'Blind leading the blind' - how Jamaica lost its love for Test cricket

Courtney Walsh, one of Jamaica's finest, signs off from Test cricket at Sabina Park in 2001 Getty Images

Jeff Dujon was four years old when his father took him to Sabina Park for the first time. There, Dujon would train for hours, as his father sat in one of the colorful chairs set up by the Jamaica Cricket Association beyond the boundary line. It didn't matter if Dujon was restless or bored. That was how he would learn the basics, his father had decided, and that was what he would do.

The youngster was at the park for so much of his time that he would bump into Jamaican Test greats like Gerry Alexander, Jackie Hendriks, Reg Scarlett and Allan Rae at the ground or, sometimes, in the dressing rooms. For the boy, this meant "listening to these guys just talking cricket, and as a cricketer you listen and you learn every little thing you see".

A few years later, Charles Joseph, a former member of the ground staff at Sabina Park, saw Dujon batting. Joseph, who worked at the ground for 49 years, told everybody who would listen that "Jeff is going to play for the West Indies." Ten years later, Dujon was picked as a wicketkeeper-batsman in the West Indies team.

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That was the cricketing culture Jamaican kids grew up around in the years leading up to and through 1970s and 1980s, and even in the 1990s, to an extent. Kids hung around and listened to former Test and first-class cricketers of repute, and, more often than not, played with top-notch cricketers.

That culture played a role in letting the world watch Michael Holding and Lawrence Rowe, Dujon and Courtney Walsh, and even Chris Gayle. Five players from the island had been part of the World Cup squad - Gayle, Andre Russell, Fabian Allen, Oshane Thomas and Sheldon Cottrell, although Cottrell turned out for Leeward Islands last season. The team currently playing the Test series against India, however, has one Jamaican - opener John Campbell.

So what's gone wrong?

Dujon remembered the good old days. "You would have players who were playing Test cricket for the West Indies at the time, and players who had played or were still playing a lot of first-class cricket, and there was that support system, that structure where you could be in an environment where you could learn," he told ESPNcricinfo.

"In a lot of ways, the older players in clubs now are from that era where the club structure starts to break down, so it's the blind leading the blind" Jeff Dujon

In the last ten years, excluding Gayle and Marlon Samuels, only a handful of Jamaicans have played Test cricket for West Indies: Jermaine Blackwood (27 matches between 2014 and 2017), Chadwick Walton (two in 2009), Andre Russell (one in 2010), Nikita Miller (one in 2009) and Campbell (four this year). Remove Blackwood from the list and the others have eight matches between them.

"That [the tradition] has broken down pretty much now and obviously, more of the longer format of the game was played then anyway," Dujon pointed out. "So as a young player you got a grounding in the game. Now club structures don't cater for that. As a result, in a lot of ways, the older players in clubs now are from that era where the club structure starts to break down, so it's the blind leading the blind."

As a result, that immersive, fly-on-the-wall learning and mentorship has been lost.

"The level at which I learned the game from these much older people - there's nobody now that has that experience to carry that forward," Dujon said.

The shift in focus from red-ball to white-ball cricket, is "not necessarily a good thing", according to Dujon, who argues that players have become better at the shorter formats because that is what they have been seeing more of from the top international players.

"It's the amount of white-ball cricket that's played, for one. And secondly, the coaching element in terms of red-ball cricket is deficient," Dujon explained. "If you look at the more successful white-ball cricketers in the world, with the exception of probably Chris Gayle, they all average in the 40s or 50s in Test or first-class cricket. The development of a limited-overs cricketer should start with the longer format of the game and I don't think enough emphasis is placed on that now.

"If you look at not just Jamaica, but throughout the Caribbean, we are very weak when it comes to the longer format of the game because they haven't had the basics inculcated at an early age."

Joseph, who watched Dujon, Michael Holding, Courtney Walsh, Jimmy Adams, and many others grow up at Sabina Park and go on to become stalwarts, goes back to what he heard coaches, fathers and players in the past say often. "Respect the ball." Looking around, it looks like that is what has gone missing, that respect, what that little phrase represented.

"Respect the ball enough to know when you can swing and when you need to block," Joseph said.

There has been a generational shift in the way players approach Test cricket. Derval Green, a 30-year-old Jamaican first-class cricketer, could well be stating the obvious when he says, "Nobody wants to sit here all day and watch their team score 150 runs in all of the overs at the end of the day."

The worldwide shift to the shorter formats - "more opportunity, more appeal" - haven't helped the new generation players when it comes to Test cricket either, Dujon and Joseph concurred.

The last three years have been tough for Jamaican cricket, especially in first-class cricket. The 2011-12 season was the last time the team won the Regional 4 Day first-class Competition. Since that season, they have not won the Regional Super 50, the main one-day competition, either, although they made the final in 2016-17. On the other hand, the franchise, Jamaica Tallawahs have won the Caribbean Premier League twice: the inaugural edition in 2013 and then in 2016. Green, who has played in national-level tournaments, said. "We're losing the energy of the crowd - I hope it changes really quickly, because energy is everything."

Equally crucial is managing talent, which Jamaica has failed to, according to Dujon. He felt Chris Gayle was the last man from the island to find a way to be outstanding in every format of the game, went beyond just talent, showing patience, fortitude and the tenacity to control, and then expand, the way he played.

"You have the cliché about staying in your box, and [the youngsters] I don't think really identified the dimensions of their box and learnt to play inside their box," Dujon elaborated. "The youngsters today lack that concentration and control and I don't know how you teach that."

As a result, when West Indies host India in their second and final World Test Championship Test starting Friday at Sabina Park, only one local player will be around on the field. Not how it was supposed to be all those years ago.