How West Indies got their groove back and changed the face of T20 cricket
The West Indies squad gathered in Dubai at the end of February 2016 in turmoil. The relationship between the team and the board had disintegrated to the extent that the players had considered pulling out of the looming World T20. In an age of teams preparing for T20 ever more meticulously, West Indies had only played two T20 internationals in the previous year - the lowest of any side in the tournament.
A month later in Kolkata, Samuels top-scored in the World T20 final for a second time in his career. West Indies won their second tournament of the last three, and became the first nation to lift the cup twice. They could call themselves the finest team in T20I history.
Meanwhile, playing for different domestic teams around the world, West Indians continue to recalibrate what was considered possible in T20. They have produced the format's leading run scorer, the highest wicket-taker, the two most frugal bowlers with over 100 wickets, the top two six-hitters, and the first four players to reach 300 T20 matches. They are at the cutting edge of innovations in T20, with both bat and ball, perhaps contributing more to the format's on-field evolution than any other cricket nation.
This is the story of how they got there.
Part I: The first fling
They called it the million-dollar shot. With one slog-sweep over midwicket at Allen Stanford's custom-built ground in Antigua in 2006, Narsingh Deonarine secured the first Stanford Super Series. Guyana earned US$1 million, and Deonarine an extra $25,000 for the "play of the match".
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
At the same venue two years later, Stanford's ground hosted a $20 million game, when his pan-Caribbean "Stanford Superstars" thumped England. The triumph would be fleeting: Stanford was soon imprisoned for fraud and sentenced to 110 years in a Florida jail. His fall caused economic devastation in the Caribbean. And yet in West Indies cricket his legacy lives on.
The 2006 Stanford tournament was the first of its kind in the Caribbean - a T20 competition encompassing all territories - and it was organised on a grand scale. "We thought cricket was fading away," reflects Ramnaresh Sarwan, who was captain of Guyana and at the other end when Deonarine hit his six. "People's focus was starting to shift. That brought everything back."
The tournament brought unprecedented levels of interest to domestic cricket, and also raised standards. Each team received strength-and-conditioning and nutrition advice of a quality that no domestic team in the Caribbean had enjoyed before; Sarwan believes that the support was actually more professional than the international team received at the time. All 19 participating territories were provided with $100,000 in capital investment funding and $180,000 for development of players and coaches and for the maintenance of facilities and equipment, with every cent audited. Even the pitches were transformed.
At a time of constant internal squabbling within Caribbean cricket, Stanford's tournament was marked by a distinct shift in approach. The 14 "legends" he paid to be on the board of directors worked with players across the teams, something made easier by the fact that the entire tournament took place at Stanford's ground in Antigua. Daren Ganga, who captained Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) in the first final, noted a new sharing of knowledge, and a spread of ideas across territories.
The rewards Stanford's events offered kicked off a process of young players re-evaluating their cricket priorities. Sarwan, for instance, was struck by how players started lifting more weights to improve their six-hitting ability, at the expense of endurance training. "It does come down to economics," he says. "When I started, my goal was to play Test cricket. Now if you ask any young player who's keenly playing the game, probably their ultimate goal would be to play T20 cricket."
The presence of as many as 19 teams diluted the quality of cricket in the early rounds, but it also ensured that young Caribbean players were exposed to high-octane cricket. Ganga believes that, combined with the financial rewards, this contributed to cricket becoming more attractive for multi-talented young athletes in the Caribbean. Older players also benefitted. Samuel Badree, who would rise to become the No. 1-ranked T20 bowler in the world, turned 25 before the first Stanford tournament; he believes he might have given the game up for good without the fillip of the tournament.
Legspinner Samuel Badree first came to notice in the Stanford 20/20 tournament, which made him believe he could forge a career in the game
© PA Photos/Getty Images
Legspinner Samuel Badree first came to notice in the Stanford 20/20 tournament, which made him believe he could forge a career in the game © PA Photos/Getty Images
The competition alerted the region to the possibilities of T20, which, three years after its creation in England, the West Indies board had been slow to embrace. "It opened the eyes of Caribbean people and players to T20," remembers Ravi Rampaul, who played for T&T in the first tournament. According to Carlos Brathwaite, now West Indies' T20 captain, it "started the whole T20 revolution".
The impact extended way beyond the competition itself. Its enduring grass-roots legacy would be in club tournaments throughout the region, which provided an avenue for players to earn useful sums from the game at lower levels. For penurious boards, T20 offered the only plausible route to substantial corporate sponsorship, and so prioritised T20 success.
Even before professional T20 was invented, club matches in the region were 30 overs a side; after Stanford made T20 popular, Barbados, Jamaica and T&T created high-profile local T20 competitions played under lights, which included players from across the region and had significant cash rewards.
In Jamaica the annual Social Development Commission T20 tournament, launched in 2007, now has prize money of 1.4 million Jamaican dollars (US$11,000). In the week before leaving for the 2012 World T20, Andre Russell won the SDC T20 league for Old Harbour. SDC matches, which feature sound systems, food vendors and commentators on the PA, attract thousands, even as most regional first-class cricket fails to draw attendances of over 100. Like other similar leagues in the region, it exposes players to pressure, vociferous crowd noise and fierce local rivalries, making the transition to T20 at higher levels less daunting.
Part II: The Trinidad & Tobago connection
In T20's first years, no area in the world has been a more fertile source of talent than Trinidad & Tobago. Even as it has struggled in 50-overs and first-class cricket, a who's who of T20 royalty has emerged from its population of 1.3 million.
For all the pain of Deonarine's million-dollar six, it was in the 2006 Stanford tournament that T&T glimpsed their future. In 2008, they won the second Stanford event, and then beat Middlesex in the Stanford Trans-Atlantic T20 Champions Cup, earning $400,000.
|Batsman||Innings||Strike rate||Average||Balls per boundary||Balls per six|
|AB de Villiers||163||8.88||36.48||5.29||14.73|
|Ryan ten Doeschate||152||8.17||29.7||6.86||16.68|
After the 2009 Stanford series was cancelled, the West Indies board did not organise a replacement; T&T qualified for the inaugural Champions League, held in October 2009 in India, by dint of their performances a full 20 months earlier. Competing against sides that had played more T20, boasted overseas players and came from celebrated domestic systems, T&T were considered rank outsiders.
Ganga did not share this belief. While his classical batting was not naturally suited to the format, Ganga emerged as West Indies' first great T20 thinker. "He understood how to build a T20 team, he was ahead of his time," says Ian Bishop, the former West Indies Test player from Trinidad.
According to Ganga, Stanford gave T&T a "competitive advantage. We were a lot more comfortable playing in pressure situations." They married this confidence with intense preparation. "We were meticulous. We analysed what other teams were achieving in T20 cricket from the point of view of dot balls, where they were after six overs, how they approached the middle overs, and where they scored in the death overs. We used that information to suit our style of play."
In India, T&T unveiled to the world their radically different approach to T20: embracing boundary-hitting at the expense of all else, even if it meant playing out more dot balls. The day this new approach emerged in all its destructive glory was October 16, 2009. T&T were 91 for 5 and needed 80 from seven overs against New South Wales, a position of hopelessness against an attack with four current Test bowlers. Out walked Kieron Pollard and unleashed a seminal innings of 54 not out from 18 balls.
Ganga also innovated in the field, using Badree as a legspinner who would routinely bowl all the way through the Powerplay, a role that remains unique in T20 history. The decision had its roots in club cricket, where Badree thrived with the new ball in T20; Ganga had earlier captained him in college cricket too.
T&T is, not coincidentally, the Caribbean territory where windball cricket - played with a ball smaller and lighter than a regular cricket ball - is most popular. For instance, Norman's Windball League has grown from 12 teams in 2004 to 47 today, and is played over a five-month season on concrete surfaces for a total prize money of 90,000 TT dollars (US$13,400).
The vast T20 experience that players like Kieron Pollard (left) and Chris Gayle bring to the West Indies side from their time in leagues across the world is unmatched in any other national team
© Getty Images
The vast T20 experience that players like Kieron Pollard (left) and Chris Gayle bring to the West Indies side from their time in leagues across the world is unmatched in any other national team © Getty Images
A windball is made from soft plastic, but has a seam. As games are only 12 overs a side in windball cricket, batsmen "pelt everything" according to Norman Mungroo, founder of the league, and bowlers "need a lot of different tricks". International players continue to play, including Pollard, Lendl Simmons and the Bravo brothers. So does Sunil Narine, who opens the batting and bowling in windball, which he originally started playing with his dad. "I had a love for it," Narine says. "It helped with my grip and my variations as well. You have different balls that you bowl in windball cricket and I just tried them in hardball and they worked out for me, so I just continued developing them."
Transferring his success into T20 club matches, Narine gained T&T selection in T20 before establishing himself in other formats. After only four T20s, he was picked for the 2011 Champions League. There he unveiled his beguiling knuckleball - leaving even MS Dhoni hapless, as he took 3 for 8 against Chennai Super Kings. A $700,000 IPL contract soon followed, and he was on the path to T20 greatness.
Part III: Specialists at home and abroad
The theory of desirable difficulty holds that there are some problems no one would ever want but can actually help in the long run. For instance, the most successful individuals are more likely to have lost a parent young.
Perhaps something similar helps explain West Indies' success in T20. No one would ever wish to have the sort of poisonous relationship West Indian players have with their board. Players pursuing careers as T20 specialists has damaged the national team profoundly in Tests and ODIs, yet it has ultimately strengthened the T20 side, because players have gained experience in leagues throughout the world, and rather than juggling three different formats, they have unashamedly prioritised T20. From 2012 to the end of 2016, the seven players with the most T20 appearances in the world were all West Indian - each with at least 188 T20 appearances in this time.
In the year before the 2016 World T20, five West Indies squad members had played T20 cricket exclusively, compared to none from any other side in the tournament. Badree has not even played a domestic 50-over match since 2013. A long-time representative on the West Indian Players' Association, Badree believes that bad relations with the board "in a way worked out well for the players. Obviously when we started, and when the whole issue started, there were not so many T20 leagues around the world. But as the T20 leagues came aboard, the players had more opportunities to go outside and represent different franchises, different teams, and make an honest living - a decent living at that.
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
"We've got so many experienced players that form the core of our T20 team - guys like Gayle, Bravo, Narine, Pollard and so on - who have played so many competitions around the world. The knowledge and the experiences that they've gained - when they come together as a team they bring that and they share it with the other guys. I think that's really the reason why we are successful: that experience and that knowledge that we have of the other teams, having played in the same dressing rooms with these guys and played in different conditions."
To Ganga, the number of West Indians playing in the IPL meant that in last year's World T20 "India was no longer foreign conditions". He sees clear parallels between county cricket benefiting the West Indian Test team in the 1970s and 1980s and T20 leagues underpinning its T20 success now.
Meanwhile in 2013, the Caribbean Premier League was launched, creating new earning opportunities for local players, and for the first time ever, allowing them to play domestic cricket with and against foreign stars.
In terms of money, while players from cricket's wealthier nations - especially Australia, England and India - are rewarded well to play all three formats, Caribbean cricketers have been able to earn far more traversing the T20 circuit than representing West Indies in all forms. As of 2016, a West Indies player could earn $225,000 a year representing the side in all three formats; leading Caribbean T20 players earn around $1 million a year from domestic leagues.
"The lure of the money is there," says Badree. "I think that's true for every single team throughout the world now. If any player says otherwise, I'd probably take that with a pinch of salt. And the fact that there are so many competitions cropping up, it really means that there's a market for it. There's just a short life as a cricketer, and you want to capitalise as much as you can, of course."
Younger players think similarly. Rovman Powell, who played with Russell for Old Harbour and then Jamaica and made his international debut last year, says: "Sport is business now - you've got to look after yourself and your family. T20 cricket provides that opportunity."
This is how we do it: some believe that the Caribbean game naturally has the flair and flamboyance that the T20 format welcomes
© Getty Images
This is how we do it: some believe that the Caribbean game naturally has the flair and flamboyance that the T20 format welcomes © Getty Images
Gallivanting West Indian T20 players have often been depicted as mercenaries for abandoning the national team in other formats. But by spending far more time honing their T20 skills than the best talents from wealthier nations do, Bishop believes these specialists are better understood as "forerunners" of the game's future.
Part IV: Brains and brawn
Perhaps no sports team is as burdened by history as the West Indies cricket team. No dissection of their Test defeats is complete without allusions to how far they have fallen after the glorious 20 years from 1975 to 1995, when they won two World Cups and went 29 Test series undefeated.
If fast, ferocious bowling remains the indelible image of these teams, ebullient batting - so-called calypso cricket - was the antecedent of the T20 triumphs of today. The notion of calypso cricket was always a crude generalisation: alongside Viv Richards there was Larry Gomes; alongside Brian Lara there was Shivnarine Chanderpaul. And yet the stereotype contains "nuggets of truth", Bishop believes. "Many West Indian players found T20 to be a format ideally suited to finally and naturally be an expression of how many of them like to play the game." He sees the effervescence of Caribbean cricketers in T20 as, in part, a reflection of "the natural athleticism and enthusiasm almost historically inherent in so many kids from this part of the world".
Carlos Brathwaite observes: "We're expressive characters - whether it be dressing, whether it be dancing, whether it be celebrating - so I guess it suits our style of play."
But generalisations don't get us very far. After all, similar explanations were once advanced for West Indies' supremacy in Tests. The illusion of effortlessness among West Indies cricketers in T20 should not belie the deep thinking that has underpinned their success, extending all the way back to Ganga. "To say that it's all natural talent is to be totally false. It is only a small part," Bishop says. "Talk to many of these players - Gayle, Pollard, Narine, Badree, Bravo - and you will be impressed by how they have studied and fine-tuned and intellectually made this format into an art form."
As tournament director of the Caribbean Premier League, the Australian Tom Moody has observed what distinguishes West Indies players in T20.
"They have embraced their strengths - and their strength is power and speed. And they have allowed their players to play with freedom... If they block three balls and hit three balls over the ground, well, 18 off an over's pretty good, isn't it? But not everyone's capable of doing that. When teams and coaches and analysts look at trying to build a side, it's very difficult to be able to build a side that is just the West Indian model. Generally in franchise cricket, every team is looking for a couple of players of those capabilities - the power-hitters - but there's only so many of them around that are successful."
West Indies batsmen don't worry about dot balls because they back themselves to score boundaries
© Associated Press
West Indies batsmen don't worry about dot balls because they back themselves to score boundaries © Associated Press
To Sean Newell, a cricket coach at Calabar High School in Jamaica, there is a direct link between the nature of pop-up grass-roots matches and T20 success. "The flamboyance is a result of the type and style of cricket that is played in our backyards and schools. It is more on an individual basis where we would rather hit boundaries rather than run singles. We like to show off our strength, power and individualism."
The emphasis on boundary-hitting above all else was best exemplified in the World T20 semi-final in Mumbai in 2016, when the West Indian batsmen played out 50 dot balls to India's 27 - but made up for it by hitting 146 runs in boundaries to India's 92.
Even that embodiment of Caribbean T20 - the six - reflects strategising and recalibrating the notion of failure in cricket.
"Most people fail in T20," says Brathwaite. "In Test cricket it's a lot more about patience, 50-over is more about that mix between patience and technique - knowing when to go, when not to go. Whereas 20 overs, it just feels as though a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. You can go out there and enjoy yourself.
"Now I'm the captain, my words are always, 'Express yourself.' I prefer a person to go out there and do what we think is best at that point in time, and have a 'poor' performance - quote/unquote - by stats, but within my mind I know this is what you wanted to do. As opposed to going out there and doing something that the coach or the captain or a senior player wants you to do, failing doing that, and then not knowing where to go from there because it was not your decision. So as a captain I always give the players the freedom to go out there and express themselves, and make decisions on the fly. If you execute, congratulations; if you don't, then you go back to the drawing board and see why. But it should never ever be because I didn't do what I wanted to do at that point in time."
In the 2016 World T20, says Phil Simmons, "we knew that we had boundary-hitters down to No. 8. We didn't worry about dot balls too much because we knew we could make them up. If Gayle had 20 dots in 60 balls, he'd still have a hundred."
In the IPL, CricViz finds, Gayle fails to score off 54% of the deliveries he faces in the first ten overs. But across T20, he hits 11% of his balls for six - almost twice as many as David Warner and Brendon McCullum. To Brathwaite, who has often bowled to him, "If Gayle bats six dot balls, then from a bowler's point of view you're thinking, 'Crap - he's six balls more into his innings', as opposed to thinking 'Oh good, that's six dots.'"
Krishmar Santokie: "You might think that if you're not at 80 or 90 you won't be a good bowler, but it's not true - it's about how you bowl and the type of field you set"
© Getty Images
Krishmar Santokie: "You might think that if you're not at 80 or 90 you won't be a good bowler, but it's not true - it's about how you bowl and the type of field you set" © Getty Images
The technique for the West Indian six was honed by the original Stanford forebears and passed down to the newer generation. Brathwaite, who remembers being aided by Gayle and Samuels, explains it like this.
"When it does come off, then you have a good base, watch the ball, and make good contact. And one way to try to isolate that, instead of just doing it in the nets, is doing range-hitting with the coaches. So it's kind of a predetermined length - sometimes full and wide, sometimes full and straight, sometimes back and straight - and then set up the base that I need for that shot, to execute [it] over a period of time consistently. Because obviously in the match it's a lot harder - there's a lot more pace and a lot more pressure - so you need to have a high conversion rate at practice so you're confident enough going into the game.
"You do your homework, you set your plans, and you try to think of what plans they have for you and how you would counterattack that, but ultimately it's about me being confident mentally, and having a clear mind space, being ready - whether it be well hydrated, whether it be well rested - and then just giving myself the tools to go out there and perform as best as I can."
Yet, six-hitting, vital as it is to their success, should not obscure West Indies' other strengths. Flexibility in the batting order - Denesh Ramdin was used at No. 4 against England in the group-stage victory but was due to bat at No. 9 in the final - was one manifestation of their shrewd thinking. So was precise adaptation to the conditions - not just tweaking the team selection, but also the approach. Before their semi-final ESPNcricinfo's Gaurav Sundararaman, then in a support role with the team, studied how pull shots were particularly productive on the Wankhede pitch. West Indies bowled only seven short deliveries, conceding 12 runs; in return, India bowled 14, which West Indies thumped for 39.
Caribbean bowlers have been comparatively overshadowed by the belligerence of their batsmen, but they have risen above the competition by almost as much. Across the 2012, 2014 and 2016 World T20s, West Indies rank among the three most frugal sides during all three stages of an innings - the first six overs, the middle overs, and the final five overs - and are the very best at the death. For a period, the Nos. 1 and 2 T20 bowlers in the world were Badree and Narine, a pair of T&T spinners. Their compatriot Bravo is the all-time leading T20 wicket-taker.
"I think I'm allergic to the red ball. Every time I bowl a red ball, my hands seem to get swollen," jokes Badree. In training, his focus is on "spot-bowling" - aiming for a specific point on the pitch. "T20 cricket you just have 24 balls to bowl. So the day before the training I bowl some deliveries in the areas that I want to, and once I feel good about it, I'm good to go."
Calculated, not Calypso: T&T were making use of numbers to target their opponents long before "data" became a catchphrase in T20
© AFP/Getty Images
Calculated, not Calypso: T&T were making use of numbers to target their opponents long before "data" became a catchphrase in T20 © AFP/Getty Images
Caribbean bowlers have had to adapt to survive against hitters in grass-roots and domestic cricket - not to mention the nets, where, says Brathwaite, players like Gayle, Samuels and Russell "have a right go at you". It might explain why so many innovations in T20 bowling - from Badree bowling through at the start, to Narine's knuckleball, to Bravo's range of slower balls at the death - have come from the region.
Less heralded, but as revealing, is Krishmar Santokie's tale. Santokie, a Jamaican, is the antithesis of the archetypal Caribbean fast bowler - a left-arm "slow medium-pacer" in his own words - but he has forged a fine T20 career bowling precise yorkers and slower balls at the start and death of an innings.
"Whether you're fast or slow, you have to be smart. If you're not smart, you're not going to survive in T20," Santokie says. "You might think that if you're not at 80 or 90 [mph] you won't be a good bowler, but it's not true - it's about how you bowl and the type of field you set. When I'm bowling, especially at the death, I try and keep an eye on the batsman at all times. Batsmen like to move around their crease, so as a bowler I try to look at them as long as possible to have a clear mind of what he wants to do - is he moving or staying still?"
The prevalence of big hitting in regional cricket, at all levels, has also made boundary catching, which several Caribbean players pull off with remarkable frequency, essential. Pollard, indeed, has been proclaimed the world's best boundary catcher.
"If you do it time and time again, it can't be luck. For me, it's all about pride," he explained to ESPNcricinfo last year. "When I started out, I think I was known as one of the best fielders, but then you always have competition and that's how you get better. As Jonty Rhodes said, if you don't go, you never know. So if I don't jump and attempt to take that catch, I never know if I'll be able to. What I try to do is give myself the opportunity to take that catch."
Part V: Dynasty Before last year's World T20, Dwayne Bravo dared to compare the current side with the great teams of yore. "The way the West Indies goes about its T20 game, the manner in which we like to dominate the format, is much [like] how we dominated Tests in the 1980s," Bravo said before the tournament. "We see it as our baby, given what West Indies bring to the table in the format."
The comment seemed like the very apex of hubris. Yet in the following weeks, Bravo would be vindicated. It was not merely that West Indies won the title but that they showed their extraordinary depth and versatility. In the 2012 World T20 victory, they had batted first in every completed game; in 2016, they chased every time. Pollard and Narine, two T20 greats, missed the tournament through injury. Gayle, who had eviscerated England with a century in a pool match, made only nine runs across the semi-final and final.
Daren Ganga (in pads): the first original T20 thinker
© Global Cricket Ventures-BCCI
Daren Ganga (in pads): the first original T20 thinker © Global Cricket Ventures-BCCI
It mattered not. Even without contributions from their two most renowned hitters, West Indies were brimming with alternatives. Most countries had two or three power-hitters. West Indies had almost a squad's worth.
Omitted from the original squad, Lendl Simmons landed in Mumbai, his home ground in the IPL, two days before the semi-final and promptly pummelled 82 not out. He had a confrontation with Virat Kohli at the start of his innings, which "really urged me to bat the way I did - to show him that he's not the only one who can do it", he recalled last year. "When India chase, one of their top batsmen bats deep - that was my role, batting in the middle overs, especially because I play spin well. I know they didn't have any good death bowlers, so with Russell, Bravo and Sammy to come, once we passed the middle overs, those guys could always come out and finish. I had some chances going my way, but such is life: every cricketer has his day and you just need to cash in when it is your day." It distilled West Indies' ethos: with so many players capable of playing in such an ebullient way, they avoided over-dependency on any individual.
In the final at Eden Gardens, Gayle was out to his second ball, and Simmons to his first. Samuels played magnificently, driven by his feud with Ben Stokes, but was in need of support. Enter another replacement in the squad - Brathwaite.
When Stokes came in to defend 19 from the final over, Brathwaite says he "was numb. It was a state that I've only reached a couple times since. I had a clear mindset, I just watched the ball, and allowed my instincts to react."
Even so, Brathwaite had planned for this moment for weeks, since before the group match with England.
"We knew Ben Stokes and Chris Jordan bowled very good yorkers - sometimes straight, sometimes wide - and in that situation it was about repeating that again. So I knew the long boundary was to the leg side, and if he did bowl a yorker it would be straight, or the plan would be into the wicket."
Three of the four sixes Brathwaite smoked to seal the title were to the leg side. Deliberately targeting the longer boundary: it was a novel approach that epitomised Caribbean audacity, skill and utter imperviousness to the fear of failure. And it encapsulated why West Indies are the greatest team T20 has yet known.
Tim Wigmore writes on cricket and the business and politics of sport for publications including ESPNCricinfo, the New York Times and the Economist. He is the co-author of Second XI
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