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TONY COZIER: Etched in history


TONY COZIER

TONY COZIER: Etched in history

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JEFFREY STOLLMEYER, a former Test captain, who became board president, regarded it as “probably the most significant development in West Indies cricket”. Allan Rae, Stollmeyer’s one-time opening partner and his successor as president, termed it “the missing link in the chain”.

Wednesday marks 50 years since the inauguration of the Shell Shield, the first annual first-class tournament encompassing all six West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) members – Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and the Leeward and Windward Islands, initially joined as the Combined Islands.

It was a long time coming. The initial first-class match in the Caribbean was in 1865, between Barbados and British Guiana (subsequently Guyana) at the Garrison Savannah.

In the interim, there were the yearly, so-called “goodwill” series between Barbados, British Guiana and Trinidad from 1920 to 1944 and brief, intermittent reciprocal encounters with Jamaica, too distant in the northern Caribbean to make their inclusion financially feasible. The Windwards and Leewards weren’t brought into the mainstream until the Shield.

Its introduction coincided with a period of burgeoning West Indies strength. Frank Worrell’s team of highly talented young players had made their unforgettable impact in the tied Test series in Australia five years earlier; they subsequently prevailed over India at home, England in England and, under Garry Sobers, Worrell’s heir as captain, in the Caribbean for the first time over Australia in 1965.

Even though the WICB’s lack of resources restricted the Shield to a single round of four, then five, matches for each team, standards were maintained by the intense rivalry that always present between territories separated by water and united only by their excellence in the sport bequeathed to them by the British colonisers.

By the time Shell Oil’s sponsorship ended into 1987, the game was already going through its striking new innovations. Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket (WSC) introduced one-day matches with a white ball under lights to be followed by a cluster of domestic franchise tournaments in the shortest format. They added an even more far-reaching dimension, offering such lucrative contracts that leading West Indians no longer committed themselves to WICB tournaments.

The Shield morphed into the Red Stripe, Busta and Carib Beer Cups between 1987 and 2008. Unable to attract new sponsors, the WICB has financed its annual tournaments since then. The latest reform was the start of the franchised Professional Cricket League (PCL) since 2014.

No team has since dominated regional cricket as Barbados did in the Shield’s 21 seasons. They won it 11 times and shared it once. They were at their strongest in the first when they fielded eight Test players under captain Sobers, defeating Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Jamaica. Only rain, reducing the game against the Combined Islands to two days, denied them a clean sweep.

“I would place this team as at least the equal of New South Wales and probably stronger than any other state team in Australia,” Sobers said at the time, speaking from his experience of two earlier seasons with South Australia.

With six Barbados players on tour of Australia and New Zealand, Jamaica won their first Shield in 1969, Trinidad and Tobago back-to-back in 1970 and 1971, Guyana, as it had then become, in 1973 under Rohan Kanhai and 1975 with Clive Lloyd, the new West Indies captain, at the helm. Barbados regained their ascendancy as champions from 1977 and 1980 and again in 1982, 1984 and 1986.

By now, new players were emerging to underpin a prolonged phase of international dominance under Lloyd. The most notable season was 1981. The Combined Islands, captained by Viv Richards, won the Shield for the first time in 1981 on the back of Andy Roberts’ 25 wickets in four matches at an average of 9.92. There were a dozen others in various teams who were in the vanguard during the West Indies’ sequence of 15 years without the loss of a Test series.

Several spoke of the impact of Shield cricket on their advance.

“Facing up to Andy Roberts bowling like lightning, it was just as hard, if not harder, than Test cricket,” was the assessment of Desmond Haynes, who moved from the Barbados team in 1978 to open the batting for the West Indies with Gordon Greenidge for the next 15 years. “There was certainly no difference in the intensity. Everyone always seemed to come hard at Barbados because of our record over the years.”

According to Jamaica’s Jeffrey Dujon, the wicketkeeper during the Lloyd era, Barbados had such an awesome pace combination “on their hard, fast pitches” that it “prepared you for Test cricket, made the transition a little easier”.

Bowling at Richards for Barbados gave Daniel “an adrenalin rush”.

“‘It wasn’t just that he was a great player, but you knew he had something to prove,” he explained.

Holding always had a “special feeling” bowling for Jamaica. “It meant more than just going out and playing another cricket match,” he said. “You are representing the people of your homeland. That was always on my mind.”

Times have dramatically changed. As West Indies slid quickly from their No. 1 position to No. 8 on the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings, public interest has waned, stands usually packed during the Shield are now deserted and the passion has ebbed from the contests.

In such an environment, the Shell Shield is a distant memory. But it remains an integral part of cricket history.

Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.

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