The Spirit of ’76: How the great West Indians inspired me to love cricket

In 2015 Somerset supporters were treated by the presence of a Caribbean legend when Chris Gayle played three games for the county in the NatWest T20 Blast. Although his time in Taunton was short his legacy will continue with three devastating innings totalling 329 runs lasting long in the memory.

Somerset’s Caribbean connections are long standing with two huge talents playing a major part in transforming the cider county from seasonal underachievers into a team that won trophies for the first time in the club’s history. Joel Garner and Viv Richards were also part of a West Indies team that dominated world cricket for over a decade and were the reason this writer became attracted to the game of cricket way back in 1976.

My attraction to the game of Cricket was not a natural one. Being brought up by strict Irish grandparents in the 1970’s was not a great foundation to appreciate the game and even the Cricket mad uncle that lived with us proved an early deterrent to the game, considering this was the man who would ultimately take me to the County Ground in Taunton as a child for the first time. There also followed trips to Lords, The Oval, Edgbaston and various other county grounds as well as the smaller but beautiful outgrounds in Somerset and beyond. This man lived, breathed, ate and slept cricket and he commanded the television set every time there was a game on, even in the old days of limited BBC coverage on decrepit black and white TV’s. Nobody else in the house got a look-in which was aggravating for a 9 year-old boy wanting to watch Tarzan or cowboy films or the latest fave rave afternoon show that all the kids at school were watching at the time.

The vast majority of households in those days only had one TV – including our house – so the ultimatum for me was watch Cricket or play outside with the kids next door.

spirit 4And, if this daytime fixation wasn’t challenging enough, the family would be kept awake long into the night by the sounds of Jim Laker and Richie Benaud as we all had to listen to the highlights blaring out from the downstairs lounge while we were trying to sleep.

And at the weekends in summer my brother and I were dragged along to watch the Cricket mad uncle try to play the game for a nearby village team even though he had limited playing abilities (to say the least)

No, my introduction to Cricket was neither natural or through choice, there was no escaping the game. So, under a great deal or duress I surrendered to the inevitable and accepted my fate and attempted to appreciate the game. Cricket it was.

Come 1976 I had been actively following sport in the newspapers and on TV for a couple of years, particularly Tennis, Athletics, Football (since the 1974 World Cup) and the winter Olympics in Innsbruck in early 1976. By June I was looking forward to the start of the summer Olympics that were being held in Montreal. The Cricket mad uncle had been salivating wildly at the impending summer Test Series which would see the West Indies visiting England. He would tell anyone in earshot that this team were the best in the world and he was particularly enthusiastic at the very mention of the name of a young Antiguan batsman called Viv Richards, a player who divided his time playing for his home islands and his adopted English county of Somerset who the Cricket mad uncle supported avidly. His enthusiasm started to rub off on me and I found myself telling the kids at school about this young legend in the making, even though I knew nothing other than what I had been told.

As the series approached press interest was building too. I recall England’s captain at the time, the late Tony Grieg, trying to rally his troops in what the press had already deemed a lost cause by making his infamous “grovel” comment. In the statement Greig would say: “You must remember that the West Indians, these guys, if they get on top are magnificent cricketers. But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey (Brian Close) and a few others, to make them grovel.”

spirit 1This would prompt Greig to be severely criticised by the Cricket writing press and even be referred to as a racist in certain circles. All very unfair in my opinion but it all added spice to the series ahead. And for a minute I was nearly as vocal and enthusiastic as the Cricket mad uncle, heaven forbid. I couldn’t wait to see what the fuss was all about and whether these West Indians were as good as they were being made out to be.

1976 was a glorious summer, the kind which these days seem confined to childhood memories. The sun shone throughout and hot summer days formed the backdrop for the school holidays with the strict Irish grandparents forcing my brother and I out the door into the fresh air at every opportunity while we preferred to watch TV.

And as for the sport, it was phenomenal. The world marvelled as Bjorn Borg won his first ever Wimbledon title in fantastic fashion with the First Test at Trent Bridge starting roughly the same time but definitely playing second fiddle to the Tennis. This opening Test was drawn but memorable for Viv Richards scoring 232 and 63 while poor old Tony Greig suffered the indignity of scoring 0 in his first innings while the crowds cheered loudly, baying for his blood at every opportunity.

The Second Test at Lords had the same result as the previous, but this time the Caribbean team had to live without young Richards and their batting seemed to suffer accordingly. Scores of 182 all out and 241 for 6, some 90 runs short of victory, hardly gave credence to the West Indies supposed super human status. Not that England fared much better limping to 250 and 254 all out in their innings. And it was a game dominated by visiting fast bowler Andy Roberts, who completed two five-wicket hauls in the game. It was my first real sight of him and he was terrifying even from the comfort of our front room! Screaming up to the crease, face contorted in anger with arms thrust out before him unleashing balls of fire at the Englishmen. Imagine what it must have been like from the opposing end?

As the school term fizzled away – my last in junior school – my thoughts were of starting my Grammar School education in September but before that lay ahead potentially magnificent months of summer sport, particularly the Cricket. Slowly I was becoming a convert to the finer points of the game.

spirit 3When the Third Test started in early July I found myself with lots of time off school and therefore the first opportunity to sit and truly watch and concentrate on a game. Richards was back for the visitors but only scored 4 as the West Indies managed just 211 all out in the game’s first innings. It was another batsman who dominated, opener Gordon Greenidge, who carved a masterful 134 to give the Caribbean boys a target to bowl at. And it was then that I saw a thing of natural beauty for the first time. If Andy Roberts bowling was about fury then his team-mate Michael Holding was all about control. He looked so comfortable, like he was dancing to the music of Bob Marley while approaching the crease before unleashing rockets at the England batsman.

Not that the English batters would have seen this as a thing of beauty, far from it. Holding took 5-17 in the first innings to dismiss England for a pitiful 71 before the West Indies found their batting heads and smashed 411, with Richards regaining form with 135 as Greenidge hit a second ton in the game.  Roberts led the bowling to clinch the result with a six wicket haul and Holding grabbing another two as England were bundled out for 126, losing by a huge 425 runs allowing the Windies to take a 1-0 lead.

Greig’s “grovel” comments were now looking ridiculous to the extreme!

But I was hooked and had new heroes in Richards and Holding. The thing that struck me was how easy they made batting and bowling look which is what great players do. So I started playing the game determined to bat and bowl like Richards and Holding. If only!

The West Indies won the last two Test matches to tie up an easy 3-0 win. In fairness England could, and possibly should, have won the Fourth Test in Leeds needing 260 in their final innings but succumbed to 204 all out with only captain Greg performing with 76 not out to follow up his first innings ton.

The last Test at The Oval saw my new heroes elevated to a higher level still. The West Indies scored 687 and I think I watched every ball that the BBC covered of Richards masterful 291. He combined sublime timing with raw power, merely flicking the ball of his legs and through the offside with his huge SS Jumbo bat before it cannoned into the advertising boards like a bullet. When England batted Holding was a colossus. Amiss scored an excellent double century as the home team responded with 435 all out but Holding’s 8 for 92 carries no worthy superlatives and the word “magnificent” would be an understatement. The Caribbean boys were able to declare on 182 for 0 before Holding struck again with 6 for 57 to end with match figures of 14 for 149 to help the visitors to a 231 run win.

Tony Greig showed he did not lose his sense of humour despite the repercussions of his “grovel” comment by pretending to crawl on his hands and knees in front of the open stands at The Oval after this last Test match much to the amusement of the crowds that had previously mocked him.

spirit 5

But Greig was not to blame, this West Indian team were brilliant and deserving of all the plaudits and I was struck by their calypso Cricket. As well as those mentioned batsmen like Fredericks, Gomes, Kallicharan and captain Lloyd were world class. Daniel and Holder were suitable support in the fast bowling department to Holding and Roberts. And I watched while the team got better still in the ensuing years.

By now I was Cricket crazy and just wanted to play and watch the game at every opportunity. In August I accepted the invitation from the Cricket mad uncle to make my first trip to Taunton to watch his beloved Somerset in a John Player League 40 over match despite not knowing any of the cider county players other than veteran captain Brian Close, fresh from his mauling at the hands of the West Indies bowlers, and the absent Richards. But they were playing Kent and I knew plenty of their players including Test stalwarts Underwood, Ealham, Woolmer, Denness and promising youngster Tavare. Internationals Alan Knott and Asif Iqbal were absent for the visitors.

That day in August 1976 was baking hot, as were most days that glorious summer. In those days the boundary at Taunton was made up by the actual crowd and I remember sitting with my brother on the rope next to the pitch. This would, of course, not be allowed in the modern game with fielders sliding to stop the ball or entering the crowd to throw the ball back into play. Somerset batted first and I was greeted for the first time with the cider county openers, the two blonde bombshells, Brian Rose and Peter “Dasher” Denning, both of whom were left-handers. They made a decent start to proceeding taking Somerset to over 70 when Rose was out. Then a life changing moment for me as the crowd grew increasingly excited at the sight of Somerset’s number three as he entered the field of play to bat. This was a tall, handsome and athletic young man waving his bat above his head with each arm before taking to the crease. His innings was short but eventful as he hit two big sixes into the car park before falling for a quick 46. I had just seen Ian Terrence Botham play for the first time, the man who would become my boyhood hero and whose controversial life I would follow as it unfolded and would read about for many years to come in books and magazines. Somerset’s innings ended on 210 after Brian Close had hit the strangest six I would ever see, a miss hit edge over third man.

When Somerset took to the field of play it was another West Indian who caught the eye. Hallam Moseley, a Barbadian, had joined Somerset in 1969 and was recommended to the county by none other than Sir Garfield Sobers who would later describe Moseley as “never far away from a place in the West Indies team.” If Holding’s action was the epitomy of calm destruction then Moseley’s was frenetic to say the least. His arms would be thrown above his head and pointed north as he approached the crease swirling both hands furiously before he launched his next grenade. As uncompromising as it may have looked it was effective and I thought he was a terrific player and was as Somerset as you could get despite his Caribbean roots. That day Moseley took two wickets for 48 runs as Kent fell short of Somerset’s total by 8 runs. The young Botham took the second over also helping himself to 2 for 28 in his 8 overs. It was all so very exciting for an 11 year-old boy to take in and, from that day, I followed the Cricket mad uncle’s lead and attained allegiance to Somerset and have been attending games regularly at Taunton ever since. In the early days this meant also visiting the outgrounds of Bath, Glastonbury, Street, Yeovil, Weston-super-Mare and Bristol where the county played regularly each season.

The following season, 1977, I saw Viv Richards in Somerset colours for the first time and he would be joined by another West Indian at Taunton a season later when the 6 foot 8 inch Barbadian fast bowler Joel Garner, later known as “Big Bird”, became Somerset’s second overseas player. Like Holding Garner’s style was assured calm, almost strutting to the crease before thrusting his arms high to use every inch of his immense height to bowl down at batsmen aided by the strength of arm to unleash furious pace banging in unplayable Yorkers at will.

He would become a fabulous player for the county and one that would play an important part in Somerset’s quest to win silverware for the first time which the county finally achieved in 1979 when Northants were beaten at Lords in the Gillette Cup Final with “Big Bird” taking 6 for 29 to support Richards’ quite brilliant 117. With the first trophy in the cabinet Somerset duly won the John Player League the following day having won 12 of their 16 games. It was the start of a few seasons of dominance in the English county game by Somerset and, but for the brilliance of West Indians Richards and Garner, Somerset may have waited many more years for that elusive trophy.

I watched while the West Indies team got better and better in the ensuing years as they dominated world Cricket. In the early 1980’s Garner took his place in the international team alongside Holding and Roberts and was later joined by another brilliant Barbadian Malcolm Marshall. These four would wreak havoc on opponents and the islands continued to produce fast bowling talent with the likes of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh proving capable replacements for the next generation of West Indies cricketers.

Like most teams the Windies would have their up’s and down’s and unfortunately less fortunate days were to follow at the end of the 1990’s and through the early years of the new millennium. The influence of Cricket on the Islands started to wane with competition from Football (I won’t call it Soccer) and the American sports (particularly Basketball) which enjoyed a huge upturn in interest and participation at Cricket’s expense.  This resulted in the West Indies fielding some very average international teams and the previous seemingly endless supply of young and fast bowlers of genuine pace, hostility and accuracy seemed to dry up.

Cricket in the islands has needed a lift for a while so I, for one, was delighted when the Windies won 2012 T20 World Cup almost as much as if England had done so in the hope that generations of young West Indians adopt Gayle, Samuels and Pollard as role models and want to play the game with the same fervour of previous generations to whom Cricket was simply life.

I will never forget the debt I owe to the brilliant West Indians of 1976 and one less celebrated Caribbean soul that represented Somerset for many years. Messrs Richards, Holding, Garner and Moseley – I salute you!

This article was written for Deep Extra Cover and featured on their site in February 2013.

~SCS banner