Tuesday 15 October 2019

West Indies dominance has faded but legacy of their greatness still lingers

Gordon Greenidge strikes a familiar pose during what was the heyday for both the opener and the West Indies team. Photo: Adrian Murrell /Allsport
Gordon Greenidge strikes a familiar pose during what was the heyday for both the opener and the West Indies team. Photo: Adrian Murrell /Allsport
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

I saw the greatest team ever to play on Irish soil. It wasn't a domestic side, great though O'Dwyer's Kerry and Cody's Kilkenny undoubtedly were. Some great All Blacks sides have visited but it wasn't one of them either. The Brazil team which played an All-Ireland selection in 1973 was pretty nifty but had only four survivors from the side that won the World Cup in Mexico.

The West Indies team which played Ireland in June 1984, on the other hand, was at the height of its powers. And those were some considerable powers. Not only was that the finest cricket team of all-time, it may even have been the finest team to play any sport.

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When the West Indies arrived in Dublin they were in the process of setting records of 11 straight test wins and 27 tests without defeat which stand to this day. After losing a three-test series to New Zealand in March 1980, they went the rest of the decade without losing a series, winning six against England, three against Australia and India and two against Pakistan.

That summer they won five tests out of five against England, two of them by an innings, the others by nine wickets, eight wickets and 126 runs. Those victories were accomplished with extraordinary style, the adventurous nature of their batting combining with the frightening pace of their bowling to make cricket look like the most exciting game in the world.

They were not quite at full strength in Dublin, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and Michael Holding sitting it out. But they still fielded seven players from their test team along with Richie Richardson and Courtney Walsh, two promising youngsters setting out on a journey which would bring them into the pantheon alongside Richards, Lloyd and Holding.

Even at the time it seemed an extraordinary privilege for myself, my father and my brother Eoghan to see this team. How many others did? A report on the game describes, "an enormous crowd which produced a gate of £3000." Which, even allowing for the changing value of money, indicates that 'enormous' is a relative term.

Those who witnessed the greatest team to play on Irish soil must have numbered, at the absolute a maximum, a couple of thousand. So possessing this memory makes me feel like the owner of a limited edition print or album by some great artist. It's the closest I'll ever get to hipsterdom.

The setting of the match seems positively surreal. You just walked up a laneway off the Rathmines Road, flanked on one side I think by a chipper and on the other by one of those multi-storey bedsit mansions where civil servants and students used to share a jacks on the landing. And there, waiting for you, was sporting greatness in its most distilled form.

The West Indies were in exhibition mode from the off. That peerless opener Gordon Greenidge, who scored two double centuries against England that summer, set about the Irish bowling in tandem with Richie Richardson, their respective knocks of 54 and 78 containing a copious amount of boundaries.

The visitors had already won the first test against England, their victory featuring a key century from Larry Gomes. The great Gomes rattled off 153 against Ireland but he was perhaps the least flamboyant of the Windies batsmen and I remember the PA announcer repeatedly imploring, "Larry please give us a six."

He didn't but his batting partner Gus Logie clubbed the ball to all corners of the ground and out of it on the way to a fantastic 129. At one stage we watched the ball soar into the distance and crash through the roof of a derelict house. At least I think it was derelict.

They kept going, a succession of human highlight reels taking to the crease. It all ended with all-rounder Roger Harper hoisting six after six into the crowd until it felt like we were being shelled, but in a good way. The West Indies declared at 584 for 6 though they could probably have made 800 without much bother.

There was even time to see Joel Garner bowl a few overs at the end of the first day. For those unfamiliar with Garner, the best comparison I can make is with Usain Bolt running 100m and bowling a bouncer at the end of it. Back then West Indian fast bowling was a combat sport.

I got Garner's autograph that day. He was the biggest man I'd ever seen. It was as if someone had got a really tall man and built an extension onto him. And I managed to get the scorecard signed by all the Windies players at the end of the first day. Which was just as well as the second day, frequently interrupted by rain, was a bit of an anti-climax after the wonders which preceded it, though the weather did enable Ireland to claim a draw.

Things have changed since then. For one thing I'd never have believed that 31 years later, I'd be watching an Ireland team score a thrilling World Cup win over the West Indies. Ireland had improved a great deal in those decades but the West Indies had got worse by an even larger margin.

It is the saddest decline in world sport. Watching the West Indies today is like walking through the ruins of some once mighty civilisation. Cricket no longer has an exclusive hold on the best sportsmen in the West Indies with the allure of athletics and soccer greatly reducing the talent available.

They have fallen out of love with the game they once played better than anyone else.

Only the presence of Afghanistan at the World Cup prevented the West Indies from finishing an ignominious last. In time, you'd imagine, Afghanistan will move past the West Indies whose decline seems irreversible. They will never again produce a team like that of the eighties.

But neither will anyone else. They weren't just the greatest team I ever saw and the greatest team ever to play on Irish soil. They were just the greatest.

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