West Indies need Viv's self-belief to rub off

Viv. The mere mention of the name - short but instantly recognisable, inoffensive yet utterly intimidating - doubtless still strikes terror into the hearts of bowlers, men who knew what it was to be rendered impotent as the greatest batsman of his time, the incomparable buccaneer, went plundering.

These days, he is Sir Vivian Richards and has himself become familiar with what it is like to be powerless. Almost two years ago, he was made chairman of the West Indies selectors. He picks the team, and he can only watch as they stagger from calamity to disaster, a journey broken only occasionally by brief flirtations with triumph.

Richards has presided over Test series defeats against India, New Zealand, Australia and, most recently and haplessly, South Africa, which have hardly been offset by victories over Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. The 3-0 hammering in South Africa early this winter (there was a scrambled draw in one Test) might have convinced Sir Viv that the cause was lost, that the crumbled empire was beyond reconstruction. But he is in this for the long haul.

"There is a whole lot of ability round here," he said last week as he sized up his probable squad to face England in the next two months. "I'm taking it step by step. There are disappointments in the job, but I'm enthusiastic about things, passionate that we can be competitive regularly.

"Our performances in South Africa did not stand out but I believe we came up against a very strong side playing with a lot of purpose. Our guys can be competitive, but they have to learn about collectiveness, that the team is a whole package."

He could not quite bring himself to countenance an England win. "It's going to be very competitive. Both teams know what it's like to lose, but our guys won't want to give up that record [against England]."

Part of Richards' difficulties lie in the loosely bound nature of West Indian cricket. Several nation-states come together to form a cricket XI. Apart from that they frequently have nothing in common but inter-island rivalry. Win, and those sort of cracks can be papered over; lose, and they widen.

"There are cycles but we have to keep moving forward," said Richards. "There have been highs like getting 418 against Australia to win, and in South Africa we scored eight centuries in the series. These are the motivating factors we have to make use of."

He hinted that he will not be afraid to make changes in the Test side for the England series. The leading domestic wicket-taker, Tino Best, who had a harrowing debut against Australia (0 for 99 in 20 overs), is in his reckoning again, and "there's a few guys in their 20s I've seen". The overwhelming probability is that Brian Lara will be retained as captain, for he has carried the team. But Richards mischievously refused to rubber-stamp him until he and his panel had discussed the position.

The chairman is prepared to play a hunch. Witness his inspired selection of the 21-year-old Dwayne Smith, who made a coruscating 93-ball maiden century in his debut Test in South Africa. But there is a shortage of quality bowlers, and Richards may be guilty of over-optimism.

"In South Africa the bowling didn't particularly come to the party and now they've got to learn quickly, yet not be expected to change it all around overnight. The game is still important in the Caribbean but it's like everything, winning is what counts. Look at what rugby has done in England."

Richards is not keen to criticise previous regimes that might have let West Indies cricket stagnate, but he has made his feelings clear in the past. The lack of investment in the future has led to the present crisis, and the fact that the Under-19 team were dismissed for 88 in the Junior World Cup on Friday does not bespeak overriding strength round the corner. Richards is keen to encourage contrib-utions by former players such as Courtney Walsh who could help to lend the bowlers discipline. Walsh was bemoaning only the other day his lack of involvement.

"There is a lot of pressure on the guys and to some extent we're all under pressure," said Richards. This is hard to believe of the man whose progress to the crease was somewhere between a saunter and a swagger, who never wore a helmet and whose idea of conveying pressure was to chew his gum a bit harder.

But he conceded eventually that easy answers had long since stopped crossing his mind. If the players could only start being consistent again they would find belief. But there was not, he said, the amount of domestic cricket to help them to learn their craft, thus indicating without saying so that the days of legions of West Indian cricketers finishing apprenticeships in the English County Championship had also ended.

Richards is still fêted throughout the Caribbean, and his status in his native Antigua is still closer to God than human. But as mere chairman he is aware that he will have to come up with a winning combination soon. The steady, inexorable decline that has seen West Indies slip to eighth in the world and be constantly lamentable away from home cannot go on much longer. Otherwise, implosion is inevitable.

West Indies need to find players but they also need to rediscover self-belief. The man who may have to provide them with both is Viv.

The tide of history

England's record in West Indies since their last series win there in 1968

1974
Trinidad: West Indies won by 7 wkts
Jamaica: Drawn
Barbados: Drawn
Guyana: Drawn
Trinidad: England won by 26 runs
Series drawn

1981
Trinidad: West Indies won by innings & 79 runs
Barbados: West Indies won by 298 runs
Antigua: Drawn
Jamaica: Drawn
West Indies won series 2-0

1986
Jamaica: West Indies won by 10 wkts
Trinidad: West Indies won by 7 wkts
Barbados: West Indies won by innings & 30 runs
Trinidad: West Indies won by 10 wkts
Antigua: West Indies won by 240 runs
West Indies won series 5-0

1990
Jamaica: England won by 10 wkts
Guyana: Drawn
Trinidad: Drawn
Barbados: West Indies won by 164 runs
Antigua: West Indies won by innings & 32 runs
West Indies won series 2-1

1994
Jamaica: West Indies won by 8 wkts
Guyana: West Indies won by innings & 4 runs
Trinidad: West Indies won by 147 runs
Barbados: West Indies won by 208 runs
Antigua: Drawn
West Indies won series 4-0

1998
Jamaica: Abandoned
Trinidad: West Indies won by 3 wkts
Trinidad: England won by 3 wkts
Guyana: West Indies won by 242 runs
Barbados: Drawn
Antigua: West Indies won by innings & 52 runs
West Indies won series 3-1

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