ONLY once did my late father hit me. I blame Michael Bevan for it. It was New Year’s Day, 1996. I had my holiday homework to finish, but that could wait. West Indies were finally winning, or seemed well on their way to do so. Then Bevan ruined it, with a last-ball four off the worst delivery Roger Harper ever bowled in his career.
West Indies had put only 172 on board, but had reduced Australia to 38/5 when Bevan walked out. And by the time Bill Lawry had finished screaming, “That’s four. Victory for Australia. What a stroke…”, my spectacles had been flung towards the TV, and ending up in two pieces. Then came the thwackk, connecting right across my left cheek.
In a way it was my father’s fault. My unabashed love for the West Indies cricket team had been built more on folklore than fact. I wasn’t born when they won the first two World Cups. I never watched Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge or Joel Garner live. I only saw the last vestiges of the legendary careers of Malcolm Marshall and Viv Richards. I didn’t see the men from the Caribbean run roughshod over others. But growing up, that’s all my father spoke of. To make matters worse, that’s what the Channel 9 commentators, led by Ian Chappell, did as well.
It had been a tough year for us. I mean, for West Indies and me. Some seven months earlier, Mark Taylor’s Australia had knocked them off the perch, their unbeaten streak of not losing a Test series for 15 years, coming to an end. Worse was the sight of my favourite cricketer Richie Richardson, who had faced the nastiest of fast bowlers with a floppy hat, a chewing gum and the kind of machismo most men can only dream of, walking out to bat in a helmet. The intrepid gladiator had turned mere mortal.
My obsession with the West Indies was well-known, and whenever they lost, I would be greeted with taunts and barbs from my friends in the neighbourhood. “Tere jaisa hi hai tera team. Useless.” It wasn’t only my peers, uncles or the watchmen who tore into me. So did my father and elder brother. Both were partisan India supporters and we had to buy a separate TV set for me to watch so that there was no intra-familial violence during India-West Indies matches.
1996 had begun on a sour note, and it only got worse. West Indies would go down to Kenya in the World Cup in Pune. They somehow beat South Africa in the quarters. But then Bevan rescued his team again.
They were back in Australia for a Test series at the end of the year. It didn’t start well, as they lost the first two Tests. Next up was the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The match lasted three days thanks to a blistering spell of fast bowling from Curtly Ambrose as the Aussies succumbed to his fire and brimstone display. As Ambrose stood at the centre of the MCG pumping his fist in the air, I was doing the same in our one-BHK at Ghatkopar. Finally, here was the West Indies that I had grown up imagining.
Or so I thought. The next Test in Adelaide was another disaster and they lost their first series in Australia in over 20 years. West Indies cricket would only slide further, being clean-swept in Pakistan before losing 5-0 in South Africa. In 1999, they would be bowled out for their lowest score, 51, by Australia at Port-of-Spain.
That 1999 series though did give me my greatest moment as a fan. Lara’s remarkable run-chase at Barbados when he led them home in the company of last-man Walsh in what is considered the best fourth innings display by a batsman. I would feign illness during a family wedding reception that night to rush back home and catch Lara’s epic. West Indies only played one more Boxing Day Test after 1996 — a terrible affair in 2000, part of a series that they lost 5-0.This Saturday, they took the field again. While those in my locality have long moved on, I woke up at an unearthly hour to catch the first ball — but with less emotion. A loss won’t hurt as much any more.