Wait. India is touring West Indies? Really?

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Suresh Menon explains why we aren’t watchingSuresh Menon

SO FAR the only people to have gained from the tour of the West Indies have been Sachin Tendulkar (and others who pulled out), Rohit Sharma who batted well in the one-dayers, and Chris Gayle who, with every defeat gets closer to making his comeback. There has been nothing in it for the fans, the television channel or cricket in general. Was it a mistake to have played the series at all, one that is threatening to become a meaningless, boring ritual?

Or have audiences reached saturation point after an exciting World Cup win, and the intensity deprived Indian Premier League (IPL) that followed? Perhaps there was an inevitability about this reaction, and the quality of the cricket merely added to it. Perhaps Indian viewers are taking a breather before the more interesting (and more conveniently timed) matches in England to follow. Like Tendulkar, fans want to spend quality time with their families too.

The West Indies cliché was established early. In 1950, they beat England at Lord’s and as the last English wicket fell, “there was a rush of West Indies supporters, one armed with an instrument of the guitar family,” wrote The Times. The guitar man was Lord Kitchener, the calypsonian from Trinidad whose words and music, according to cultural critic Brian Stoddart, “led the celebrations in honour of a new cricketing power. (Soon) the name ‘West Indies’ began to evoke images of rum, calypso and exciting play”.

The rum remains, as does the calypso. But exciting play has been missing for a while. That a West Indies ‘B’ team is no match for an Indian ‘B’ team is no surprise. What is surprising, however, is that the distinctive brand of cricket given breath by the likes of Garry Sobers and Rohan Kanhai, Viv Richards and Brian Lara, the three ‘W’s and the great fast bowlers, seems to have disappeared.

From a great team of flamboyant, colourful players with music and rum in their strokeplay, the West Indies have descended to a group of cricketing accountants, pushing and nudging the ball, bowling it at a comfortable pace and fielding as if their minds are elsewhere. In the World Cup, despite the presence of Gayle, the West Indies lacked pride — the one ingredient that united all their players regardless of which island-nation they emerged from.

The decline of the West Indies has been one of the saddest stories in international cricket. Their cricket Board, served by a bunch of egotistical and short-sighted men, has contributed to this. “When you have rubbish at the top, you get rubbish at the bottom,” in the words of Michael Holding.

In the 1970s, a tour of the West Indies was called off when Sunil Gavaskar decided he would not go. Today, the West Indies are in no position to call off a tour because India’s top players have given it a miss. The sponsors who threatened to pull out three decades ago no longer call the shots. India are the biggest sponsors of the game, and if India wants a tour to go ahead, it will. Crumbs are better than nothing, after all.

IT IS EASY to blame the IPL and the Indian cricket board’s obsession with money-making and a continuous cricketing carnival for the state of the series in the West Indies. But India were committed to touring and didn’t follow the path of least resistance by pulling out. Cricket is not a sport just for the top teams. True, a series against Australia or South Africa might have generated more interest and greater revenue and more meaningful records, but as the top team in the world, India have a responsibility to the game. And that often means taking a team to countries where the level of competition might not be great but the teams need all the help they can get.

However, it is the reaction of the home fans that has been puzzling. They have stayed away in droves, which does not bode well for the next part of the tour, which is about Test cricket.

In 1971, when India toured West Indies, cricket was in decline. Sobers’ incredible career was winding down, Kanhai would last a bit longer, and the fast bowling was virtually non-existent. Yet, the essential nature of the West Indies game never changed. India won that series 1-0, but with greater self-belief might have made it 2-0 or even 3-0.

Three years later, when India played host, they lost the first two Tests, won the next two before the West Indies won the decider. It was the series in which Richards and Gordon Greenidge made their debuts, and Andy Roberts established himself as the premier fast bowler. Interest in that series has not been matched since, although India lost.

Cricket fans are of two types. The ones who keep their interest as long as their team is winning (the majority) and the ones who ask nothing more than a close encounter with fortunes swinging. Sometimes even the first type are turned away when the conquest is too easy, when the battle is won without a sweat.

Have audiences reached saturation point after a World Cup win, and the intensity deprived IPL? Perhaps, like Tendulkar, fans want to spend quality time with their families too

At this stage of the tour, the West Indies fans are not interested because their team is losing and the Indians are not particularly excited because victory has been too easy.

A tight Test series can still change everything. On trial will be Suresh Raina’s captaincy as well as his claims for a permanent slot in the middle order. Also the quality of India’s middle order preparing to replace the Big Three — Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. With more imaginative selection, the West Indies could unleash a couple of genuine fast bowlers at the Indians, and take a chance on unproven potential. They have nothing to lose and a good deal to gain.

India might still win the Test series as they are expected to, but the West Indies might emerge as a stronger outfit with greater self-belief. And that is something worth aiming for.

Or everybody could play safe, and contribute thus to a boring series, full of safe runs and casual wickets but without the spark that brings in spectators and viewers.

The West Indies need to get in touch with their cricketing soul. The emergence of Andre Russell provides some hope. There must be others.

The best solution is for the West Indies to win the first Test. That will make the series truly competitive with India looking to win the remaining two. And if India pull it off, the series will be remembered as an exciting one. The fans will be back, and it could be the turning point for both teams. Cricket deserves it.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bengaluru
[email protected]

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