England strive to end 31 years of servitude

West Indies dominance through intimidation and destructive power of great players set to be broken at The Oval

For those in the front-line, it was the all-powerful dynasty that appeared to have no weakness. Yet, suddenly, as the barbarians had done to Rome almost two millennia earlier, the West Indies cricket team was toppled, their reign of supremacy ended by Australia, a side who have become almost as indomitable as the one they overthrew.

For those in the front-line, it was the all-powerful dynasty that appeared to have no weakness. Yet, suddenly, as the barbarians had done to Rome almost two millennia earlier, the West Indies cricket team was toppled, their reign of supremacy ended by Australia, a side who have become almost as indomitable as the one they overthrew.

Between June 1980 and that momentous day in Kingston 15 years later, when the shackles were broken, the West Indies played 29 Test series. In a feat unprecedented in modern cricket they remained unbeaten, winning 20 of them and drawing the other nine. In almost any team sport, such world domination is something that only the All Blacks in rugby union have come close to, and it was done, like them, with the maximum force allowed.

For England, the scars can be traced back even further to 15 July 1969, which is when the West Indies were last beaten over a Test series. At the time, Neil Armstrong had just taken his "giant step" on the moon, (Apollo actually landed in the Sea of Tranquillity on the rest day of the final Test) while Nasser Hussain, the current England captain, was taking his first small ones, aged one and a half.

Hussain's side need to win or draw the final Test, which starts at The Oval today, to break 31 years of servitude, but neither result is guaranteed. Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose are the remnants of the all-conquering sides of the 1980s and they will not relinquish a record that has come to be seen by many as a birthright without one last supreme effort.

Fast bowlers like Walsh and Ambrose were the main reason the Caribbean ruled the cricket fields of the world for so long, and why, with their numbers and overall quality dwindling, they have declined so quickly. Of course it was not only firepower with the ball that made them winners, and destructive batsmen like Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd and Desmond Haynes helped to increase the potency of an already lethal mix. They say the best sides have fast bowlers who hunt in pairs. Until recently, the West Indies invariably had two sets, with each member a match-winner in his own right. When combined, though, no batting line-up posed more than a temporary setback for them. Indeed, most were simply blown away.

Following the hiatus left by the retirement of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith at the end of the 60s, the new lineage began with Andy Roberts, a quiet Antiguan, in 1973. When recently asked about the best of the fast bowlers he had captained, Lloyd stated that Roberts would probably be the first on his team sheet. Certainly, those that followed soon afterwards, like Michael Holding and Joel Garner, would be the first to acknowledge his influence and quality.

In what may come to be seen as a freakish well of talent, others like Colin Croft, Malcolm Marshall, Ian Bishop, Walsh and Ambrose all arrived over the next 15 years, their peaks conveniently staggered to keep the fast-bowling torch white hot. Incredibly, the combined booty of the eight mentioned above - excluding Hall and Griffith - comes to just over 2,000 Test wickets. That is enough to bowl 100 teams out twice: the usual way Test matches are won.

Less-vaunted fast bowlers, such as Sylvester Clarke, Ezra Moseley and Patrick Patterson, occasionally played a part as well. But, if their presence was occasional, it was instrumental in keeping the others highly motivated, something not immediately apparent in the current side.

It was not simply pace, though with no specific limitations on bouncers at the time that was often enough to dissuade opposition batsmen from hanging around too long. As batsmen around the world can testify, they were accurate and shrewd too, a combination that limited real scoring opportunities (shots that would bring more than a single run) to something approaching 20 balls per session. When that happens, confidence and concentration are quickly undermined.

Graham Gooch, a batsman who had more success against them in their heyday than any other, remembers the difficulties presented, especially when opening the innings in the Caribbean.

"Boycs [Geoff Boycott] would often bat superbly against the quicks all morning and then get out just before lunch," recalls Gooch. "When that happened, he'd probably have no more than 15 runs to his name, a total that bore no resemblance to the skill and bravery displayed by him."

In 1981, Boycott faced what most watching consider to have been the finest opening over of a Test match ever bowled. The bowler was Michael Holding and Gooch, standing at the non-striker's end, reckoned there were no looseners. "It was 0-90mph in about 3.2 seconds," said Gooch. "Boycs took several blows to the gloves and ribs before having his off-stump knocked 20 yards back by the last ball of the over.

"To score runs against them, you really had to be able to deal with the short ball on your body," reckoned Gooch. "If not, your options were virtually nil as they rarely gave you balls to drive or cut."

For that reason, Gooch remembers opportunities for victory over them being rarer than Test matches that lasted five days. "Before we beat them in Jamaica on the 1989-90 tour, I reckon we had one opportunity in the previous 14 years to win a Test against them and that was at Trent Bridge in 1980. It was a close match played on a grassy pitch and they eventually won by two wickets."

Perhaps more chilling is that the West Indies made it feel personal. Much of their batting, especially by Richards, was as intimidatory as their bowling, and he is the only batsman who regularly put the frighteners on those who bowled at him.

Richards was something of an icon for the radical movement sweeping through West Indian society at the time. He knew there were scores that were expected to be settled against the old colonial "master" and (certainly symbolically) the cricket pitch was as good a place as any to do that. Indeed, it is probably no coincidence that England suffered two successive 5-0 "blackwashes" in 1984 and 1985-86, a period when the "Masterblaster" was at his most destructive.

I remember turning up to play in the fourth Test at Headingley in 1988, hoping, rather than really believing, that we could win. Gallows humour prevailed: we were 2-0 down in the series; on our third captain of the summer (Chris Cowdrey); and opponents most of us knew well from the county cricket barely acknowledged us. It was also our first sighting of Ambrose and the only words we heard him utter in the match were "howzat" as he took seven wickets and scooped the man-of-the-match award.

Business was meant, and, although not exactly as blatant as Tommy Smith and Bob Hines at the Mexico Olympics with their clenched fists raised aloft, it was delivered in a chilling style that left you with the distinct feeling that there was a lot more to the encounter than mere sport.

Success on the cricket field not only gave meaning to the West Indies as a regional concept, it also enriched the lives of those that lived there. In some ways it was nationalism by bat and ball, a way that often exceeded the petty political squabbles that filled daily life.

Of course, for those now playing, it has become, along with trying to continue the awesome legacy of the recent past, a huge burden. The depth of bowling and batting enjoyed by the West Indies' sides of that great era is simply not there anymore and England should come away from The Oval in the next few days having won a Test series against them for the first time in 31 years.

If they do not, the opportunity may not present itself again for some considerable time. A month ago, at Lord's, the West Indies' players of the future won the Under-15 World Cup.

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