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Sunday, 13 May 2012

The summer of 1976

The West Indies cricket team, back in the UK for another series against England, has endured a spectacular fall from grace since the mid-nineties, having been the dominant force in world cricket for the best part of two decades.

Despite the often dismal standards to which they have slipped, I will always have a soft spot for them. This is mainly because I first got interested in the game by watching their great side of the mid-seventies, featuring magical players like Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd and the incomparable Viv Richards. The swagger with which that man made his way to the crease seemed to put the opposition in its place before he had even started to unleash his outrageous and devastating variety of strokes. To see Richards at the top of his game -a rapid, ruthless and stylish accumulator of runs- was to witness the essence of cool.

The 1976 series between England and the West Indies had infamously been preceded by England captain Tony Greig’s remarks about hoping to make the West Indies ‘grovel’. It was an unfortunate remark to have made at the best of times, but coming from a white South African, those words seemed –at best- to have been catastrophically ill-judged. It would be an understatement to say that Greig’s remarks gave something of an edge to the series. For that alone, one might have been inclined to support the West Indies, but I had another, more personal reason for getting behind the visiting team.

When I was in my early teens, there was a lad who, every summer, used to come up to Glasgow from Manchester to spend a big chunk of his school holidays with Scottish relatives. Let’s call him ‘Mike’. He was a junior member of Lancashire County Cricket Club and an avid England supporter. He was rather less than fond of the West Indians and used a variety of derogatory terms to describe both individual players and the team; his favoured epithet for the West Indies was ‘the bus conductors’. In modern terms, I suppose he’d be described as a bit of a racist. I didn’t mind the fact that he supported his country, but there was something about the way that he couched this support in terms of sheer hatred for the opposition that seemed just too ugly to be comfortable with. Enforced exposure to Mike (who, in everyday aspects of social intercourse, was by no means a pleasant young man) meant that it just seemed kind of natural for me to support whoever was up against England.

The first two matches in the series had been drawn, with England making a pretty good fist of it against the supremely talented opposition. By the time of the third test at Old Trafford in July, Mike had arrived in Glasgow for his annual sojourn. I recall him boasting, on the eve of that match, that Lancashire’s Frank Hayes, playing on his home turf, would ‘sort those fucking bus conductors out’. I didn’t know anything about Frank Hayes, but was not –at that point- inclined to wish him well.

In the first innings, the tourists posted a modest 211, with Gordon Greenidge making a remarkable 134 out of this total. The home side went in late on the first day with high hopes of establishing a first innings lead, but endured a vicious battering from the West Indian pace attack. By the time Frank Hayes arrived at the crease on the second morning, England had four wickets down with only 48 on the board. The home crowd would have hoped that there was perhaps an opportunity for their hero to dig in and help turn the match back in England’s favour, but one ball later, poor Frank was heading back to the pavilion having failed to trouble the scorers. In attempting to fend off a vicious short-pitched delivery from Andy Roberts, he had been unable to do much more than send the ball lobbing in a sad arc of surrender to Clive Lloyd in the gulley. Around half of the crowd sat in stunned silence, while the other half let rip with whistles, hooters and what sounded like a bewildering variety of percussive instruments; those West Indians sure knew how to make a noise. Meanwhile, in Glasgow, at least one wee boy probably shouted something like “get it up ye!” at the TV.

According to Wisden:

In eighty-five minutes England were all out, the last eight wickets, in fact, going in an hour for 25 runs. Holding, who took five for 9 in 7.5 overs was the leader of a fearsome trio. Some balls lifted at frightening speed and Greig and Underwood both had narrow escapes from what could have been serious injury. Woolmer and Hayes received balls which were all but unplayable and even the greatest of batting sides would have been severely taxed.

Dismissed for 71 in that first innings, England went on to lose the match by the small matter of 425 runs. I had no gripe against Frank Hayes or English cricket, but young Mike’s ugly mean-spiritedness made me take great pleasure from the way that Clive Lloyd’s team dismantled England over the course of that summer. The 3-0 series defeat seemed comprehensive at the time, but worse, far worse, was to come; over the next fifteen years, that all-conquering West Indies side would go on to wipe the floor with all available opposition and would twice hand out 5-0 series thrashings to an utterly hapless England.

When I was growing up, there was no great level of interest in cricket among young Glaswegians. It was (and, for some, still is) seen as a boring English game played by, and for, effete posh boys from private schools. I count myself lucky to have first sampled the game at a time when a magnificently talented side was somewhere near the beginning of an upward curve that would see them dominate world cricket for many years. The dazzling ability of those West Indians sowed the seeds of a love that has endured to this day.

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