The terror subsides

Derek Pringle explores the reasons behind the fall of the world champions; As West Indies' reign of fear ends, Australia's man of the series tells of bickering in the field and a lack of leadership
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The Independent Online
AS Britain and her allies prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of VE Day, it should not come as any great surprise if her largest antipodean colony was still busy celebrating the momentous events in Kingston, Jamaica last week, when Australia finally toppled one of the world's great sporting superpowers. It has been 15 years since the West Indies lost a Test series, and 22 years since they lost one at home, a record unprecedented in the history of Test cricket and one which was fiercely guarded until their overwhelming defeat last Wednesday.

But now the mantle has at last slipped, are we just seeing a temporary blip, or is it the long-term nosedive of a once great team, whose sources of youthful raw material have been eroded by American sports imported on satellite TV? A team whose punishing year-round treadmill, at the unsympathetic behest of its Cricket Board, is beginning to show signs of weakness.

Sport as a metaphor for war is overblown, yet the West Indies' dominance, first under Clive Lloyd and latterly under Vivian Richards, succeded in bringing cricket as close to armed combat as any since the infamous bodyline series of 1932-33. It has been a ruthless reign, dominated by a fearsome force of fast bowlers, whose net effect was often cynically to cow the opposition into submission, but whose overall control and devastation allowed their batsmen to play gloriously uninhibited, stroke-laden innings, comfortable in the knowledge that any batting indiscretions that got the team into trouble, would almost certainly be dragged back by the bowlers.

Such hegemony, particularly when it is carrying the wider issues of black pride and culture - there is a whole generation of young West Indians who cannot recall a series defeat - becomes an ever-increasing burden. Teams playing against the West Indies have always been under intense pressure, but the sheer weight of Caribbean expectation on her torch-bearers must have become almost intolerable. Now it seems an inexperienced pair of openers and a dinosaur-length tail has meant that even a mere six hours batting has been beyond them against Australia.

So, defeat may have come as a relief to all involved. Certainly, the Jamaican Gleaner, in its editorial, thought the loss a blessing in disguise, as it would now help guard against complacency and should convince the Board of Control that a new infrastructure, ensuring both the quality of play and players, is now put in place.

But it may not be as simple as that. As bowling and batting resources have dwindled, stronger means of motivation have to be invoked; a task not beyond the paternally professional Lloyd, who had the cream of the players, or even the begrudging steel-hard Richards. But it was no easy task for a naturally quiescent person like Richie Richardson, and many haveblamed his lack of positive leadership for the recent losses, particularly in light of Courtney Walsh's successful efforts in India and New Zealand.

This is not entirely fair. It was only two years ago that many were praising his inspirational leadership in Australia after a closely fought series ended in a rout at Perth, Curtly Ambrose destroying the home side with a ferocious spell of 7 for one off 32 balls. However, after some bizarre decisions against England in the Caribbean in 1994, accusations of tactical naivity- primarily surrounding the three Test match tosses he won, where he put England in to bat on pitches known to deteriorate - had been gaining in weight.

The West Indies supporters are not easily forgiving of their heroes, as Sir Gary Sobers found to his cost during England's 1967-68 tour to the Caribbean. A crucial declaration by Sobers saw England win the Fourth Test (they took the series 1-0 on the back of this victory) with three minutes to spare in Port-of-Spain. That night, effigies of Sobers were burnt in protest in Independence Square, and Trinidadians have never fully forgiven him his folly.

Although Richardson has not been been guilty of anything so wilfuly naive, he is perhaps to blame for not stamping out the growing complacency within a team that is now precariously over-reliant on fewer match-winning components. It is a situation that is giving a new viability to the old inter-island rivalries - as seen on England's last tour, when the Antiguans, comprising the captain and three of the four main pace bowlers, failed to turn up to Barbados on time before the first one-day international because of a dispute with the Board. West Indies subsequently lost the match.

Something is clearly not right, a condition supported by Steve Waugh, Australia's outstanding batting success, and the man of the series. "They are not a happy unit. There is something going on under the surface and there was quite a bit of on-field bickering between Richardson and his bowlers. They have definitely lost their aura in the field. Gone are the days where you felt intimidated just by being out there with them and they badly miss the likes of Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge at the top of the order."

As is so often the case at the highest level, Waugh believes it is a mental hurdle that must be overcome in order to beat them. "You need to concentrate hard on every ball when you're batting which makes it tough work if you bat a long time. Though their attack is still quick, there is nothing scary and as long as we rotated the strike and didn't let them work on one bloke for too long, they rarely got on top. They also bowled too short, too often."

It was concentration, too, that was the key to the Australians' bowling strategy, which was thought to rely on Warne, but developed into a triumph for three second-choice seam bowlers, the likes of whom England should have in spades. "We knew their batsmen like to score quickly and believed them to have a weakness outside off-stump. So we tried to avoid bowling boundary balls by drifting to straight, and just concentrated on bowling a full length outside off-stump."

But while many may think it a little premature to begin relating the achievements of Australia's combative outfit to England's prospects, Waugh has some advice for Ray Illingworth: "It will be imperative for England to get on top during the First Test, as the West Indies will be looking to bounce back sharply. But, more importantly, you must pick players who compete and are in the right frame of mind to make the hard yard. That's where we got it right. We picked blokes who put their hands up and wanted to do the job. And then we stuck it to them."

West Indies tour itinerary

May

Sat 9 v Lavinia Duchess of Norfolk's XI, Arundel

Sun 14 v Hampshire, Southampton

Tue 16-18 v Worcestershire, Worcester

Fri 19-21 v Somerset, Taunton

Wed 24 1st one-day international v England, Trent Bridge

Fri 26 2nd one-day international, The Oval

Sun 28 3rd one-day international, Lord's

Tues 30-1 June v Leicestershire or Lancashire or Warwickshire (depending on B & H Cup quarter-finals)

June

Sat June 3-5 v Northamptonshire, Northampton

Thurs 8-Mon 12 1st Test, Headingley

Thurs 15 v Scotland, Edinburgh

Sat 17-19 v Durham

Thurs 22-26 2nd Test, Lord's

Wed 28-30 v Combined Univ, The Parks

July

Sat 1 July-3 v Sussex, Hove

Thurs 6-11 3rd Test, Edgbaston (rest day Sunday)

Thurs 13 v Minor Counties, Reading

Sat 15 v Ireland, Dublin

Wed 19-21 v Kent, Canterbury

Sat 22-24 v Middlesex, Lord's

Thurs 27-31 4th Test, Old Trafford

August

Wed 2 August-4 v Derbyshire or Warwickshire or Somerset (depending on NatWest Trophy quarter-finals)

Sat 5-7 v Gloucestershire, Bristol

Thurs 10-14 5th Test, Trent Bridge

Wed 16-18 v Glamorgan or Hampshire or Leicestershire (depending on NatWest Trophy semi-finals)

Sat 19-21 v Essex, Chelmsford

Thurs 24-28 6th Test, The Oval

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