Forty years ago this year took place one of the most spectacular tours in cricket history. A seismic change in how the game was played was afoot and it was to be the England team that would face the brunt. With the backdrop of one of the hottest summers on record, a West Indies team skippered by the iconic Clive Lloyd began a period of dominance for the Caribbean.
The history of West Indies cricket is too broad to cover within a blog post. The spirit of "calypso cricket" is often invoked with the likes of the spin twins and "pals" Ramhadin and Valentine and others giving a new vibrancy to the sport. I have heard it said that the notion of calypso cricket is a rather patronizing one that involved playing exciting cricket before obligingly losing the match. All that was about to change.
Clive Lloyd was an astute and experienced cricketer and two occurrences just before the England tour helped shaped the future. Firstly, the West Indies tour to Australia and exposure to Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson showed Lloyd how destructive high pace could be. Then, he lost faith in the West Indies spinners after they allowed India to chase over 400 in traditionally spin friendly Trinidad. The pace quartet was beginning to evolve.
Fast bowling was not new to the West Indies. Back in the 1930s, Leary Constantine and Manny Martindale jumped on the bodyline bandwagon and the pair of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffiths caused nightmares in the 1960s. Fast bowlers traditionally hunted in pairs. Lloyd had at his disposal Andy Roberts and Michael Holding who were two of the finest fast bowlers the game has ever seen. The famed quartet of Holding, Roberts, Garner and Croft were yet to materialize but Roberts and Holding were supported by the equally quick Wayne Daniel and the lesser pace of Vanburn Holder and Bernard Julien.
The weather was set, the stage was set, the West Indies were set so what could possibly add to the tinder box. Oh yes, someone talking about making the West Indies grovel!
The England Captain that year was A W Greig. A tall, flamboyant, blond haired man with a talent for cricket and seemingly, for off the cuff remarks that come back to haunt you. His South African background and the grovel comment were, perhaps not surprisingly, not well received. It should be noted however that it is somewhat unfair that one word in one television interview in which he also called the West Indies "magnificent" seemed to define the career of someone who did a great deal for the game of cricket. He also had to good humor to grovel himself at one point during the test series.
After two drawn test matches in which England were very competitive, the West Indies took over. The person who gets overlooked in the historical evaluations of this summer seems to be the West Indies' opener Gordan Greenidge who, whilst the pace bowlers were making merry and the legend that is Viv Richards was making even big runs, Greenidge's contribution can be overlooked.
Holding's finest hour was undoubtedly the dust bowl that was The Kennington Oval where he blew England away twice on a flat batting wicket through sheer speed through the air and the intelligent use of the yorker, an aspect of bowling that today's protagonists should take note of. The Holding inspired West Indies completed a comprehensive 3-0 victory and this was the start point of a domination over England that was to last two decades.
The West Indies were not without their critics which centred on their reliance on the fast bowlers and what was perceived as intimidation. The evening session at Old Trafford that year is often singled out as an example. There will be those that will defend such tactics but it should not be forgotten that this was the era before helmets and there was genuine concern that someone could get killed. Of a more aesthetic note is that in relying purely on pace bowlers, you take something special out of cricket in the presence of a spin bowler. No-one ever told the batsmen they could not bat in the spectacular way that they did and no-one said that bowlers should not bowl fast but the purest will always want to see a front line spinner in the side and whilst Richards did bowl some spin, it was a number of years before Roger Harper burst onto the scene bowling effective spin for the West Indies.
In a previous blog, I lamented the decline of fast bowling. Once can imagine similar conversations about spin in the late 1970s and 1980s before Warne, Kumble, Ahmed and co created a resurgence. The 1970s was the era of the fast bowler, led by the West Indies and Australia. It is of note that no triple hundreds were scored between 1974 and 1990 with the sheer quality of the bowling likely to be, at least in part responsible. The West Indies would also win the first two World Cups.
Was 1976 good for cricket, I would argue so as it showed great batting, great fielding (often forgotten) and fast bowling at its best. Holding in particular was poetry in motion in that famed Test at The Oval. I do however wonder what it did for spin bowling, just as I wonder now what T20 as done for the out and out fast bowler.
The greatest team of all time? No because the 1976 team did actually get better but it would have been interesting to see the West Indies at their peak against the Australians of 1948 or 2001. One would be hard pressed not to rally around the West Indies.
I am acutely aware that I am a white Englishman who was not alive in 1976, let alone able to follow cricket but I hope I have done justice to a fascinating period in cricket history. The West Indies were not "lucky" to have great fast bowlers at that time, they were a product of their cricketing system and they were led by a Captain who had their respect and seemed to understand them. The bowlers also had the opportunity to play club and country cricket in England and took it and had a respected physiotherapist behind them.
There is no luck in all that, merely proper preparation.