How Are The Mighty Fallen?

September 18, 2023 | By

Empires come and go. Sporting ascendancy is equally, and inevitably, ephemeral. Few sporting giants, however, can have been brought back down to earth as completely and precipitously, as the West Indies cricket team.

The first thing to say about the West Indies cricket team is that it’s a miracle it ever existed at all. There is no country called the West Indies. Nor is there any sort of federation. The various now independent territories come together for cricket and, in the form of the University of the West Indies, for tertiary education.

As Michael Manley, the former Jamaican Premier, put it in his magisterial history of West Indies cricket, “The inhabitants of the English-speaking islands of the West Indies [and Guyana on the Caribbean coast of South America] play cricket because the English brought the game with them.” The first inter-colonial match was played between British Guiana and Barbados in 1846. The game gradually developed on a regional basis. A strong side, led by the Barbadian George Challenor and including the great all-rounder Learie Constantine, toured England in 1923, and the English cricketing authorities concluded that the tourists deserved encouragement. Accordingly, to provide some sort of regional structure, the West Indies Board of Control (“WIBC”) was established in 1926.

George Headley

West Indies played its first Test match, against England at Lord’s, in 1928. England won both Tests in the series by an innings. In the Caribbean in 1929-30, the series was drawn one-all and West Indies introduced its first genius, George Headley, to the international game; Headley, born in Panama City but raised in his mother’s native Jamaica, chose cricket over dentistry studies in the United States. He made 176 on debut in the draw at Bridgetown, and 114 not out and 112 in the victory at Georgetown; the “Black Bradman “had arrived.

Cricket’s history makes it inevitable that the relationship between England and each of its former colonies that plays the game is a key aspect of each such country’s cricketing heritage. In some cases this can break out, as it were, in individual crises, like the Bodyline Series, or the D’Oliveira Affair. Generally, though, it is more deep-rooted than that. Nowhere, not even in the subcontinent, is this more the case than in the West Indies, with its distinctive and troubling history. Even today, in Britain, let alone the Caribbean, with the collective guilt about the Windrush generation, these issues resonate.

As Manley points out, the English-speaking Caribbean territories are “almost unique in contemporary history because not one is inhabited by people who can trace their occupation before 1494, when Columbus first stumbled across Jamaica.”

Frank Worrell

We all know how the territories were populated. The territories’ history explains a lot about their cricket. Nothing exemplifies this more than the fact that West Indies teams were always captained by a white man until Frank Worrell took over from Gerry Alexander in 1960.

Worrell’s appointment was the culmination of a long campaign waged by, among others, the Marxist philosopher C L R James, the acknowledged master scribe of West Indies cricket.


Worrell’s natural traits of humanity and leadership had a liberating effect on West Indies cricket. He led them in only three series, and he was past his best as a player, but he was a big part of the reason why they were the best team in the world in the mid-1960s. Another aspect of this was that by this time they had a second genius, perhaps the greatest, certainly the most versatile, charismatic and entertaining all-round cricketer in the history of the game, the left-handed Garfield Sobers.

Sobers, like Constantine and Worrell before him, had honed his skills in league cricket in Lancashire. By the time he joined Nottinghamshire as their first overseas player of the new registration era in 1968, he was already a world- class player. But he and his contemporaries, Rohan Kanhai and Lance Gibbs, set a trend that was absolutely critical to the advancement of West Indies cricket. By the early 1970s almost every county, except Yorkshire, had a West Indian Test player on their books; at one point Warwickshire had four.

In 1975-76, towards a transitional period following the departure of Sobers and others, Clive Lloyd led a relatively young side to face Ian Chappell’s Australians. The result was a chastening five-one defeat, with West Indies batters, hardly uniquely, reeling under an onslaught from fast bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. This series had a seismic impact on world cricket, not because of what it did for Australia but because of what it did to the West Indies. Lloyd became convinced of the importance of sustained and hostile fast bowling.

The impact was immediate. West Indies beat England three-nil in 1976, a series which started with the home side’s South African-born captain, Tony Greig, predicting, so unfortunately in so many ways, that his team would make the West Indians “grovel”. The West Indians, powered by the electric pace bowling of Andy Roberts and Michael Holding, and the batting of the supremely dominating Vivian Richards, were magnificent.

At this point there was an interruption to top-class Test cricket caused by the rebel competition organised by Kerry Packer in Australia. All the best West Indies players except Alvin Kallicharan, joined World Series Cricket. The impact of this on the development of West Indies cricket should not be underestimated. The cricket establishment looked down its nose at the Packer “ circus “ , but everyone who actually took part in it said it was the most demanding cricket they ever played. The West Indians returned to the “official” game in 1979 tougher, harder and more professional than ever.

Throughout the 1980s the West Indies were unchallenged as the best Test side in the world, beating all-comers at home and away (apart from a loss to New Zealand in a bad-tempered series in 1979-80).  Their uncompromising, intimidatory approach did not win universal approval but it won a lot of matches. They had also won the first two limited-overs Men’s World Cups, in 1975 and 1979.There is a good case for calling them the best Test team ever, though some would argue that the Australians under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh were better as they had a more balanced attack ( Lloyd and Richards didn’t need spinners ). When Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack picked its Five Cricketers of the Century in 2000, no one was surprised that two of them came from the West Indies – Sobers and Richards.

Malcolm Marshall

Taking a side almost at random from this period, it is easy to see the quality available. At The Oval in 1984 – the fifth Test in a series West Indies won five-nil – they were represented by the following: Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Larry Gomes, Richards, Lloyd, Jeff Dujon, Malcolm Marshall, Eldine Baptiste, Roger Harper, Holding and Joel Garner.

To the modern observer, the most extraordinary thing about these eleven cricketers is the amount of county cricket they played. Dujon is the only one who played no county cricket at all. Gomes, the leading batter in that 1984 series, had moderate success with Middlesex in the 1970s. But Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Lloyd, Marshall, Holding and Garner all had stellar county careers lasting a decade and more. The top players of the next generation – Brian Lara (another genius), Carl Hooper, Curtly Ambrose, and Courtney Walsh – followed suit.

This does not mean, of course, that the West Indies owed all its success to the English county system. But it must have played a part. It made the players more professional. They were all-year-round players, precursors in a way to the T20 mercenaries of today, but with added loyalty. West Indies were more professional in other ways too. They had a physio, Errol Alcott. Believe it or not, nobody else did. Then, in the 1990s, the Australians hired Alcott. That was a symptom rather than a cause but, quite suddenly, things began to change. By the early 2000s county coaches were looking for Australians and South Africans, not West Indians.

I have spent some time explaining why the West Indies were once so good, because it must be relevant to the question of why they are now so bad. (For the record they are currently eighth in the ICC Test rankings, tenth in the ICC ODI rankings, and seventh in the ICC T20 rankings; their failure to qualify for the 50-over Men’s World Cup starting in India in October, was a shock but not a surprise.)

When something that was once good has become bad the explanation is often not too complicated. It can be as simple as the absence of something that was critical to success. In sport of course individuals retire and it can be difficult or even impossible to replace them. Richards, Greenidge, Haynes, Dujon and Marshall all retired around the same time. Few teams could recover easily from that. Australia suffered significant losses around 2007 -9 and they had a difficult transitional period, but they got through it. Thirty years after their glory days, the West Indies are still struggling.

All sorts of theories have existed for why West Indies have found the going so hard. It used to be thought, or at least said, that the attractions of American basketball had drawn potential cricketers away, a theory enhanced by the arrival of a group of relatively short pace bowlers such as Fidel Edwards and Tino Best, in place of beanpole giants like Garner and Ambrose. It is now generally accepted that this theory is rubbish. But like everywhere else there are now far more distractions and lots of other, superficially at least more exciting sports on TV. Almost nobody watches first- class cricket, including Test cricket (except when the Barmy Army are in town).

But people do watch the T20 tournament, the Caribbean Premier League (at least when it’s not raining – this year’s tournament has been severely affected by the weather). T20 to the rescue, as in so many places.  For a while it seemed T20 might mitigate institutional decline. West Indies won the T20I World Cup in 2012 and 2016, the latter in unforgettable style: “Carlos Braithwaite!  Remember the name! [Who is he? Ed] But they didn’t even qualify for the main event in 2022-23.

There is no shortage of talent; there never has been. A key problem is the cannibalism induced by the global franchises and perhaps unwittingly facilitated by the cricketing authorities. West Indies, like South Africa and New Zealand, are especially vulnerable, because they have lots of attractive players and very little money.

Yes, like everything else in modern sport, it all comes down to money. There certainly needs to be serious thought given to how cricket’s undoubted riches are distributed.  The question is, what should it be spent on?

In the glory days, the West Indies were, as noted earlier, the most professional team in the world. Ineffective administration, regionally and locally, has certainly contributed to the decline. But a big difference, starting in the 1990s, when countries like Australia, and even, fitfully, England, overtook the West Indies, was the development of cricket academies in the major cricketing nations.

Jarrod Kimber has observed that, even today, at Under-19 level, there is little difference between West Indies and the leading countries. It is after that when the problems occur.

So does the West Indies need a national cricket academy? The problem is, of course, that there is not one nation but several, each of which will need an academy if the system is to function effectively.

That brings us back to the miracle of the West Indies existing at all as a cricketing entity. What we can all agree on is that it would be a tragedy if this supremely appealing cricket icon were to disappear from the global game’s top table.

Bill Ricquier

Bill Ricquier is an author at ScoreLine and has written numerous cricket articles published at

Bill is the author of the Indian Masters, and the Pakistani Masters, both published in England and India, and of Immortals of English Cricket. He writes a regular cricket blog, From the Pavilion End, which can be found at He has also written for newspapers in Sri Lanka and for ESPN Cricinfo.

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