First, there was Ben Stokes on Sunday at Headingley in an Ashes life-and-death duel. He seems to relish putting on a magnificent spectacle on Sundays. The superlatives are not enough to describe his exploits and fireworks, his daring and dazzle; and calm demeanour and defensiveness of mind in the cauldron of expectations. That was Ben Stokes in majestic display. And then there was the West Indies; the whole team: fragile, many times feeble, too often unwilling to buckle down to the demands of challenge and crisis.
When a cause looked all but foregone, there was Ben Stokes like Publius Horatius Cocles at the Pons Sublicius (Lord Macaulay’s Horatio at the Bridge) taking the fight to the adversary in parts of raw aggression mixed in with resolute watchfulness. This task can be accomplished; a duty done today, and which will live for the ages through which men will speak with awe and a glow at which the memory of rare heroism and an indomitable spirit reigned.
In faraway Leeds, thus a Sunday afternoon, once again, and with the compliments of Stokes, rang with thunder from the lighting streaks that was his bat wielded like a club, then a shield, last a spear. It was a spear in the heart of the Aussies, who took the fight all the way to the end. That is, until they wilted.
In contrast, the West Indies team, all of it, didn’t so much as even put up the dignity of respectable resistance; stirring and rearguard resistance. They succumbed and surrendered, one after another. The talent is there, the skills are there; advantage of home and crowd and the familiar are all there. So what is the problem?
Any brutal and unsparing post mortem has to start at one place: there is an incredible lack of temperament. The kind of temperament that ushers in a well-placed regard for what the territory demands, what is at stake, and what has to be the mindset and approach and effort.
One more time: mindset, approach, and effort required by the occasion at hand. There is pride on the line; personal, team, and regional honour and standing on the line. And all of which demands the single-minded focus on the objective, that unmoving residence in a zone of unconsciousness that blocks out the distractions and the ordinary; and that unswerving commitment to scale the horizon. It was a horizon that proved too far, too unreachable for a team still too transformed and consumed by the thrill and thump of the lash and flash. That would be the shorter, more accelerating, forms of the game. It could be argued that the so-called white ball format is more suited to the West Indian outlook and the intents brought to the field of play.
Whether accurate or otherwise, this was the fact and circumstance: last Sunday’s encounter was not a single day undertaking; nor the adrenaline rush of the still shorter version of two (20 overs) sessions and the bright artificial lights of night. No! Sunday was not any of that; merely the grind and glory of still the most prestigious strain of the cricketing game: Test cricket.
Test cricket with five days of play and the not so glamorous ordeals of grafting and building; of less about individual hastening and more of team binding and what leads to dignifying, if only for the concerted and sustained effort. Of course, all of this thinks of the position of the team, the reading of the clock, and story of the scoreboard. Somebody has to hold the fort; stand against the rushing tide that threatens to overwhelm and humiliate.
Ben Stokes rose to the occasion, one that looked impossible and unreachable; if not unmanageable. Except, tell that to lesser mortals, weaker men, but not to him. He was unmoved by cheers and personal milestones: the man was so obsessed with the charge before him, that he did an unheard of thing: he did not return the salutes of a rapturous, worshipful home crowd on reaching his century.
The job was still not done, there was still a way to go past the fire of Hazelwood and the guile of Lyons. He did not fail. Such is the stuff of immortality.
On the other hand, the West Indies crumbled without so much as a whimper: a collapse of spine and mind; a startling unreadiness to confront and try (simply try) to overpower the opposition raging with swing and zing before each who trundled to the crease, and then slunk away from it in ignominy.
The road to glory goes through the gates of the five-day game. It is time that reality takes hold. There is urgent need to recalibrate mind, if not priority, on what this region requires to be the best of the best. On a Sunday in Antigua, the West Indies were nowhere close to even aspiring to something as such.
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