India and Australia have just played out a riveting series, full of twists, turns and tantrums; scintillating showdowns between swing, spin and sledging; battles involving willow, leather and vocal chords; the drama encompassing brain-fades, newsprint and microphones. The spotlight of the cricket world had been understandably focused on the action.
And now the IPL is all set to kick off. With eight distinct opening ceremonies, complete with glitz, glamour and girls. There will be dugouts, cheerleaders and parties; boisterous commentary, deafening music and gaudy colours. And there will be pots and pots and pots of money.
In a nutshell, the one-and-a-half-month extravaganza that is the yearly phenomenon, the great Indian spectacle with cricketing equipment. The focus of the cricket world is destined to stay put in India.
Which is unfortunate for the Pakistan-West Indies series taking place in the distant Caribbean islands. The ODIs start off on April 7, bound to be submerged in the sound and fury as the Indian Premier League kicks into action along with all the associated fanfare and fireworks. And with the Test series that follows drawing a poor parallel in schedule with the annual cricketing tamasha, it is all set to be reduced to a low voltage sidelight, rendered virtually invisible by garish show biz and instant gratification every evening.
Not too many are keen to witness a tussle between a side that was once supreme and now listless, and another that was a talented powerhouse, and now erratic and homeless.
West Indies cricket has plummeted down from the stratosphere of their glory days, the two-decade supremacy from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, and have hurtled in an unchecked free fall, passing downward through every strata along which it had soared, struggling amidst the dark and murky clouds that have gathered threateningly low over their cricketing landscape. And Pakistan have had their problems as well, not least of which was having to find an adopted home in UAE. A cricket-playing nation that has struggled with every kind of problem from terrorism to spot fixing, and have continued to produce exciting talents who cannot demonstrate their brilliance in front of their countrymen.
Two curious sides with curious tales, perhaps interesting enough for sociologists and historians to zoom in with their microscopes, but hardly the material with which to bedazzle the general cricket fan. What with DLF maximums being sent into orbit in the other part of the world, as dancing girls shake their hips and more every evening.
Which is sad. Because in the past the meeting of these two sides, in Tests and ODIs, have produced titanic clashes, edge of the seat excitement, gnawed nails and cracked knuckles and plenty of historic feats.
The milestone paved start
The saga started from the very first meeting between the two sides, at Barbados in early 1958. Everton Weekes cracked 197, Conrad Hunte 142, and Roy Gilchrist blasted the visitors out to ensure a 473-run lead and enforce follow-on. And then came that phenomenon called Hanif Mohammad, dousing the fire of the Caribbean attack in his infinite reservoirs of patience, grinding out 337 in 970 minutes to save the match and inscribe his name in the annals of history.
The response was in kind, and in the same series. At Jamaica, the 21-year-old Garry Sobers notched up his first ever Test hundred, and made it a huge, huge one, going past Len Hutton’s world record to amass 365 not out.
Down the years, the feats may not have been as massive, but the encounters have been as memorable. The contests even keener.
Who can forget Fazal Mahmood capturing 12 wickets at Dhaka in 1959 to wrap up the series for Pakistan, with Sobers and Kanhai among his victims, both leg before, the former unable to believe the umpire’s finger?
Curiously the two teams did not meet for one and a half decades after that, but when they did it seemed that the cricketing gods had been preparing the stage with care for some of the most enduring classics in the history of the game.
Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s there was hardly a more engaging sight than to watch the spirited, street-fighting Pakistanis take on the mighty West Indians.
The titanic tussles
They met at Edgbaston in the first World Cup in 1975, the Pakistanis piling 266 in the 60 overs, and then reducing the West Indians to 166 for 8. And then Deryck Murray and Vanburn Holder put on 37. After that Murray and Andy Roberts mixed sense and pluck to clinch the match with a 64-run association for the last wicket. The sequence of thrill had been set off.
And then came the criminally forgotten series of 1977, with Mushtaq Mohammad’s men travelling to the islands to take on the fearsome foes led by Clive Lloyd. “What a tour!” was the title of the book Brunel Jones wrote about it.
In the first Test, Wasim Raja and Wasim Bari saved Pakistan from capitulation with a 133-run association for the last wicket, before Andy Roberts and Colin Croft held their nerves and on to their wickets to escape defeat with nine wickets down. In the second Croft destroyed Pakistan with a spell from hell, ending with 8 for 29.
The third saw the majestic audacity of Majid Khan as he responded to a 254-run deficit by batting over six hours to save the match with 167. The fourth saw Mushtaq in one of the greatest displays of leading from the front, scoring 121 and 56 while capturing 5 for 28 and 3 for 69 to ensure a 266-run win and level the series. And finally there was the decider at Sabina Park, with Gordon Greenidge hitting 100 and 82, and the combined attack of Roberts, Croft and a towering new recruit called Joel Garner getting better of the 6 for 90 claimed by a young Imran Khan and a fantastic rear-guard 135 by Asif Iqbal.
The series, one of the best ever, only set the trend for what was to follow through the next decade.
In the 1980s, Imran’s Pakistan were the only team to seriously challenge the juggernaut of the West Indians.
It all clicked in Faisalabad, 1986, when Pakistan battled back from a 79 -run deficit to post 328 in the second innings, and then Imran’s swing and Qadir’s spin bowled the West Indians out for 53. Malcolm Marshall and Courtney Walsh hit back in Lahore, converting an 87-run lead into an innings win, bowling the hosts out for 77. The tense decider at Karachi ended in murky light with 9 overs left to bowl, Pakistan on 125 for 7 in quest of 213 for a win. The series was squared as Piloo Reporter and VK Ramaswamy officiated as the first ever neutral umpires in Test cricket.
When the two sides met in the Reliance World Cup in 1987, Abdul Qadir flung his bat around to get the required 14 runs off the last over as the last pair batted, managing to scramble the 2 runs needed off the last ball, even as Walsh let Salim Jaffer off with a warning after the latter had left the crease for a head start while the fast bowler approached with the final delivery.
After that Imran, coming back from retirement, took his men to the islands in what was billed as the tussle for the Test crown. In the first Test, he captured 7 for 80 and 4 for 41, Javed Miandad batted 405 minutes for 114, and Pakistan went ahead as West Indies suffered from the absence of Viv Richards.
In the second, the great man was back with 123 in the second innings, and spun his off-breaks to dismiss Ijaz Ahmed and Saleem Yousuf before Qadir blocked the final five balls of his over, the last of the match, to effect another draw with one wicket standing. Finally, in the last Test, 9 wickets from Marshall and pyro-techniques with the bat towards the end by Winston Benjamin resulted in a 2-wicket win. West Indies remained holding on to the world champion tag.
The battle that followed in Pakistan in 1990 were not that close if considered Test by Test, but once again the honours were shared. At Karachi, the new pair of Pakistani pace, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, bowled them to a 8-wicket win. At Faisalabad their efforts were outdone by Ian Bishop and Curtly Ambrose bowling alongside Marshall and Walsh. The third Test was drawn, Imran standing doggedly to eke out an unbeaten 58, batting just 8 minutes short of five hours, defying the scorching pace attack, Pakistan ending at 242 for 6, four wickets in hand and 104 short of their target.
Those three drawn series witnessed some of the most fascinating moments on the cricket field.
Down the years
As the 1990s rolled on, the keen contests were less frequent, the two teams winning heavily at home. With the new century, the West Indian powers dwindled to embarrassing levels, and in spite of the eccentricities associated with the Pakistanis the results were loaded majorly in favour of the sub-continental team.
Yet, even in their worst days, the West Indians have not allowed Pakistan to win a series in the Caribbean islands. Sometimes they have been helped by the plight of the visiting cricketers plagued by their own problems and unpredictability. Otherwise, they have somehow managed to lift their own game to engage in stiff contests.
There have been, however, moments and milestones even in the days after the titanic tussles of the 70s and 80s. And they have taken place in both formats.
One cannot forget the glittering smile of the normally sedate Jimmy Adams as he and Walsh the rabbit battled 72 minutes to stitch together the required 19 runs to win the Test and series in 2000.
One cannot forget the Brian Lara classics in both the formats. Be it the breath-taking 153 at Sharjah in 1993 or the equally dazzling 156 by his older self in 2005. Or in the longer format his brilliance in 2005 and 2006 when he slammed 130 in Barbados and 153 in Jamaica, to follow them with 122 at Lahore and finally slamming 7 sixes in his 216 at Multan.
Similarly, there have been forgotten classics such as Basit Ali’s incredible 127 not out at Sharjah in 1993, or mammoth run making feats like the two 190s struck by Mohammad Yousuf in back to back Tests in 2006, the two 160s by Aameer Sohail or the 177 by Inzamam-ul-Haq in 1997.
There has been Bishop in destructive mood with 5 for 25 at Brisbane, the Pakistanis limping to a pitiable 71 all out. 18 years down the line there has been Shahid Afridi, capturing 7 for 12 to bring West Indies down to their knees in Providence.
Even now, when West Indies and Pakistan meet, there lingers the possibility of a miracle, a contest that can redefine possibilities. It is no longer the 1980s. The teams are no more the best in business, and neither are their meetings apt to fire the imagination of fans. But they can still bring about matches that defy the laws of science and cricket and make one believe in Santa Claus.
Else, how can one explain that Test in Dubai last October? Full of momentous milestones, boiling down to a thriller of suspended disbelief. Azhar Ali had marched to 302 not out, the first one to reach triple hundred in these contests since Hanif and Sobers. And then Devendra Bishoo, self-effacing to the point of apologetic, captured 8 for 49 to turn a 222-run deficit into a potential victory. And before Darren Bravo fell for 116 at the total of 263, the cricket world had dared to believe in a miracle.
Yes, these two sides seem bound by destiny to produce cricketing contests scripted for sensation. The days of their splendour are long gone, and the world is blinded by the arc-lights of the IPL as they lock horns in the gloom of the erstwhile cricket crazy islands.
But, who knows? We may witness another exceptional encounter. It may be wise to keep one eye on the proceedings in the Caribbean, lest another surprise lies in store.