Cricket Gangnam Style

After the Pietersen debacle, I went into this year’s World T20 without any desire to see England win. I certainly wouldn’t claim that KP is without faults, far from it, but the way that ECB handled the situation and the stench of hypocrisy (see David Collier’s recent comments and the fallout, and lack of consequences for him, as an example) and totalitarianism that taints the air around them meant that, for the first time in decades, I approached a global tournament hoping England wouldn’t win. Actually, I should correct that, I was delighted to see India win the fifty over World Cup because I thought Sachin deserved to have a medallion to add to all his other honours. But, this was the first time that I had actively wished England ill, and it was an odd feeling.

I am not a massive T20 fan, but I prefer the international version to the often facile IPL, and I am such a cricket tragic that I will watch any cricket that I can. So, I had to decide what team I was going to pin my hopes of victory on. Used to the emotional rollercoaster that is supporting England, I had to go for a team that had a chance of winning but that had equal ability to excite and disappoint its fans. Like millions of other cricket tragics choosing a second team, I couldn’t go past the West Indies. It wasn’t just memories of past glories and a hope for a revival, it had a great deal to do with their captain, Darren Sammy – a point I will come back to.

On paper, the West Indies looked like a very likely prospect, with some of the most powerful hitters in the game and a mystery spinner the likes of which I am sure George Bailey would trade his entire middle order for. Add that to the fact that many of their players have been commanding big money to play in T20 leagues all over the world and you would think that mix of experience and talent would make them a sure thing. But, as their fans would tell you, the West Indies have flattered to deceive many times over the past twenty years and have given the appearance of being about to turn the corner.

The West Indies guys seemed to really enjoy the favourites tag, but by the semi final I think that most people had written them off. They had only squeaked in via some very exciting super over performances (poor Tim Southee), and while I was hopeful, deep down I didn’t really think that they would be able to beat Australia in a semi final. Yes, Australia are a shadow of their former selves, but bitter experience has taught me never to write them off and they are the sort of team that delight in destroying brilliant but inconsistent opponents by finding the chinks in the armour.

Just like in general life, it was interesting to see how certain narratives had emerged by the semi final, and had become commonly accepted truths to be parroted at every opportunity. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the execrable before the game show on Foxtel before the Grand Final. I think because Australia had just been eliminated that they had given up on caring, but it was woeful television. But right throughout there were a number of things that I continually heard that were either proven wrong by how events unfolded, or were demonstrably false all along.

If you get Gayle out then you will win

There is no doubt that Gayle is a pivotal member of the team and that when he performs the West Indies are extremely hard to beat. It is no wonder that teams celebrate his wicket because he can really hurt you. But, the West Indies batted deeper than any other team in the tournament and I think had more individuals who could turn a match on their own. When Gayle was out cheaply in the final I am sure the Sri Lankans thought that had won the game, but Marlon Samuels played the innings of the tournament and showed how far he has come along.

I’ve been really impressed with Samuels over the past year, he has shown that he is that rarest of creatures, a man who has made some major mistakes and gone off the rails, but has learned from them and come back stronger and better than before. He has played great innings in very form of the game and it was heartening to hear him affirm the primacy of Test cricket in the strongest possible terms.

There were points when every member of the West Indies team stood and performed, they were far from a one man team. You could argue that Australia depended more on their openers, or Sri Lanka on Jayawardene than the West Indies did on Gayle.

That the West Indies bowling was too weak, and they’d have to win with the bat

Given that they struggled in the lead up matches, this was an understandable mistake to make. Even in the semi final when the West Indies killed Australia’s chase of a mammoth total before it could even begin with a wonderful bowling performance, they let things slide when complacency crept in. It would have been very hard to lose even with Bailey playing out of his skin, but better teams than the West Indies have learnt you take your foot of Australia’s throat at your peril. However, the game was pretty much won when what might have been seen as the weak link in their attack (a humble leg spinner in this age of mystery spinners!) took two key wickets, and early.

But, their bowling attack peaked at the right time, and what may not have seemed like a massive total in the final proved more than enough. They may have won the semi final with the bat, but without taking anything away from Samuels, they won the final with the ball.

That most West Indian players are mercenaries and don’t really care

One of my pet hates with the West Indies was watching some of the younger players who had received a share of the Stanford millions wearing their finger thick gold chains and swaggering around like they were Viv Richards. The great West Indies teams of the 70s/80s/90s earnt the right to be arrogant, but what had these new guys done, really? When it counted they were not to be seen, and it was hard not to think that the appearance of being cool was more important to them than winning.

But, watching Chris Gayle bat with a side strain against Australia, or Darren Sammy abusing a fielder who had been sloppy, you could see this was a team who desperately wanted to win, who wanted to live up to the legends of the past. They did care, and it was obvious in everything they did. And yes, they swaggered and were far cooler than I will ever be. But, they backed it up with performances that really mattered.

That Darren Sammy didn’t deserve his place in the team, let alone the captaincy

I’ve always rated Darren Sammy very highly. He is exactly the sort of cricketer I like, someone whom may not have as much natural ability as the superstars, but who always puts in maximum effort and gives his all for the team. But, he has been the subject of an incredible amount of vitriol from fans around the Caribbean. Part of this is because of the inter island rivalries mean that people will always react harshly to real or imagined slights against players from their own country, and Sammy was seen by many to be stopping a more deserving player from finding a place. But, I think that another part of it was that he is not a glamorous, swashbuckling player. He bowls tidy medium pace, and the only thing exciting about him is his ability to hit a long ball.

But he brings other qualities to this team, qualities that I think have been lacking for too long and have been a big part of the decline in West Indies cricket. There has been no shortage of exciting players, players who have all the talent in the world and the sort of charisma that makes them incredible to watch. But, Sammy brings a discipline and work ethic that really impressed me, and something else – the ability to subjugate his own ego in service to the team. He seemed to understand that real leadership is servant leadership, not the desire for personal glory. In this he showed that his constant references to Christ were not mere lip service, but a sign of a genuine faith that shaped the way he lived. You listened to his interviews, especially after winning the final, and he refused to take all the credit or even lash out at his critics. That must have been a huge temptation but instead he dwelt on the positives and expressed the same wish as so many back in the Caribbean have been expressing for decades, that this win might be a step towards reclaiming the glory the West Indies once possessed.

Jarrod Kimber expressed it really well in this article, and this paragraph sums it up nicely

Sammy has heard all of this. He’s just a nice guy. You could imagine him at a friend’s party, being holed up in the corner by someone who is telling him he should step down because he isn’t good enough. Every day he plays for West Indies, he simply does his best. Sometimes it is not good enough, but you can see how much he tries, see how much he wants it, and see that he is trying to build something for the islands and cricket team he loves.

So, I was glad to see him shine in this tournament. His captaincy was as good as, if not better than, any of the other captains, he didn’t seem scared to try new things or back his hunches (like getting Samuels to bowl the Super overs, something that nearly backfired). It is often said that team spirit “an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory” but the West Indies were obviously enjoying their cricket the whole way through the tournament (how many times did we hear Gangnam Style?) and they looked genuinely happy to be playing under Sammy’s leadership. Plus, he contributed some vital spells with the ball, and some very important cameos with the bat.

He is definitely more suited to this format than to Test cricket, but I hope that this will buy him some more time to shape the side in his image, and perhaps take his game to the next level. He is the sort of leader that the West Indies need as they try and take this victory and keep the momentum going. They have all the pieces in place now, a good leader, a terrifying opening batsman, some young guns in the form of their life, a true mystery spinner and even some pace reserves. There is no reason why they can’t move up the ranking in all the formats and I would love to see Sammy leading them onwards and upwards.

That Sri Lanka were destined to win this one

I have to admit that I have never been a fan of Sri Lanka as a team, even though Sangakkara is one of my all time favourite players. They just seemed to constantly skirt very close to the boundaries of what I consider fair play, whether it was Ranatunga’s gamesmanship or bowling wides to deny opposition players a century (I want to stress that this was never my opinion of Sri Lankans as a whole!). I also don’t rate Jayawardene as highly as a batsman as so many seem to do. Sure, he has as amazing average and looks wonderful when he bats, but the difference between his home and away records means that he falls short of true greatness (as opposed to Sangakkara who has played some amazing overseas knocks).

But, when you read articles like this ( and you should read it, one of the best cricket articles you will ever read – I mean it. Go. Now. Read.), and realise how much a victory would mean to the people of Sri Lanka, it is hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the Sri Lankan cricketers, who have been perpetual bridesmaids. That article really opened my eyes, and may me think about things I hadn’t before – the mark of good writing. If they had won it wouldn’t have been unwelcome, but I always felt that West Indies cricket needed this win more, that yet another disappointment would have further marginalised cricket in the Caribbean as more youth drifted away to basketball or cricket. Sri Lanka losing is not going to dent the popularity of cricket there, especially if financial scandals and corruption haven’t been able to.

This win, and the style it was achieved in, means that there is a new generation of West Indies heroes to inspire young people to pick up bat and ball. Perhaps they haven’t reached the peaks of achievement that their forebears did, and may never do so. But, this West Indian team saw the destiny that was waiting for them and, unlike so many teams over the past twenty years, reached out and seized it and refused to be pushed aside. Listening to Gayle after the semi final, you saw the arrogance sportsmen need, the belief that if they played the game they were capable of then no one would be able to stop them. And they were right. Sri Lanka were never going to win.

Well done, West Indies and congratulations on your win. For the sake of cricket as a whole may it be only the first of many.

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