The Caribbean has a long and proud history of producing great fast bowlers. “Smell the leather,” they like to say as another bouncer whistles past a batsman’s nose. There was Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith in the 1960s and the Windies ruled the world in the 1980s with a battery of pacemen unmatched by any country in any era. Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner and Colin Croft brought terror to opposing teams with a mixture of bruised bodies and splintered stumps. They certainly had the best fast bowling attack in cricket history. Four men bowling above 90 mph, with 3–4 more sitting by the sidelines, all good enough to take 300 + test wickets by their own merit, is unheard of in cricket. The Fire in Babyon originally started with Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. As Croft left amid controversy, Marshall joined the wolfpack in the early 80s, with the likes of Sylvester Clarke and Winston Davis popping in every now and then. The mid-80s saw the arrival of Ambrose and Walsh, the most scary new ball pair going into the 90s. The late 80s saw the arrival of Ian Bishop, another tearaway of fearsome pace. Around the same time came Patrick Patterson. My point is, it was an endless conveyer belt of mean quick men! Not fun for batsmen, I would imagine.
Now, What is the reason that West Indies stopped producing the quality fast bowlers they produced during the 70’s & 80’s ? Well, based on my experiences of following cricket keenly and reading about it for over 15 years, here’s my take on this matter. Please feel free to point out your views in the comment section. I will try to answer question based on my experience. Well, Following can be the reasons behind the decline:
* A general drop in quality: The quality of West Indies cricket has gone down quite drastically in the last 25 years, across all disciplines. The current crop of West Indian cricketers are still predisposed towards fast bowling, but the general quality has gone down, just like in batting. Even with this famine, they have produced the likes of Marlon Black, Nixon McLean, Jermaine Lawson, Fidel Edwards, Jerome Taylor, Tino Best, Shannon Gabriel and, more recently, Alzarri Joseph, who have all bowled over 90 mph at their peak. None of them, however, have come even close to the longevity of their more famous predecessors.
* Lack of leadership: Fast bowling, more than anything else, thrives under the able support and patronage of a captain who understands and respects it value. Sir Frank Worrell introduced the worl to the terrors of Hall and Griffith, Ian Chappell was instrumental in letting Lillee and Thomson wreak havoc, Imran Khan nurtured the two Ws under his watchful eyes and Clive Lloyd started the golden era of West Indies fast bowling. They have lacked stable and capable leadership after the Richie Richardson era.
* The growing influence of other sports: Life in the Caribbean in heavily influenced by the US, and it is no wonder that the American sports have caught on. Young people growing up have the option of choosing between cricket, baseball and basketball, and often end choosing the latter two. Football (or soccer, if you prefer) seemed by far the most popular sport. Of course with all that, one can say the infra structure problem is there in West Indies. More and more tall talented sportsmen take up basket ball or athletics and try to play in USA, instead of taking to fast bowling in cricket.
* The T20 boom: This may well be foremost reason, but I decided to mention it later as many would argue that T20 started a good 10–12 years into the degradation of West Indies cricket. The modern West Indian cricketer is associated with fierce power hitting, mindbogglingly athletic fielding and short bursts of thumping medium pace, instead of long athletic run-ups and fearsome bowling speeds. An Andre Russel, if born 20 years earlier, may well have been a hard-hitting Number 8 batsman and a much more consistent fast bowler, using his genuine pace to knock out Test batsmen with a red ball.
* Migration: Many West Indians are migrating to England for a better life and better opportunities. The has a major role to play here. It is incredibly sad from a West Indian point of view to see a Jofra Archer seeking to qualify for British citizenship, following a slew of other West Indians before him.
Curtley Ambrose in interview said some points. He said, ‘These days no one in that area would like to take up fast bowling because the rules have changed a lot. The number of bouncers one can bowl in an over is restricted to two and if more number of bouncers are bowled, the ball is declared to be no ball and the next ball becomes free hit for the batsman in which the batsman could not be dismissed and he could score runs. Also when the bowler slightly strays to the leg side, the ball is declared a wide. In this situation, the fast bowler is crippled a lot and no one is interested to be a fast bowler.” What this could mean is West Indian bowlers were more one-dimensional. These days once the batsmen have got more protection, they are no longer afraid of the intimidating bowling from the Carribean pacers who probably aren’t big swing bowlers. The pitches are also becoming more and more placid and batting friendly.
One point I have observed at the end of 80s is once the batsman has found he could fearlessly face these bowlers and he could upset the rhythm of the bowlers, the bowlers have at times found in no way they could get back the rhythm and they used to stray a lot. Also during 70s and 80s, the over rate in West Indies was not important and they never used to specify minimum number of overs to be bowled on a day. At times they would bowl just seventy overs a day. Now ICC is strict about all the test matches and every team has to bowl ninety overs a day and for West Indies to go by this rule, they needed spin specialists. Since the days of Clive Lloyd, West Indies could not produce the best of spinners but to maintain the over rate the selection of a spinner became mandatory which further weakened the case of fast bowlers as only three pacers could be selected.
But, look at the T20 scene around the world, the most in demand players are from the West Indies. Gayle, Russel, Pollard, Bravo, Sunil Narine to name a few, get the big contracts. When these players do come together and play for the WI, the results are there for all to see such as the two World T20 titles in 2012 and 2016. Sadly though, these big T20 stars come together very rarely to play for the WI and most of them have ‘unofficially’ retired from tests or don’t play the required number of first class games to be eligible to qualify for the test team by showing some form in the longer version of the game. They are too busy playing in the various T20 leagues. The highhanded nature of the WI cricket board has also made these players distrustful of the board and many of them are unsure that the board will offer a central contract keeping their interest in mind or will actually end up paying them at all.
It’s a bit of a mystery because you would think that such a terrifying bowling attack would inspire the next generation of fast bowlers, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. A few years ago, matters between the players and the board reached such a point that due to contract disputes the players abandoned a tour to India mid way to make a point about the money and the unfavourable terms and conditions they were being offered. Thus, there are problems aplenty preventing the country from rising back. The natural talent is there. To see it rise to the top, a lot of changes need to be made and implemented by players and officials alike. It will require time and coordinated effort, not sure either will be afforded by any of the parties involved.
By Paramdeep Rathee