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Two years ago this week, the West Indies claimed their first world cricket title in more than three decades, at the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka. As West Indies begins a tour of India, Pawan Mahalingam recalls the win in 2012, and he remembers the stories of the great West Indies teams of the 1970s.   
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West Indies celebrate their victory in the 2012 T20 World Cup Final (Indi Samarajiva/Flickr)

West Indies celebrate their victory in the 2012 T20 World Cup Final (Indi Samarajiva/Flickr)

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October 7, 2012: It was as if a curse was lifted. The men from the Caribbean danced with abandon after winning the T20 World Cup, their spirits running free and wild on a night that was predestined to be forever young. The speakers boomed to the thumping beats of “Gangnam Style.” Psy must have been proud that his magnum opus had landed in the middle of a cricket pitch in Sri Lanka. The attempts at matching his steps notwithstanding, it was a dance that was a long time coming.
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It was in 1979 that the West Indies had last won a World Cup. 33 years – more than a generation ago. A lot had changed since. The Caribbean is a land given to the good life in all of its splendor. It is a land that conjures up visions of an exotic vacation or a peaceful retirement, and evenings that brim with possibilities as limitless as flowing Caribbean rum. It is where one sways to the seductive beats of Calypso and sets their worries afloat onto the vast expanse of the Caribbean sea, hoping they never return. And in the days of yore, it was this land, where the beat of life transports you to something that resembles paradise, that gave the game of cricket one of its finest and feared teams – actually, one of the best teams in the history of sport. Their story was anything but a fairy tale.
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Subservient to their colonial masters, their self-worth was tied up in knots. Cricket gave them something that had eluded them all along – a voice. Their game mirrored the culture of the West Indies. Known for their brand of “Calypso cricket,” they were ordained entertainers, not cut-throat competitors. They played to the galleries, but didn’t play to win.
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From all corners of the Caribbean they converged. Sir Vivian Richards, whose swagger was as imitated as his batting, had bowlers scurrying for cover with his aggression. The bowling unit read like fast-bowling royalty: Colin Croft, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts, and Malcom Marshall. They were led by their talismanic captain Clive Lloyd, the young tyro who would take them to the promised land – the champions of cricket.
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Great teams don’t just win, they create cathedrals. They’re worshiped. They raise the bar until there is nothing left to raise. They cannot be produced with the aid of a formula, nor can they be bought by cold, hard cash. Nor can teams that win always be classified as great. For the non-religious who treat words like “miracle” as an anathema, it is hard to find a synonym to describe what makes a great team. Great players playing in the same era, for the same team, for a common cause. That’s what the West Indies were. They were a great team that created a cathedral.
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How many seminal moments can a lifetime make allowances for? How many get lost in transition, until all that is left is best left to the imagination? And how many seminal moments get passed on to future generations as stories? That’s how I heard of the greatness of the West Indies. That batsmen facing them didn’t just fear for their wickets but feared for their lives. That in their prime, they ruled the cricket world. That was the story we were told.
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It was a time when helmets protected the head, not the face. Chest pad and arm guard? You sure you’re here to play cricket, sonny? It was said that teams lost just at the mere sight of those unrelenting pacers. The West Indies won the inaugural Cricket World Cup in 1975 and followed it up with the second one in 1979. A difference of 43 runs separated them a three-peat in 1983, when underdogs from the sub-continent, India, led by Kapil Dev, upstaged them on the grandest stage of all and laid waste to their all-conquering status. Even that moment, when India beat the West Indies at Lord’s, was passed on to my generation in the guise of a story.
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Before India won their second World Cup in 2011, the improbable win over the West Indies in 1983 was, and is, still a part of folklore. And every time someone recounted it to us, it painted these indelible images in our minds. The crackle of the radio. Images in sepia tones. The crowd rushing onto the field after the final wicket was claimed. India were the world champions. The mighty West Indies had fallen off their tower.
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By the time I fell headlong into the game, the West Indies were a far cry from all that was being described to me. Where a great fire once burned and engulfed everything that came in its way, all that remained were the embers of a glorious era. Past glory isn’t a pleasant sight to behold. It’s like a palace that has fallen on hard times, the chandelier coated with dust. Yes, they had Brian Charles Lara, one of the greatest batsman to ever play the game, and a feared bowling pair in Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. But it seemed as if the kings had abdicated their thrones. I grew up in an era where their greatness was on the wane and the center of power in the cricketing world had shifted to the other side of the globe. Australia was now what the West Indies were at their zenith – the invincibles.
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But the West Indies didn’t fall off the cricket map. Their good days appeared as specks in the wide cricketing ocean. Brian Lara scored 375 against England in 1994, the highest score in test cricket, which was eclipsed by Matthew Hayden from Australia in 2003. Not one to sit back when his turf had been infringed upon, Lara reclaimed the record the very next year, scoring 400 against England – that mark has stood its ground since. In the 1996 World Cup semi-final, West Indies lost eight wickets for 87 runs in one of the most inexplicable collapses in cricket. In the World Cup they hosted in 2007, they didn’t make it past the group stage. Brian Charles Lara’s time had run out. In his farewell speech, he posed just one question to the tearful crowd that had come to bid him adieu: “Did I entertain you?” The answer wasn’t lost in the midst of the cheers. The cheers were the answer.
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This brings us back to the night in Sri Lanka, exactly two years ago. Two teams from islands, one still re-configuring its spirit that had been ruptured by years of civil war and another casting a hook in bid to re-capture old glory. The odds were stacked against the West Indies. Everywhere you turned, a Sri Lankan flag waved proudly. It was a night when every firecracker that was waiting to be burst, every prayer that was chanted, every placard that was vying for attention, were all funneled toward the home team, Sri Lanka. Then they imploded. And the West Indies, who had won their last major tournament in 1979, tore Sri Lankan hearts into a million pieces.
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The West Indies were champions again. They danced and filled the stadium with their infectious energy. In 2012, the West Indies weren’t the greatest team. They possessed none of the aura of the West Indian team of old, and their success has not been lasting in the two years since. But for that one night, they danced to a new redemption song. That night, they wrote a new story.
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Pawan Mahalingam lives in Bangalore. He writes about cricket and other sports on his blog Pages of Sport, and he tweets at @coffeebytwo.
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