The West Indies’ 20-year slide from being just about the most formidable, men-against-boys outfit in world sport to cricketing minnow has been one of the more depressing sporting plotlines in my lifetime. For much of that period its inevitability was slightly (though not really) obscured by the presence of Brian Lara, the world’s best batsman, but at the time of the 1984 ‘blackwash’ tour of England it would have been inconceivable that the production line of lanky, terrifying fast bowlers would simply break down, as it did after the retirements of Walsh and Ambrose.
I have strong memories of that Windies tour and the equally one-sided 1988 one. Well, I say strong, they’re largely hazy with strong bits, as is the way of things that happened when you were a boy. Little boys don’t really support teams - partisanship only comes later along with a sense of history and place – but they instinctively latch on to individual heroes. Boys know charisma when they see it. I don’t think I gave two hoots about who won the Test match or even really understood the concept of a series contest in 1984, but I did want to watch and worship Malcolm Marshall and Gordon Greenidge and Joel Garner (and Gower and Botham, I wasn’t biased against my homeland). But especially, the beautiful, brutal Viv Richards, as close to a real-life comic book superhero as cricket has produced.
These days the Windies have Chris Gayle (talented, flaky, irresponsible) and Shiv Chanderpaul (dogged, scratchy, ugly) but no Supermen. This of course was the real value of Flintoff for England, whatever the stats say.
Stats are for geeks; sport needs heroes, or what’s it for?