Cricket the way to go

Cricket is a Caribbean passion. With the 1993 Caribbean cricket season well underway, Sir Garry Sobers — the man Don Bradman called "the greatest all-rounder I ever saw" — takes a hard look at the way the game is going and calls for some changes

  • Sir Garry Sobers. Photograph by Gordon Brooks
  • Superstars of West Indies cricket: Joel Garner. Photograph by Allsport
  • Superstars of West Indies cricket: Malcolm Marshall. Photograph by Allsport
  • Superstars of West Indies cricket: Gordon Greenidge. Photograph by Action-Plus
  • Superstars of West Indies cricket: Jeff Dujon. Photograph by Action-Plus
  • West Indies pull off a last-minute victory. Photograph by Allsport
  • Veteran West Indies bowler Lance Gibbs as team manager, 1991. Photograph by Action- Plus
  • South Africa returns to Caribbean test cricket at Kensington Oval, Barbados, April 1992. Photograph by Allsport
  • Pakistan's Ajib Javed in action against England at Old Trafford, 1992. Photograph by Allsport
  • Pyjama party? Brian Lara in action as West Indies battle it out with Pakistan in Melbourne, 1992. Photograph by Allsport
  • No protective helmet for "master blaster" Viv Richards. Photograph by Allsport
  • Sir Garry Sobers at the wicket, 1973. Photograph by Allsport
  • England's Alec Stewart ducks under a Curtley Ambrose bouncer at the Oval in 1991. Photograph by Action-Plus
  • West Indian and South African teams in Barbados, 1992: are the South Africans going to set the pace for the cricketing world to follow? Photograph by Allsport

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” There’s a lot of truth in that old saying, no doubt. But recently I’ve seen so many changes in cricket that I wonder if the game could ever be the same again. Certainly not as it was when I was playing.

Back then (1954-1974), there was First Class cricket, which was played at club or county level, or in the West Indies at “Inter-Colonial” level. These games prepared the most talented individuals for the ultimate cricketing experience-the Test Match. And that was it, really.

Sure, the odd rule might be introduced or amended here or there, and faces came and went, but the game itself never changed. Even the cosmetics remained the same: the traditional flannels remained traditionally white; the ball was always red; and the umpires’ decision was always final. (Well, almost always.)

Nowadays, though, we can look forward to teams parading out in the middle like schoolgirls dressed up for a pyjama party, a white ball and three umpires! Not to mention the gear. My goodness, how that’s changed since my day! I simply cannot imagine myself walking to the crease with any protective gear except the standard pair of pads, my precious box, and a good pair of gloves-not to forget my bat, of course.

You know, over a 20-year spell, I faced the likes of Tyson, Lillee, Truman and Wes Hall, and I don’t remember having been struck by any of them. But then again, I tried never to take my eye off the ball either. (The records do show that I was once hit in the face by a medium pacer, though-Richard Jefferson, in a match at Lords in 1962).

I know that if Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith had seen Simpson and Lawry making their way to the middle decked out like two mediaeval knights in their armour- thigh pads, chest pads, arm pads, elbow pads and helmets-they would have bowled many more bouncers than was customary, because the great Aussie opening pair would obviously have been suffering from faint hearts or a touch of madness, or a technique that had grown so poor that they did not know how to defend themselves.

Today, of course, the problem has been solved by the one-bouncer-per-batsman-per-over rule. No, I’m afraid all this padding-up makes me weary. You’d never have seen me in that get-up. Never! And you never saw Viv Richards, the “master blaster” of the more modem era, in anything but the traditional protective gear either. So maybe, the more things change …

Another thing which really gets to me is all these rules working against good, aggressive fast bowling. Soon we’ll be playing First Class cricket with a sponge ball, for heaven’s sake …

But I’ve digressed a little. As I was saying, I hope that some of these developments aren’t going to change the fundamental nature of cricket for ever. I’m referring now to the Limited Overs game in particular, which ensures that play is over in a day and at a much faster pace than a Test Match.

This form of cricket fits hand-in-glove with television viewing which, in turn, encourages the generous sponsorship so vital for the game’s well-being. From this perspective, the Limited Overs competitions, and the World Cup and the World Series which follow the same format, are good for the game. But from a purist’s point of view, if the rise of One- Day Internationals is going to hasten the demise of Test Cricket, then the very game itself is in danger of changing for ever-and for the worse.

One-day cricket is not what the game is all about. It’s far too restrictive. Genuine pace is stifled, and there’s not much room for genuine spin bowling either. Batting too is often reduced to a series of indiscretions, swiping or slugging. You can call it what you like, but it’s not cricket.

Having said that, though, the truth is that Test Match cricket does not lend itself readily to top-dollar sponsorship. It can be a very sedate experience on occasions. It is meant to take five days, and there is need for patience and posturing and positioning, and, yes, more often than not, when it’s all over there is no result. A full Test series can take months to complete, with the winning side simply required to win one match and draw four to clinch a victory. There is no sudden-death play-off, no penalty shoot-out, no tie-breaker in the event of a draw either.  So it’s not exactly the kind of heady stuff with which to woo large television audiences.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Test cricket is not dull, not at all. It simply is not fast. Ironically, it is precisely the long time required to complete a Test Match which allows the drama to unfold.  It is the constant ebb and flow which creates the excitement and the crowd expectations. It is the sudden twists and turns of fate which can befall either team at any moment, the “glorious uncertainty” as the saying goes, that makes a keenly-contested Test Match the best sporting spectacle of all.

Unhappily, however, Test Match cricket is still without a  centrepiece. It desperately needs a World Cup like soccer has, an Olympics, an Open Championship or a Grand Slam title. There is no festival of Test Match cricket bringing together all the cricketing nations every four years to compete for world supremacy. One-day cricket has just such a World Cup event; there must be a way to promote a Test Match World Series as well.

There is no doubt that the International Cricket Council must make this a top priority so that Test Match cricket can be revitalised and go into the 21st century strong and healthy. The more things change … ?

What worries me too-and this is close to home now-is the obvious financial difficulties the West Indies Cricket Board of Control is having, hosting tours in the West Indies. This season, for instance, Pakistan is in the Caribbean on tour, but only three Test Matches are scheduled-in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Antigua. I can only assume that the constraints which have led to the omission of Guyana and Jamaica as Test Match venues are primarily financial. If so, then it is a very sorry situation indeed.

The Board must find ways of generating additional revenue to fund tours at home so that non-revenue-earning venues can be subsidised, certainly in the short-term. I believe it is true to say, without being overly critical, that the Board’s public relations and marketing expertise has not been really tapped yet, so even in these difficult times perhaps the opportunities are still there to sell King Cricket to the highest bidder.

I must say, too, that the tour itineraries need reviewing. There are simply too many non-essential games being played. There is no easy solution to the problems, of course, but one thing is sure: the mission of the Board must be to work continuously towards improving the standard of our cricket, and part of that must be a well-planned programme of events to keep our players motivated towards achieving excellence at Test Match level. This is a must, because success breeds success and Test Match success is the best success of all.

So, in my opinion, cutting back on Test Match cricket and excluding venues like Sabina Park and Bourda, which have traditionally supplied the West Indies with many great players, is not the way to go. Particularly at this time, when we may be witnessing the end of a great West Indies era.

Our dismal showing in last year’s World Cup and our extremely shaky victory in the pioneering Test against South Africa should send a signal to all of us that our cricketers are no longer riding the crest of the wave. We have not been able to fill the vacancies left by four very great fast bowlers-Roberts, Holding, Garner and Marshall. Nor have we been able to replace two great batsmen-Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards-and an excellent wicket-keeper and batsman, Jeff Dujon.

Mind you, we have some super youngsters. Brian Lara is wonderfully flamboyant with a typical West Indian flair. Jimmy Adams too shows signs of being a solid batsman and a very studious cricketer, while Junior Murray seems to have what it takes to be successful behind the stumps.

But we need more youngsters to come shining through. Roland Holder must be given a chance in the middle order, and Dhanraj, the young Trinidadian leg-spinner, would surely add depth and variety to a pretty uninspired bowling attack. There’s no time like the present, and now is the time to rebuild the West Indies team.

We don’t only have our old foes (England, Australia, India and Pakistan) anxious to dethrone us; remember, there are some new kids on the block too, all hungry for our blood-Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, and especially South Africa, who are making such a dramatic return to international cricket. This is a country rich in cricketing tradition with a strong and well-respected administrative body. I sincerely believe that, given time, South Africa will produce a fully integrated, multi-racial team which will set the pace for the rest of the world to follow. That is, if we don’t get our act together.

Let’s not make the same mistake we made in the 1960s when we were cock-a-hoop. We were pretty much invincible then too-until Charlie and Wes got a bit older, and Conrad, Seymour and Basil decided to call it a day.

What’s that old saying again? “The more things change … “? •