As the divide between cricket’s haves and have-nots grows, so does the tendency for the haves to keep their distance from the have-nots.
An Australia-West Indies series used to consist of five Tests and any number of one-day matches. This year they played two Tests in the Caribbean and three here, but not a single one-dayer.
Australia have played Ireland and Afghanistan more often in one-day cricket in the past three years than they have played the Windies. After the Sydney Test, they will be replaced by the money men from India for a five-game one-day series.
Contempt will breed only more unfamiliarity. Australia are scheduled to play with India in a tri-series in the Caribbean next year, but after that will have no more engagement with the West Indies in any form for the life of the future tours program, extending to mid-2019.
When and if the Windies come back to Australia, you imagine it will be for two Tests at most, both in our winter, in the far north of the country, like refugees.
Prima facie, this scant contact makes sense. The Windies are minnows now. Playing and beating them regularly by hundreds of runs will only demoralise them. Best to leave to play with their peers down the shallow end, surely?
That principle seems to have informed the fixture for this tour. The Windies had only one warm-up match, a four-dayer against a kind of colts team in Brisbane, and between Tests an even more pointless meeting with a ghost Victorian team in Geelong, scheduled for two days and rained off after 1½. It means they have had only 13 playing days on this tour.
But a strange thing has happened. The last two of those 13 days have been their best two.
On one they made Australia labour for two sessions to take their last four first-innings wickets. The next, Australia had to work after hours to get them out a second time. It is hardly Everest. It didn’t save them from another mighty beating. But for the first time this summer, they looked like something more than a sham Test team.
The moral is clear: improvement comes from playing up, bruising as it can be. Repeatedly crushing the West Indies might be demoralising for them, but not playing them at all serves them even more poorly. Before the wheel turned, Australia avoided one scheduled tour of the Caribbean for the sake of morale. It was a mistake. Driven by Allan Border, Australia kept going at the Windies until at last they succeeded.
This lesson was apparent in the World Cup earlier this year. Minor leaguers Ireland, Afghanistan and Scotland all had their moments, but they were necessarily fleeting. The talent was there, but not the tempering, and small wonder. Between World Cups, Scotland, for instance, played fewer than 30 one-day internationals, and only three against Test-playing countries. The rest was an endless round against Afghanistan, Ireland and the Netherlands, filling out the fixture but not fleshing out the talent.
Disgracefully, instead of bolstering non-Test teams, the ICC has all but shut them out of the next World Cup.
AFL football is full of stories of players who were marginal at amateur and semi-pro level, but improved quickly when backed by a club and able to train and play full-time with and against the elite. It is the way sport often works.
Cricket now is in the process of deciding what it wants to be – a sport or a club. It claims to be the world’s second most popular sport, but that is disingenuous, based on its popularity in India and Pakistan.
At Test level, its base is narrow and getting narrower. South Africa is the next to be imperilled. Cricket talks about expansion, but acts only to contract.
Cricket was better when the West Indies were good, and would be richer if they could again be competitive. Ditto Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and the so-called associates. NB, ICC: rich has a meaning other than financial.
It is not the fault of Australia, or India or England, that the West Indies have sunk so low, but it is within their power to try to rescue them, and also in their interests. That is also how sport works.
The big three have the money, they can make the time, and now there is the example of a flicker of West Indian life.
As I wrote about Scotland after Australia had smashed them in double-quick time in the World Cup, it is possible to work with the West Indies and, when necessary, to do a job on them at the same time.
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