The recent death of Seymour Nurse, one of the West Indian stalwarts of the 1960s, brought back many fond memories of that golden period of the Caribbean cricket and those magnificent cricketers who made it so. The West Indians of that era played a very exciting, entertaining and attacking brand of cricket and brought on a welcome transformation to the game.
In the late 1950s, Test cricket had become slow-paced and boring, and spectators had started moving away from the game. Those years still boast of many records for slow scoring and economical bowling. The West Indies team brought in a welcome change in this dismal state with their positive and refreshing approach to the game.
Though West Indies started playing Test cricket from 1928, they became a team to be reckoned with in 1950 when they comprehensively beat England in England. The three-Ws (Worrell, Walcott and Weekes) and the spin twins (Ramadhin and Valentine) formed a formidable combination, and they challenged the traditional bigwigs – England and Australia – on equal terms during that decade. But still the team had not settled into a cohesive unit, and there was some historical and political background to it.
Till the 1960s, the Caribbean islands were under the colonial rule, and their cricket administration under West Indies Cricket Control Board (WICB, founded in 1920) also followed the traditional colonial norms of class and colour differentiation. Despite the presence of many experienced and deserving native players, the captainship always went to an amateur of British origin. But the time was changing fast.
Frank Worrell became the captain of West Indies side to tour Australia in 1960-61. Worrell was a natural leader of men; he had many qualities that made him a great captain and a motivator par excellence. Though his fellow 'Ws' - Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes - had retired, and Sony Ramadhin and Alf Valentine were nearing the ends of their careers; the team under Worrell consisted of many exceptionally talented players, and some future legends, like Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Conrad Hunte, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse, Lance Gibbs and Wesley Hall.
West Indies tour of Australia in 1960-61 was sensational in many aspects. Before the start of the series, Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud, the Australian captain, had resolved to play attacking and entertaining cricket and they made it happen. The first Test at Brisbane ended in a tie when all four results were possible. Gary Sobers scored 132 runs on the first day in scintillating style; Wes Hall bowled his heart out on the last day; Australia, needing six runs to win with three wickets left, was all-out with the scores level.
The teams continued to play the remaining four Tests of the series in the same competitive spirit, and spectators thronged back to watch cricket. On the second day of the fifth Test in Melbourne, 90,800 people (then a record, and still a record outside India) watched the play. Though the West Indians lost the rubber 2-1, they gained immense popularity by the way they played, and when they were leaving Australia, a large crowd gathered on Melbourne streets to bid them a farewell.
West Indies played their next series against India at home and won 5-0. This series saw a different kind of drama. During a tour match, the Indian captain, Nari Contractor was failed by a Charlie Griffith bouncer; his head injury was life-threatening, and the Barbados team, led by Frank Worrell, came to his rescue by donating blood to save his life.
Frank Worrell was nearing 40 and was contemplating retirement at the end of the next series against England. He had nurtured Garfield Sobers to take over the reins after him. The Test series in England, which West Indies won 3-1, was also played in the same attacking spirit. The second Test at Lords very nearly saw all the melodrama of the tied Test but ended in an exciting draw.
By this time the Windies team had a more or less settled look, with Conrad Hunte, Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Gary Sobers, Wesley Hall, Lance Gibbs and Charlie Griffith forming its crux. The team lacked a regular opening partner for Conrad Hunte and suffered somewhat on that account, but the star players were at the height of their careers and form, and in Garfield Sobers, the team had a top-quality 3-in-1 all-rounder, who could change the course of a game single-handedly.
Frank Worrell retired in 1964, and Sobers took over the captainship for the next home series against Australia. Since West Indies had beaten all other teams by this time, the unofficial world championship of cricket was at stake in this series. It was another closely fought rubber, which West Indies won 2-1.
The West Indian team was at its peak by this time and had beaten every other team (apart from South Africa, but that is another story) to be termed as the champions. They dominated the next series against England in England in 1966 until the last Test. In a dramatic turnaround at the Oval, England defeated them by an innings and 34 runs.
This loss marked a change in the fortunes of the all-conquering West Indian team. They won the next series in India 2-0 but had to fight hard to save the last Test at Madras (now, Chennai). They lost against England at home 1-0, though the loss came as a result of a generous declaration made by Sobers. They lost against the Aussies 3-1 in the next away series, and that marked the end of their reign at the top.
The team's decline had multiple reasons. Sir Frank Worrell died of leukaemia at 42 in 1967, and the team lost its mentor. Conrad Hunte's retirement to pursue a religious career created a vacuum in the top order. Hunte used to have a steadying effect on the otherwise flamboyant batting lineup. The team tended to depend heavily on Sobers to rescue it, whenever in trouble. The other star players like Kanhai, Butcher, Nurse, Hall, Gibbs and Griffith were gaining in age and were prone to injuries and loss of form. Not many new players of similar talent and skill had emerged during the period.
Seymour Nurse retired in 1969, scoring a record 258 runs in his last Test innings against New Zealand. His premature retirement added to the problems of the team, and they did not recover for the next few years. It took six years and a different set of players under Clive Lloyd, for West Indies to regain the lost glory.
West Indies in the 1960s might not be one of the strongest ever teams, but they relentlessly provided unsurpassed pleasure to the cricket lovers. They played cricket in a refreshing manner, which their fans still remember. They successfully brought the spirit of entertainment and sportsmanship, and, more importantly, the spectators back to the game.