Brian Lara. Carl Hooper. Ian Bishop.
The names evoke a very familiar vibe to anyone having followed the West Indies cricket team during their heydays. While Lara is arguably the greatest cricketer the Caribbean islands have produced, Hooper and Bishop too were among the popular names of their time having essayed creditable careers. The trio was part of the West Indies team that last registered a Test win in Australia; well, last until Sunday anyway.
It was the Perth Test of the summer of 1996-97 where Lara scored a swashbuckling hundred while Hooper and Bishop chipped in with a fifty and five wickets across two innings respectively as West Indies humbled Australia at the iconic WACA stadium. The win was among the final few significant moments before curtains were set on the glorious era of West Indies cricket. Things were never the same again. No one thought they could ever be the same again.
In the ensuing period, Australia replaced the West Indies as cricket’s uncontested behemoth. Building one formidable team after another and beating everything and everyone that came their way, Australia became the gold standard for quality in international cricket. And despite their unchallenged domination having ended for some time now, Australia remains the barometer to measure teams against in popular perception. Beating Australia in a Test match in their backyard continues to be among the hardest challenges in contemporary cricket.
West Indies, on the other hand, kept plummeting with every generation and comprehensively lost their reputation as an elite cricketing powerhouse. A combination of economic, logistical, and political challenges meant they failed to harness talent and protect the best prospects from the lure of T20 franchise markets. The Test team as a result remained of considerably compromised standards and it kept reflecting in results that exponentially worsened.
It took no less than 27 years for the West Indies to register a Test match win in Australia since that last one at Perth. It took nothing less than a miracle as Shamar Joseph, a young Guyanese tearaway quickly ran through the formidable Australian lineup at the Gabba of all places. Joseph had no business even bowling in the fourth innings of the Test after he’d gone off the ground limping the previous night having had his toe sliced open by a Mitchell Starc fireball.
But being relegated to the dugout as his team hopelessly strolled through another predictably boring beatdown was not how Joseph was going to let his introduction to Test cricket finish. He took on the field and delivered a relentlessly long spell of serious fast bowling. He kept rattling one Australian batter after another and a couple of hours later had scripted his team their finest win of the 21st century.
Witnessing this moment from three different commentary boxes at the Gabba were Brian Lara, Carl Hooper, and Ian Bishop. Each working as a guest commentator for different networks on the tour would’ve settled for a West Indies performance that was less humiliating than the previous one. It’s long been the story of their tours down under. Words failed as each of them struggled to succinctly articulate the magnitude of their feeling.
The cricketing journey between these 27 years couldn’t have drifted further apart for these two nations. The two men in charge of things in the final moments of the Gabba Test perfectly embody this difference. Steven Smith, the one man who came painfully close to deny the West Indies a stupendous win is among Australia’s greatest Test cricketers. He’s reached where he has because a ruthlessly professional system ensures there are the fewest possible barriers in his potential translating to success. In his 15th year playing international cricket, and as a 100-Test veteran now, Smith continues to take great pride in being obsessed with the nuances of his batting because the system leaves him with little else to be worried about.
Shamar Joseph, the other half of what the Gabba thriller eventually came down to, unfortunately has a far harsher reality to grapple with even before he can fully process the gravity of what he’s done. Far from being certain of pursuing cricket professionally less than a year ago, Joseph’s rise is nothing short of phenomenal. But despite having made headlines in every corner cricket reaches, Joseph has little to be optimistic about his support system lending him an apparatus that allows him to carve a Test career that rivals Smith’s (Or Pat Cummins’ for that matter).
And this is where the structural lopsidedness of Test cricket rears its ugly head. Though the letter of the law regards every Test playing nation as equal, the inequalities are glaringly obvious. There’s an undeclared two-tier system in practice today where Australia, England, and India have grown increasingly inward-looking and are too happy to play between themselves while the rest of the world remains an avoidable afterthought.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) has hardly shown any prudence in its ways of governing the sport and has sat around all too happily and watched as the three boards have formed a boys’ club. The revenues generated from the ICC limited-overs tournaments are shared in a manner that belies a seriously run sport.
As a result, hosting Test matches has grown steadily unaffordable for the majority of the member nations. Every series that doesn’t involve at least one of Australia, England, or India is an extremely hard sell to earn broadcasters’ interest. The smaller boards thus only manage to put together short series which pass by without much fanfare and fail to register as an event of note unless something as spectacular as spell from Joseph happens.
The only option the smaller boards are hence left with to subsist their income is to open up new revenue streams – namely the franchise T20 leagues. With the exception of New Zealand, every country has ventured into one now and many have managed to attract capital from the Indian Premier League owners.
Running and sustaining these leagues isn’t the easiest of propositions but for now there seems to be consensus among boards that hosting Test matches is an unsustainable exercise without being heavily subsidised by T20 money. It doesn’t make for the prettiest of sights but few seem to have any pragmatic and scalable alternatives.
That leaves the Shamar Josephs of the world in a precarious position. It’s blatantly obvious that they want to play Tests that are widely watched and intensely followed. They do recognise the importance of cracking the format in shaping their legacy. Joseph himself couldn’t have made it any clearer than he did to the press hours after he bowled the house down at Brisbane. But unfortunately, the hierarchical order of Test cricket isn’t as accommodative of him as it is of a player of his promise from some of the other countries.
A week from Joseph’s heroics, South Africa is slated to play a Test series in New Zealand with a massively depleted player pool. Nearly every member of their first-choice squad remains occupied in SA20, the T20 league that’s hoped to be the cash cow that rescues cricket in South Africa.
The central contract of Cricket South Africa (CSA) now mandates players to remain available for their franchises. This was the most expected outcome of Indian cash flowing in but given the dire state of CSA’s finances, they weren’t exactly spoiled for choices.
The traditional order where international cricket maintained its primacy has been incontrovertibly reversed. That the T20 leagues offer a brand of cricket that’s less laborious and far more instantly gratifying to watch doesn’t help the longer formats either. With increasing inflow of private capital, the pivotal shift is inevitable.
In absence of an actual central regulatory body – the ICC is anything but – the cricket calendar is already a mess. Various T20 leagues themselves are eating into each other’s window and earning potential. The room for international cricket outside the fancier teams is already shrinking. And it won’t be too long before more teams find themselves in the jeopardy South Africa are currently dealing with.
Within a couple of days since his Gabba showdown, Joseph has bagged two T20 deals in the UAE and Pakistan, the first of which he’s had to let go of owing to the injury he picked. He’s soon going to be exposed to the side of cricket that offers far greater rewards for far lesser amount of bowling.
Having to then grind it out under hot sun on flat pitches in front of largely empty stands may not seem as lucrative as he perhaps thought after Gabba. Those travails do not feel as satisfying in the absence of validation that follows. The less arduous path of T20 leagues starts to feel much more lucrative then. Better money, better infrastructure, better shot at longevity, lesser risk of career-threatening injuries, and the only real downside is upsetting a handful few old-school traditionalists.
It’s not like players are unaware of what not preferring Tests does to how their careers will be written about. They’re still choosing to jump over to the other side because the system actively pushes them to. Shamar Joseph has made it abundantly clear what playing Test cricket for the West Indies means to him. But it won’t be long before it dawns on him that Test cricket doesn’t quite value him the same way.
And if he’s indeed forced to take the plunge some day and move over to the greener pastures of T20 markets, the cricketing world will fawn momentarily. Some sanctimonious word salad shall follow reminiscing the golden days of West Indies cricket. But beyond the rhetoric, there’ll be few meaningful changes. And before we know, there’ll be another Ashes underway.
Parth Pandya is an Ahmedabad-based freelance sports writer.