Jamaica obsessively, and blatantly, celebrates it heroes, sporting or otherwise. You can’t miss four men of distinct features and skill-set peer at you from almost every square inch of uptown Kingston driveways, from billboards to hoardings and advertisements to public campaigning. There’s the sanguine gaze of the “hero of Jamaica”, Norman Manley, their first premier and from whose vision was born the modern Jamaica. Then the intense, grinning face of the most raved about athlete in world, Usain Bolt (he is even seen in a gin ad, with a bold message, “drink responsibly”) and the devil-may-care smile of Bolt’s friend Chris Gayle, arguably the best West Indies batsman around. And then of course, the deep eyes of Bob Marley, their greatest import to music industry.
Three of them find considerable space in newspapers on a daily basis. There will be a minister or wannabe minister writing on the inspirational “Manley,” someone else speculating on Bolt breaking his own record in the Rio Olympics, or someone lamenting the absence of Gayle in the West Indies squad. Though the cars no longer blare Marley numbers, and the youth have taken more to hip-hop, rap and other prototypes, the spirit of Marley can’t be missed. You can’t miss the fervid glare of gawky Rastafarians, their air thick with marijuana fumes, spreading the apostle of Marley. There is now a Marley “Mellow Mood” all-natural relaxation drink, a line of Marley branded headphones and a range of Marley Blue Mountain coffee beans as well.
Punching above its weight
You wonder how such a poverty-ridden, decrepit island has churned our stars of such global reach. On the surface it is baffling: the tiny island with the mighty reach. Look at other countries of a similar physical size: Qatar, Gambia or Lebanon. And those with a similar population: Mongolia, Armenia or Kuwait. Or even bigger nations with bigger populations. Why have these nations not produced a culture that transformed the way the entire world makes and listens to music? Why do their athletes not leave those of superpowers such as Russia, China and the USA trailing in their wake? As Bolt himself had noted, it might be in the serenely blue waters of the Atlantic or in the pristine beaches or in the winds that drift across the smoky Blue Mountains.
In stark, depressive contrast, West Indies will be without a hero of this irresistible appeal when they walk out for the second Test in Sabina Park, knowing only a win would restore their hopes and pride in the series. The closest to a hero they have is Marlon Samuels, one of yet unfulfilled gifts There is also Jermaine Blackwood, an all-rounder of immense but unchannelised potential. But they are nothing like those of yesteryear heroes — in fact Jamaicans are resigned to the shortage of cricketing stars, their last real hero, Gayle apart, being Courtney Walsh.
No other venue in the Caribbean is symbolic of West Indies’s fall from grace than Sabina Park, once the stomping ground of erstwhile legends, the hardest and greenest surface in the West Indies, where opposition batsmen left with bruised bodies and battered souls. It was here Clive Lloyd first unleashed a four-pronged pace attack at stupefied Indians, a match after they had accomplished the then highest run-chase. Such was the ferocity of the West Indies bowlers that Indian skipper Bishen Bedi declared both India innings close with six and five wickets down, respectively, as his players nursed their bruises. As Wisden remarked, “As the Indian team trudged along the tarmac towards their home-bound aeroplane at Kingston’s Norman Manley Airport, they resembled Napoleon’s troops on the retreat from Moscow.” For 14 years, West Indies were infallible at the Sabina, a span that coincided their period of world domination.
Painful past, happier present
For India, every trip to the Sabina Park, offering a spectacular view of the Blue Mountains, till 2006 was a painful reminder of the 1976 match. The wounds of the match were cut open and added salt into. Six years later, a few months before they upstaged the world champions, they were first stung by the cunning and pace of Andy Roberts, before Viv Richards unleashed a carnage in the second innings. In 1990, in a dead rubber, local hero Walsh ran through India in both innings, supplemented by Richards’s first-ever hundred at the Sabina Park. Navjot Sidhu was struck flush on his wrists to be retired hurt after a stoic century. Draw was a relief in 1997 while West Indies wrapped off a rousing comeback to win the deciding Test here in 2002. By this time, Caribbean cricket had lost all its pomp, but the grassy tracks of Sabina Park always gave them some solace and hope.
When India set afoot in Kingston in 2006, Sabina Park remained much the same, though there were rumours that the surface has lost its vim of the past. But for the first time in their respective histories, India boasted of a more menacing pace attack than the West Indies. The match was wounded up in three days — the most telling performance orchestrated by not a pacer but the indefatigable Anil Kumble — with Rahul Dravid becoming the first Indian cap to win a series in the West Indies. The next Test series took off where it had left off — by that time the West Indies were a shambolic mess — and MS Dhoni’s men sealed a relatively comfortable win inside four days. The match eventually turned out to be series deciding.
Five years later, Sabina Park is no longer a fortress. West Indies have lost seven of their last 10 fixtures here. The strip, though, looks sparklingly fresh and lustrous. The curator Michael Hylton promises a fast and bouncy surface that would hold firm all five days. Numbers reveal as much — in the last decade, fast bowlers have aggregated a shade over 22 in seven matches, the best among all grounds in the world. The last time a match here has seen the fifth day was seven years ago. Factoring in all the factors, past and present, the hosts have packed their side with a promising tearaway. The surface might prompt the addition of all three frontline pacers. They might not brutally pay back like the Lloyd’s quartet in 1976 — India decisively have a stronger pace attack — but Sabina Park would hope and pray that at least one of them can be a true hero. A hero of Jamaican proportions, even if he is not a Jamaican.