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May 31, 2020

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UPCOMING OLYMPIC GAMES

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Captain Darren Sammy was first off the bus, holding his mobile phone and some portable speakers, the purpose of which would immediately become clear. He was followed by Dwayne Bravo, and, as a crowd gathered outside the Trident Hotel in Mumbai, the pair of them danced their way into the foyer, accompanied by the pulsing bassline of Bravo’s self-written pop single Champion.

And even though it was past midnight, and the West Indies had just beaten India in the World Twenty20 semi-final, as Sammy, Bravo and Chris Gayle sashayed into the lift you got the feeling the party was only just getting started.

The theme of Champion is not overly complicated to grasp. “Champion, champion, everybody knows Bravo is a champion,” it begins, before referencing other notable historical figures deemed worthy of approval.

Michael Jordan is a “champion”. So is Barack Obama. Nelson Mandela is definitely a champion. Not exactly Leonard Cohen-esque, then, but a song that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of a team one step from their own crowning glory.

West Indian cricket has as many different identities as there are islands in the Caribbean Sea, but this is the one everyone seems to latch on to. The party animals, the calypso kings, playing their cricket with broad smiles and swaying hips. The way they chased down India’s total of 192 at the Wankhede Stadium on Thursday night seemed to encapsulate it perfectly: big sixes, big attitude, no fear.

There is a reason that the West Indies are ranked No 2 in the world in T20 while continuing to decline in Tests and 50-over cricket. Of the XI who played against India, half have not played a single first-class match for two years. The likes of Bravo, Sammy, Gayle, Lendl Simmons and Samuel Badree almost exclusively play white-ball cricket these days. More than any other nation, they are a specialist T20 team, who have made the shortest format their very own.

But there is more to it than that. Behind the broad grins and swinging blades lie the darker emotions that are really fuelling this West Indies side. Resentment. Wounded pride. They have seen their fiercely proud cricket team torn to shreds on and off the field, and they want redress. So when Sammy leads his team across the boundary edge, they are powered not by some hedonistic impulse to entertain, but a desire to right wrongs.

As the film and book Fire in Babylon demonstrated, a slighted West Indies is the most dangerous kind. The world-beating team of the Seventies and Eighties tapped into the simmering anger of the postcolonial era, and though West Indians are now respected as people, they feel they are still not respected as cricketers.

There was a telling tweet by coach Phil Simmons just minutes after their victory over India. “Awesome display by this group [of] men with no brains,” he wrote sarcastically. “Imagine if we had some.” That was a reference to a tournament preview on ESPNCricinfo by Mark Nicholas last month, in which he said that the West Indies were “short of brains but have IPL history in their ranks”.

It was a throwaway line in a much broader piece but clearly it had not been forgotten by the team, much like the “mediocre” jibe by England and Wales Cricket Board chairman Colin Graves ahead of last year’s Test series. This is a team who have had enough of insults.

West Indian cricket is replete with problems that a second World T20 win in three tournaments will not solve. The players’ relationship with their bosses verges on the dysfunctional. A dispute over pay overshadowed the build-up to the tournament, with a penniless board threatening at one stage to send a second-string side to India. All-rounder Andre Russell has a doping charge hanging over his head for missing three Tests.

On the field, things are not much better. Star spinner Sunil Narine is still suspended because of his suspect action. Australia wiped the floor with the West Indies in their recent Test series. Kieron Pollard and Lendl Simmons were injured going into the tournament, only for Simmons to return as a replacement for the injured Andre Fletcher. They even lost to Afghanistan last weekend. Gayle has barely scored a run since the opening game.

And yet somehow, this is a team who are in a world final. “Us against the world” is one of the most powerful team-building messages in sport, and in the face of all these obstacles, it is hard not to detect a sense of noble struggle to their campaign, a righteous wind that has blown them all the way to the final. It is surely coincidence that Sammy has won all five tosses in this tournament so far.

“Nobody gave us a chance,” he said. “A lot was said about us which we have not spoken about. The men’s side have been going through a lot. We all know what happened just before the tournament. And we still feel it’s this West Indies team versus everyone else. We will have our moment.”

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