IT hasn't been a happy new year for a great many people but the West Indies cricket team ain't among that lot. In fact, it didn't take the turning of the year to bring smiles back on the faces of the team and their backers; no, them big grins were out in December itself.
It happened soon after the arrival of the Pakistan cricket team in Australia, this being the third team to make up the trio which would contest the annual World Series. Right from 1979-80, when Kerry Packer and the Australian Cricket Board made up, this competition has been part of the annual Australian calendar. Australia always plays host to some team in December-January and a third team is invited to make the contest that much sharper.
The West Indies were down in the dumps for a long time after they began their Australian tour, unable to beat even state sides. Two Tests were lost by big margins considering that they were both low-scoring affairs. The top players were struggling and there seemed to be a general lack of confidence among the players. Only a couple were clicking and when they did the rest fell in a pack so it didn't amount to much anyway.
Today, the West Indies are in the final of the three-nation tournament and hold a psychological advantage over Australia going into the fourth Test at Adelaide in nine days time. There was a big win in the third Test, three wins over Pakistan and two over Australia; in fact, they have had victory on the run ever since they won that first one-dayer against Pakistan. The defeat by Pakistan in their last one-dayer in the preliminaries will not bother the team that much as they were resting three key players.
Every team goes through this kind of form slump. How it comes through depends on the attitude of the men in charge and the players as well. But the guidance they get is crucial. In this respect, the Windies are fortunate to have Clive Lloyd and Malcolm Marshall along as manager and coach. Courtney Walsh, too, has helped no end. Neither he nor Marshall are known to be players who give up easily. They both have a fierce sense of pride in wearing the maroon cap. Walsh, it was, who insisted that the team wear the sponsor's logo on the right side and the team logo on the left over the heart while they were in India in 1994, a tour on which he led after Richie Richardson was advised to have a rest.
Above all, Walsh is a captain who has the respect of his players. He has shown himself to be a perfect gentleman and a humble man despite all his achievements in the game. This is the same man who, when he bowled alongside his idol Michael Holding at the start of his career, described it as a dream come true, something which he had longed for all his life but never hoped to finally achieve. There was no arrogance or head-weight when he became one of that long tradition of pacemen who have come out of the Caribbean since the four-pacemen idea took root.
It is difficult to deal with players who are above the average but Walsh has dealt successfully with Brian Lara. The man's form was alarming but Walsh kept faith with the little left-hander and never pulled him down. It was always a word of encouragement, a hint that the good times were about to roll, a suggestion that Lara was saving the best for last. Going by the 295 runs that the Trinidadian has got in his last three one-day innings, one cannot help but conclude that Courtney has not merely the ability but also a great deal of intelligence when it comes to getting the best out of his men.
A dream finish for Walsh would be winning the Test series by pulling level at Adelaide and then repeating the success at Perth. That would be a record for no team has ever done that in the history of the game. Winning back the Frank Worrell trophy -- that name is still greatly revered in the West Indies -- would undo a lot of the mess which West Indies cricket got into in the latter half of '95 and the beginning of '96. Big Curtly has set things going by winning the game at Melbourne. Walsh will be hoping that his last hurrah Down Under will be a memorable one. He would be willing to settle for that trophy.