From the imposing Vauxhall End,Ravi Rampaul jiggled his way towards the batsman,Dwayne Bravo. The ball reared suddenly from an unexpected length,smashing Bravo’s collarbone,felling him. “Woweeeee!” exclaimed Chris Gayle from the adjacent net,before bursting into a fit of giggles. “Welcome home skippah,” yelled another. “Welcome home.”
Home for Bravo is Trinidad,but the player in maroon and blue knew just what he was talking about. There are two boroughs,not far from each other,in the south of London,where dreadlocks are still natty,where the tongue is not Cockney but Patois,where the red-gold-green flies higher than the Union Jack and where reggae isn’t just music,but a way of life. The first,Brixton,lies about a couple of miles away from the second,the Kennington Oval.
If Brixton is known as Little Jamaica,a place where Usain Bolt’s three Olympic medals last year meant more than GBR’s 29,then the Oval is the Little Caribbean itself. Here,the West Indies are treated like the home side for good reason. After all,they haven’t lost a single one-dayer here in 40 years when the Oval has been a neutral venue.
Since the beginning of the one-day game,the West Indies a team that finds immense support from the enormous Caribbean community nearby haven’t lost to an ‘outsider’ in eight attempts.
It was here that West Indies laid the foundations to their first two World Cup wins,with thumping semifinal victories over New Zealand and Pakistan. It was here that Brian Lara’s men promised resurrection,winning the ICC Champions Trophy in 2004 from an improbable position. And it was here,last Friday,that Dwayne Bravo kept the trend going by denying Pakistan victory by two wickets.
While they crushed India here as well during the group game in the 1983 World Cup (their only meeting here),West Indies lost the match that mattered just 10 days later,a few miles north. And that is just how India,who have lost 70 per cent of their one-dayers played here,will look to go into this semifinal-ticket of a match at the Oval on Tuesday.
That Lord’s game,incidentally,was the last meeting between India and the West Indies in a one-dayer in England. MS Dhoni was told about it. “Really?” he asked,chuckling in his seat. “I was born in 1981,so I don’t remember much of that World Cup win,” added the man who led India to their second 28 years later.
Dhoni was at least around. For the rest of his squad (barring Amit Mishra,30),the tales of winning an ICC event in the land where it all began is the stuff of folklore. Back then,they must surely have been told,India depended heavily on their all-rounders Kapil Dev,Mohinder Amarnath,Roger Binny,Madan Lal and the West Indies on their fearsome pacers. Times have changed and today,India depend on their specialists and the West Indies on their batsmen.
Ahead of the tournament opener in Cardiff,Dhoni had stressed on how it was important for players with specific roles to come good with their respective jobs. They did,in opener Shikhar Dhawan (114),all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja (47*,two wickets and a run-out) and the three-pronged pace attack (two wickets each). But a day before the West Indies game and with his side clicking well,Dhoni warned just how necessary it was for his side to restrict the specialists from the other team.
“What is important for us to realise is that if we don’t get batsmen like Gayle out (early),he’ll most likely take you out of the game,” said Dhoni. Gayle,of course,is the notorious one. But he is also the most easily recognisable specialist in an impact position in this West Indies side. There are of course plenty more,playing far more subtle roles than they are acclaimed for in the IPL,according to West Indies coach Ottis Gibson. “Look,over the last couple of years we’ve become a more experienced team. We know have the Pollards,the Samuels’ who are not just big hitters,but players who are ready to curb their natural game according to the needs of the team. Even Gayle does that for us,” emphasised Gibson. “This is not the IPL. Most of Pollard’s international hundreds,he’s got a few now,were ones where he occupied the crease,batted probably 30 or 40 overs and batted properly.”
In their first match against Pakistan,each of the names taken by Gibson came good with the bat. Gayle scored 39,while Samuels and Pollard made 30 each. But it was their pacers,especially Kemar Roach,and the shrewd Sunil Narine,who did their bit to set it up,dismissing nine out of eleven Pakistan batsmen for single digits. Yet,the margin of victory was a little too narrow for comfort.
“That’s the thing about the West Indies cricket team. When you pay hard-earned money to buy a ticket and come to the stadium,you will be entertained,” said Gibson. “Especially here at the Oval,which has been good to us. Here,the entertainment has also led to victories in some important and some close games.”