Windies youth carry new hope

Spotlight : U-19 World Cup win has breathed fresh life into the once-mighty cricketing region
Last Updated 27 February 2016, 18:26 IST

When the West Indies beat India to win the Under-19 Cricket World Cup, it was a jolt of good news for a team in need of it.

The victory provided a brief throwback to when Caribbean cricket was dominant. Between 1980 and 1995, the West Indies went unbeaten in 29 straight Test series, and their success was given greater meaning, too, for the region. Clive Lloyd, the captain during the start of that dominance, called cricket “the instrument of Caribbean cohesion.”
One of Lloyd’s successors, Viv Richards, emphasised the team’s role in black empowerment, calling the West Indies “the only sporting team of African descent that has been able to win repeatedly against all international opposition.”

Then came the decline for the West Indies, a team that covers 16 nations and territories in the Caribbean with a combined population of less than 6 million. Despite producing the occasional star like Chris Gayle, the West Indies’ recent record is dire: They have won only one Test away from home against a team in the top eight since 2000, and this year they missed out on qualification for the 2017 Champions Trophy. They are ranked eighth in Tests, ninth in one-day internationals and second in Twenty20.

The under-19 victory brought hope, though, that a new generation of Caribbean cricketers might be emerging.

“You have seen young kids mature and show a great deal of awareness,” West Indian great Ian Bishop said after the West Indies’ victory. “It makes me optimistic about the future of West Indies cricket.”

Two strapping fast bowlers, Alzarri Joseph and Chemar Holder, bowled with speed and bounce, in keeping with West Indies’ traditions. In the final, the two took a combined 4-59 from their 20 overs as the West Indies bowled India out for only 145, setting up a five-wicket victory. The big-hitting opener Gidron Pope also caused a splash.

Some on the U-19 team might be challenging for a spot on the senior team in a few years; Bishop has already declared Joseph, from Antigua, as ‘ready’ for top-level international cricket. “It is wonderful for the region. It also shows the possibilities for West Indies cricket to really excel again,” says Richard Pybus, director of cricket for the West Indies Cricket Board. He described the triumph as rooted in “the background work of the staff and the fantastic performance of the team.”

Such a common vision has not always been apparent in West Indies cricket. Recent years have been marred by a series of player strikes and board disputes. Last November Caricom, a group that promotes economic integration and cooperation in the West Indies, issued a report characterising the cricket board as “obsolete” and called for its immediate dissolution, and last week it reiterated its dissatisfaction and said governments would act “to save West Indies cricket.”

The weak financial position of the West Indies is a particular challenge in an age when domestic Twenty20 competitions are thriving in other countries. The West Indies has always been vulnerable to losing its players to better-paying jobs elsewhere, but Twenty20 leagues abroad are posing the most sustained threat yet. During a recent tour of Australia, six top Caribbean players were playing for Australian teams in a domestic Twenty20 competition instead of for the West Indies selection.

Yet there are reasons for optimism. The ICC has announced a review of changes it made in 2014. It is also conducting a review of cricket’s structure, hoping it can make changes to keep top international players, including those from the West Indies, from being caught in a club vs. country conflict.

Although the WICB has rejected calls for changes, the Caribbean domestic game has been modernised. More players outside the national teams are now under contract, and the first-class season was extended from a minimum of six games per team to 10. Some also believe that the development of the Caribbean Premier League, a Twenty20 league started in 2013, could benefit the test team.

Meanwhile, the WICB has a simple hope: that the success of the U-19 team will encourage sponsors of the senior team to be more generous in their funding. “It would be great to think that this will give confidence to sponsors to commit to the work the board is doing to create a strong foundation for development programs and professional cricket in the region,” Pybus said.

(Published 27 February 2016, 16:01 IST)

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