After observing in awe the all-round skill of Keith Miller during the 1951-52 tour to Australia, the West Indies captain then, John Goddard, said: “Give us Keith Miller and we’d beat the world.”
More recently, while West Indies continue to stumble along in the longer formats and administratively, their players’ performances in the IPL and other T20 tournaments – especially the last two World T20s – show the Caribbean has the best T20 team and players in the world.
In the 2012 and 2014 World T20s, they met Australia in the semi-final and in the group stage, and the respective wins were probably their two most clinical performances in both tournaments. Growing up in the era of West Indies’ decline as I did, it was very unusual to see West Indies topple Australia so convincingly in any format. Those T20 performances were of the kind that they produced regularly against the Australians from the late ’70s to the early ’90s -Australia failed to defeat West Indies in a Test series from 1978 to 1992.
Watching Kieron Pollard swat Xavier Doherty in that 2012 semi-final offered a glimpse into the past, when the Guyanese duo of Alvin Kallicharran and Roy Fredericks produced swashbuckling innings against Ian Chappell’s side circa 1975-76. The way the team lifted its game in response to James Faulkner’s ill-advised comment that he didn’t like West Indies players was reminiscent of famous confrontations of the past: Ambrose v Steve Waugh in 1995, McGrath v Lara in 1999, and McGrath v Sarwan in 2003.
On the back of their dominance in T20, I paraphrase Goddard’s comment from 64 years ago: “Give us fans Test match performances like you do in T20s, and we’d be beating the world.”
Every series and every Test match this millennium – except the 2003 Antigua miracle – in the Frank Worrell Trophy has generally been a one-sided affair in favour of the baggy greens. Even the biggest optimist would not expect this trend to change in the two upcoming Tests.
However, the last competitive West Indies-Australia series for me ranks alongside the 2005 Ashes and India v Australia 2001 as one of the most compelling Test series of the last 20 years, and is easily my favourite. In 1995, hip-hop artist Tupac dropped his famous album Me Against the World. Brian Lara’s batting during the four Tests in 1999 was “Me against Australia”.
It would be hard to name a more riveting cricket battle than McGrath v Lara, 1999. Prior to that series, a typical players-versus-board standoff meant Nelson Mandela had to intervene to ensure West Indies’ maiden tour to South Africa went ahead. Following that embarrassing series, Lara’s leadership was hammered in the Caribbean press and the WICB placed his captaincy on probation. The wheels continued to fall off in the first Test against Australia, in Trinidad, as West Indies were routed for 51 – at the time their lowest total in Test cricket.
Heading into the second match, in Jamaica, the walls seemed to be caving in on Lara, who had not scored a Test hundred since June 1997. His response over the next three games was extraordinary.
The Prince of Port-of-Spain probably batted more clinically two years later, on the tour to Sri Lanka, but he certainly never faced as much pressure from the public, the media, the WICB and the opposition as during his innings of 213 (though Stuart MacGill might tell you that he had Lara lbw before he scored his hundred).
That engrossing second day at Sabina Park, where Lara in partnership with Jimmy Adams restored pride to West Indies cricket, saw the legendary Australian attack, led by Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, put to the sword: they conceded 322 runs without taking a wicket. Only on day four in Kolkata 2001 did that mighty Australian team have another similarly listless day on the field.
During Lara’s brilliant 153 not out in Barbados – which ended with the Caribbean descending into a state of pandemonium when he blasted Jason Gillespie for the winning boundary – his contest with McGrath was riveting. McGrath was bowling the fastest he had done in his career, while his sledging focused on the point that he had found ways to tame Lara during previous encounters in 1995 and 1996-97 – up until the Jamaica double-hundred, Lara’s 132 in Perth in 1997 was the only hundred he had in ten Tests involving McGrath, in which he had scored 669 at the meagre average of 37.16.
Things escalated on the final day at Kensington Oval, becoming cricket’s version of Muhammad Ali v George Foreman. There cannot have been many battles more intense between a legendary batsman and bowler, both at the peak of their powers.
Although Lara scored three classic hundreds in the series, in all three innings McGrath either regularly beat his bat, had him dropped, or simply got him out in the end. During Lara’s T20-mode hundred in Antigua in the final Test, Colin Miller dropped him off McGrath before he went berserk. Medium-pacer Adam Dale would probably blame the fact that he never played a Test again on Lara, who clattered 22 runs off an over from him during his belligerent knock.
In probable acknowledgement of what Lara had done, when Australia returned to the Caribbean as consecutive World Cup winners in 2003, no verbals were directly exchanged with him, as he hit hundreds in Guyana and Trinidad. That series in 1999 had reaffirmed his status as the game’s premier batsman of the era, alongside Sachin Tendulkar. The two world-record Test scores and his 501 not out gave Lara batting immortality, but the way every inch of his talent was mentally and physically challenged in 1999 made that series the Mount Everest moment of his career.