, then the subsequent mastery of Murali in Kandy and Colombo was pioneering. England had consecutive series wins in Asia, against avant-garde doosra-bowling off-spinners and the alien conditions of bunsens and tropical heat. An England side that could win in Karachi and Colombo could win anywhere. They had exorcised the ghosts of Trinidad, and the Ashes, naively, seemed winnable.

The Edgbaston Test was the moment before the shift, as the two teams approached, ready to pass one another. For England, it was a harsh reminder of where they had come from, and how far was left to go. For the West Indies, it was the last great show from the final incarnation of their great team. Lord’s changed that. Every win afterwards, even triumphs like Jamaica in 2009, where they bowled England out for 51, were mere tributes, re-enactments of the glory years, rather than their dog days. England rose on, steadily defied by fewer and fewer, fleeing a haunted past in the grim days of the 1990s. The West Indies sank, the ghosts of greatness dragging them down.

For England’s cricketers, international Test match performance counts above all else. In the West Indies, the primacy of the format is being challenged. Players like Dwayne Bravo, Sunil Narine, Kieron Pollard and Chris Gayle are still world-class, pioneering cricketers. It is just that they choose to demonstrate this through performances in the multifarious Twenty20 tournaments of the cricketing world. They are essentially private contractors, the West Indies being one of many teams in which they are paid to perform and entertain. Individual performance may seem far from the team success of the 1980s and 1990s, but they retain the spirit, the kernel of Caribbean cricket. Their loyalties and performances may be transnational, but they remain West Indian, channelling the power, joy and ability of Viv Richards, Curtly Ambrose and Brian Lara into new frontiers. The West Indies team no longer symbolises racial solidarity and trans-island unity, but the players carry its ethos of pride and passion, exuberance and pageantry, forward.

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One Response to The Dying Light: England, West Indies and a Forgotten Test

  1. chrisps says:

    There’s a lot here to admire: some really sparky lines – “tombola tactics” and “a rebuttal to those who fetishize left-handed batsmanship” stand out; and of course the detailed, committed delving into the match, the players and how it relates to what came before and followed. I also found the way you placed yourself in the story appealing. A rewarding read and a good argument for that series and the Edgbaston Test, in particular, to be given more attention.

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