Giants cut down to normal size

CRICKET WORLD CUP: The once-mighty West Indies are no longer automatic favourites. Tony Cozier reports
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For a team with a far superior overall record in one day internationals than anyone else (66 per cent win ratio to Australia's 57 and England's 54), the 6-1 odds bookmakers are offering on the West Indies to win the World Cup seem unusually over-generous.

For a host of reasons they are also realistic.

The days are long since past when they were as invincible in the abbreviated form of the game as they were in Tests. Under Clive Lloyd and with strength in every department they romped to the first two World Cups in 1975 and 1979 and only surrendered their title in the 1983 final through complacency.

That established a dominance that endured well into the following decade. In the World Series in Australia in 1984/85, they advanced to the finals by winning all 11 qualifying matches and defeat was a rarity.

They carried great players in every category. Desmond Haynes (17), his perennial partner, Gordon Greenidge and the irrepressible Viv Richards (11) are still the only batsmen to have completed more than 10 one-day international hundreds. There were no more feared nor meaner fast bowlers than the towering giant Joel Garner, the Rolls-Royce Michael Holding or the bustling Malcolm Marshall.

The West Indies knew they were better than the rest and they intimidated everyone. But it could not last for ever.

Richards, Greenidge, Marshall and the high-class wicket-keeper, Jeffrey Dujon, all left the international stage within a few months of each other in 1991 and, while a new batting sensation by the name of Brian Lara emerged from their shadows, it proved a vacuum impossible to plug properly.

Suddenly the powerhouses found they were losing matches and to opponents they used to take for granted. They, and their demanding public, found it difficult to come to terms with their shift in fortunes.

The Australian Mark Waugh has identified one consequence of the decline.

"For many years they had this aura about them when you didn't expect to win when you played them," he said. "Now when we play them it's level ground and we expect to beat them more often than not."

Wes Hall, the great fast bowler of the 1960s who has been team manager for the past year, blames the deterioration on lack of planning for the specifics of the limited-overs game.

"We won those first two World Cups on sheer talent," he observed. "Since then, the other countries have lifted. They have poured money and ideas into the one-day game and studied it. You don't win on sheer talent anymore. Even the average English county cricketer is steeped in knowledge of the one- day game where we in the West Indies have not been exposed to that."

Only in the past two seasons that the West Indies have organised a separate limited-overs tournament, for the Shell-Sandals Trophy, and have concentrated on preparing players for the instant game.

"I know we're now on the right road but it's going to take time," Hall said.

There are other problems that afflict the West Indies as they attempt to defy the odds and regain the Cup. Internal divisions appeared in the ranks through the much publicised exit of the temperamental Lara on last summer's tour of England after a dressing room spat with the captain, Richie Richardson, an unassuming man without the imposing personality of his predecessors, Lloyd and Richards.

Lara's further withdrawal from the recent trip to Australia emphasised the problem and the West Indies were unrecognisable to crowds who had seen their cricketers conquer their continent from the days when the high- powered environment of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket added discipline and self-belief to their skills.

Lara has been grudgingly returned to the squad by selectors who might otherwise have felt the discipline for his tantrums were in order. But he is so essential to batting that has been a recent embarrassment that it was unthinkable that he would not have been included as soon as he said he was ready.

If his mind is on it, the dapper Trinidadian left-hander has the sheer presence to inspire a revival in the coming month, whether the West Indies play their match against Sri Lanka or not.

On his return has been counter-balanced by the recurrence of malaria that has forced the late withdrawal of Carl Hooper, an outstanding and experienced one-day cricketer. The chaos that has caused was evident when Cameron Cuffy, a fast bowler whose use of the bat is strictly as a prop at the non-striker's end, was picked to replace him.

The recent trip to Australia ended with failure to reach the finals of the World Series tournament and even more intense demands for Richardson's head from a disenchanted public.

But there were a few significant advances. The 21-year-old left-hander, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, hitherto regarded as a pusher and nudger unsuited to the urgent demands of the limited-overs game, has emerged as a quick-scoring batsman, the veteran Roger Harper is back to near his best as vital all-rounder and Glamorgan's Ottis Gibson has made an impact as a strong lively fast bowler and devastating lower order hitter.

But even with those pluses and Lara's reinstatement no-one in this part of the world disagrees with those pre-tournament odds. They know their cricket here.