Thursday, July 19, 2012

When the Calypso Kings ruled Babylon

The fast and the furious (courtesy of ESPNcricnfo)
More than 30 years ago, New Zealand and the West Indies did battle at the end of a long Southern summer. The 1979/80 home test series was full of talking points, though many of them had little to do with the quality of the cricket played in the middle. As the two sides again prepare to do battle in the Caribbean it’s apt to look back at a series that proved a significant milestone for both countries.

It may seem unusual that I have chosen to reflect on such an ill-fated series, but the conduct on the field is only a small part of the significance of that series. It was more about what those three tests started than what happened on the field of play. For the Windies it was their last series defeat in 15 years – the beginning of the Fire in Babylon era. While there was no Spark in Wellington to follow for the Kiwis, their first test series victory in New Zealand would see them embark on a 12 year unbeaten series run at home.

While the series is my most vivid memory of West Indies versus New Zealand battles I was too young to watch any of the carnage. My memories are built on what I saw, read and heard about the series later, when the Windies were in the midst of the most dominant run in test cricket. I delighted in watching a battery of quicks test, and often intimidate, even the greatest batsmen in the game whilst their own batsmen played with unbridled Calypso confidence - hooking, driving and cutting all before them – they played cricket like all youngsters wished they could. It was exciting to watch – we are generally drawn to those with qualities to which we aspire, few of us are drawn to nervousness and uncertainty.

Had this series been my first memory of the Windies maybe my views on, and love of, them would have lessened but they haven’t, and it is likely those memories will never fade.

10 years after their first series victory in Pakistan, the New Zealanders (the Young Guns and Black Caps’ monikers had yet to pass a marketer’s desk) finally achieved victory at home – that it was against a formidable West Indies side made it all the sweeter. However, the actions of a number of Windies legends sully our memories of the start of an era of West Indian dominance. The Calypso Kings did themselves no favours on the pitch, either through the manner of their play or their complete disregard for sportsmanship in an era when the spirit of cricket actually held an exalted spot in our great game.

For the West Indies players the tour to New Zealand came on the back of a gruelling 16 match Australian tour, including 3 tests and 10 ODIs – it isn’t just in recent years that limited overs cricket has overrun common sense. The Windies looked like they’d had enough and in spite of conditions made for swing and seam the four quicks generally seemed more intent on injury than wickets – the ball was seldom pitched in the batsmen’s half.

Most of their batsmen lacked the application required in New Zealand conditions and played as they had in their triumphant series victory in Australia – it’s not that they were incapable, they simply looked largely disinterested in taking the hard road. The majority were intent on continuing to hook and cut balls that weren’t as short or quick, and showed more interest in aesthetics than effectiveness.

Haynes, and to a lesser extent his opening partner Greenidge, showed the technique and temperament required to succeed against a persistent New Zealand attack in conditions they used to their utmost advantage. Haynes stroked two centuries on his way to more than 300 runs at 56 in his six innings. In the years to come the prodigious opening pair would continue to set the platform for many West Indian victories rammed home by the quartet of quicks – Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. The tallest of the bunch, Big Bird, was the most impressive of a disappointing Windies bowling effort in New Zealand with 14 wickets at 17. The Windies most dominant batting force, Viv Richards, didn’t tour due to injury – it’s debateable though whether the Master Blaster would have changed the course of the series in New Zealand conditions.

Conversely, four of the Kiwis averaged over 40 for the series – Edgar, Howarth, Coney and Hadlee all prospered. The first three grafted tirelessly in the middle, Hadlee preferred to use the long handle when others had set a base. With the ball, Hadlee, Gary Troup and cult figure Lance Cairns took 49 of the 52 West Indian wickets to fall. For Troup, it was his one claim to fame – he took only 21 wickets in his other 12 tests at close to 40. All three prospered by using the conditions – helpful as they so often are for seam (and swing) in the Land of the Long White Cloud. As in so many international summers, Hadlee took Man of the Series honours and showed his side the way forward.

Hadlee’s 11 wickets in the first test at Carisbrook in Dunedin paved the way for the series victory - New Zealand crept to a much deserved, yet narrow, one wicket victory on the final day. In the process he became New Zealand’s leading test wicket taker with 117.

The following two matches petered out into draws – such was cricket 30 years ago. However, whilst one side was grateful to escape a long Southern Hemisphere summer for the comfort of the Caribbean, the local lads secured their first series victory at home against the most dominant side in the game.

The third test was notable for a rest day that never really was. With the scheduled third day washed out, a decision was made to utilise the rest day. The match was essentially extended to a sixth day to allow a full five day test – an intriguing application of the rules given some of the senior Windies players had initially booked trips home which would have required them to leave Eden Park shortly after lunch on the final day.

If cricket was won on the sole basis of talent then only one side could have prospered. Besides Hadlee, the New Zealand side contained no world-class stars while the Windies oozed them at every turn. But cricket is as much mental as physical, and the home town boys showed a level of application and self-belief that the Calypso Kings just weren’t interested in matching. New Zealand was largely a team of journeymen playing a collection of individuals who would have stood out as stars in any era.

But there was far more to the series than just the cricketing battle – frustrations boiled over on a regular basis and the West Indies came across as little more than entitled schoolyard bullies. Hadlee’s first test haul included seven lbws; in all there were 12 leg-before decisions in the match - both Test records at the time. Captain Clive Lloyd and the team’s manager both called for neutral umpires – the standard was poor, for both sides, but more decisions fell against the tourists, as they generally did throughout the cricketing world at that time. Neutral umpires were still over a decade away – the game had a lot of ground to cover first – remember the conflicts with Mike Gatting and the umpires in India? It was not until 2002, and India’s tour of West Indies, the ICC mandated two neutral umpires would stand in all test cricket.

During the Carisbrook test, the aptly nicknamed Whispering Death, Michael Holding, took exception to having a caught behind decision turned down. Undoubtedly caught up in the heat of the moment, as fast bowlers, nay sportsmen, are prone to do, Holding showed all the restraint of a child and kicked the stumps out of the ground. It was an ugly scene that shocked many watching our gentile game – as was so often the case in those days no action was taken against Holding. Worse was to follow in the second test.

The match in Christchurch plumbed new lows in on field behaviour and put many of my countrymen off the Calypso Kings for a long time. Early in the match fearsome quick Colin Croft was no-balled for overstepping – his petulant response was to walk back down the wicket and flick the bails off. Shortly afterwards Croft ran in close to the umpire, Fred Goodall, and deliberately lowered his shoulder into the umpire prior to completing his action. Watching a cricketer affect something akin to rugby’s “Maori sidestep” on an unsuspecting umpire was a lot to take in for an impressionable kid. Whilst at times today’s game has become overly  sterile and politically correct, even some 30 years ago Croft should have been removed from the attack immediately and for the remainder of the game – unfortunately, that wasn’t the way back then. Without any central disciplinary structure in place in international cricket at the time it was left up to the tourists’ management group and New Zealand Cricket (NZC) to determine an appropriate punishment. NZC asked that Croft be stood down from the third test – the West Indies played him anyway.  In essence, he escaped without punishment for one of the more cowardly incidents witnessed on an international oval.

Twice, in relation to Croft, umpire Goodall motioned to Clive Lloyd that he wished to speak to him. Twice, the captain Lloyd did not move and stayed deep in his position in the slips - he seemed of the opinion that should the umpire wish to talk to him then he should make the effort to come to him. Discourteous? Yes, but again it could be passed off as immature and petulant. However, the misdemeanours took a more serious turn after tea on the third day. Unhappy with Goodall, Lloyd kept his charges under the stands for some 12 minutes on the premise that the local umpire should be relieved of his duties. At the end of the day’s play there were rumours that the tour was in danger of being cut short but nothing eventuated.

Cricket etiquette has undergone drastic changes in recent years and one of those charged with policing the conduct of players is Lloyd, in his capacity as an ICC match referee. How severe would Lloyd have been in his official capacity on players who shoulder charged an umpire, kicked stumps out of the ground when a decision didn’t go their way, or kept their charges in the changing rooms as a protest long after play was due to resume?

So what of the upcoming series (or the two test tradition)? No longer does either team sit anywhere near the top of the heap and it’s unlikely that will happen again, not in my lifetime anyway. Other nations have moved on – they have embraced professionalism and utilised their vast resources, both in playing numbers and financially, to ensure that both the Windies and New Zealand look destined to remain second tier nations. T20 has enabled many to earn a fantastic living but it has also had an adverse effect on both nations – the Windies especially. Many West Indian cricketers, and few should blame them, continue to put the value of the dollar above the pride of the maroon cap – it seems unlikely that trend will abate anytime soon.

The collection of Caribbean islands are no longer a conveyor belt for fear-inducing fast bowlers – many of the Caribbean wickets are now far slower and spin friendly. The development of Sunil Narine, and to a lesser extent Shillingford, reflects a shift in the make-up of the Windies attack which also includes any number of bowlers closer to medium pace than outright rapid. Roach, Best, Taylor (Mikey made me) et al. have all shown they have pace but Roach looks the only one likely to make a genuine and prolonged impact at the highest level. The batsmen seem more pre-occupied with short-term attack as opposed to the application required for long-term gain, Chanderpaul excepted. Samuels looks to have turned the corner but may always struggle from the same affliction as another majestic looking shotmaker, Carl Hooper - for the sake of West Indies cricket I hope not. If he can continue the form and attitude he displayed in England recently and Darren Bravo can finally start to shake the potential tag then the West Indies may finally start to build some batting solidity. Chris Gayle could again prove the difference with the bat – if he gets a start he could break New Zealand’s already brittle heart.

Unlike their countrymen from earlier eras many of the current crop of Kiwi batsmen play beyond their ability and often ignore the match situation. New Zealand have the talent, with the bat at least, to match the side from the series more than thirty years ago but a lack of application and repetition of the same errors of judgement continue to hamper their growth. On their day the side’s senior batsmen, Taylor and McCullum, have the ability to take any attack apart and both have fashioned strong records. However, neither seems to have made substantial strides forward in recent times and it has cost their side – besides Williamson truly coming of age little would make New Zealand fans happier than consistency from the two elder statesmen. And on Williamson, Kiwis wait with bated breath to see if he can kick on from his final day century against South Africa to round out the 2011/12 international season.

Young seamer Doug Bracewell appears more comfortable in the game’s longest form and his opening partner, Chris Martin, is what Kiwis expect in their medium-fast bowlers – a strong work ethic and the ability to fully utilise any assistance in the wicket. Having satisfied the ICC’s residency rules, Neil Wagner looks set for a debut in Antigua. His ascension to the Black Caps’ side is just reward for strong domestic form and many of the game’s train spotters will be hoping he can emulate the feats of fellow left-armer Gary Troup in the 1979/80 series. Daniel Vettori’s days of running through international sides are long behind him but he seldom allows batsmen a moment to relax. The intriguing selection could be the addition of a second spinner. New Zealand’s inexperienced legspinner, Tarun Nethula, may get an opportunity in at least one of the matches – the sentimental amongst us could think of nothing sweeter than the return of a legspinner to the New Zealand test side – it’s been 40 years since Jack Alabaster weaved his magic for one final time in the Port of Spain.

My money is on a drawn series, the two sides sharing the spoils one apiece. The Windies will be looking to build on the confidence they gained from their efforts in England. New Zealand, given their poor recent limited overs form, would see a drawn series as something of a coup and it may ignite the spark they’ll need to get through the next 12 months.
Neither side is likely to embark on the same streak of success they did 32 years ago but supporters in both nations continue to live in hope. If not that, then a competitive series without the nastiness of all those years ago would bring a little smile to a cricketing Buddha.

Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.

Don’t recall the incidents all those years ago? Check out the footage of Messrs Holding and Croft – such incidents dull the heart a little and would do well never to be repeated.


  1. It just shows you how Sir Richard Hadlee inspired his team against those fast bowlers.

    1. He was a fantastic cricketer. NZ often lifted against the Windies - their first test victory came against them at Eden Park in March 1956.

  2. This was a good read, and provided much insight into a series that I had heard a lot about. Nice to get the perspective of someone who actually followed that series. A couple of observations:

    -- The alleged "gentlemanliness" of West Indian cricketers in the 70s and 80s seems to be a myth. On reading accounts of their tour to India in 1983/84 for example, it appears that not only was there a good deal of unrestricted short-pitched bowling on their part, they also resorted to the sort of mind-games that the Aussies under Steve Waugh were notorious for. There's also a story of how none of them applauded Gavaskar for his 236 (highest ever test score by an Indian at the time) because they were upset by a decision going in his favour.

    -- It's interesting to look at the career records of guys like Wright, Edgar, Coney and Howarth. Their stats do not make for spectacular reading but it seems like they delivered when it mattered, and always did enough to keep the side afloat.
    NZ's current lot seem to be the polar opposite - plenty of talent and ability but not enough consistency.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Suhas - much appreciated.

      Though I didn't see the series live, I have read and watched a lot about the tests - it seems to be a part of New Zealand versus West Indies folklore. I'm not sure there was a lot of gentile cricket played by the West Indies, but I loved the way they played the game - if other sides had had a battery of quicks they would have done the same. Case in point: the Windies travelled to Australia for a 6 test series in the 1975/6 series, and the Australians tormented the Windies batsmen with a nasty display of short pitched, quick bowling. Lillee, Thompson and Gilmour backed it up with verbal volleys that would have peeled paint! They won the series 5-1, and many say it led to the penny finally dropping in West Indian cricketing circles. Though Roberts and Holding were already part of the Windies pace attack, Lloyd went in search of a quartet of fiery fast men.

      The dominance (and retribution for the Australian humiliation) started on the 1976 tour to England when Tony Greig made his infamous "grovel" comment. I just read a fantastic article in SPIN Cricket about 10 July, 1976 when the Windies quicks battered Edrich and Close mercilessly.

      Sometimes the Windies were seen as nasty during their Fire in Babylon era but I believe they simply wanted to win. At times they may have crossed the line but so do all sides - think about Bodyline or Steve Waugh's Australians. I loved their brand of cricket - fiery quicks and batsmen who played with unrivalled Caribbean flair shaped the way I tried to play cricket as a kid, and is still how I want to see cricket today. I think at times modern cricket has become too PC, though often the spirit of cricket is simply that; a spirit - it seldom seems to amount to much and is usually only brought up when one team belives they've been wronged.

      As for the Kiwis of the day, they used what talent they had to it's fullest - many were largely amateur. With regards their stats, it's worth remembering that they played at home a lot of decks that weren't easy for batsmen. When they toured, the conditions for all but the minority seemed so foreign from what they were used to as well.

      I hope the current squad step up, but so often when they do they simply seem to step back down the same way they have come. Nothing would delight me more than seeing them succeed, even against the men from a collection of tiny Caribbean islands who shaped my love of our great game.

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