One way or another, their soul-destroying tour of Australia has taken a heavy toll on England. Missing from the squad for the West Indies are five of the stalwarts who carried them, if briefly, to the top of the ICC’s Test charts and near the top in ODIs just over a year ago. Their places have been taken by younger, rising stars.
The West Indies have three prominent players on their absentee list; others with once settled places have been worryingly out of sorts in the regional Nagico Super50, presently into its final week in Trinidad. Another was withdrawn from the tournament by his association for declining to sign for his team outfit, as all their players are required to do.
The West Indies warm up for England’s challenge with a couple of Twenty20s and one ODI against Ireland in Kingston February 19, 21 and 23; the Irish were so disappointing in the Trinidad tournament over the past 10 days that it presents an ideal opportunity to introduce the most promising newcomers.
It’s all the more reason to expect the England matches to feature those of the coming generation. That alone heightens the expectations.
For the West Indies, Chris Gayle, Marlon Samuels and Darren Sammy are still carrying injuries. Gayle hasn’t played any cricket since November 21 when he tore a hamstring in the first ODI in Kochi on the back-to-back tours of India and New Zealand that were every bit as ill-starred as England’s in Australia.
Sammy, also with a hamstring problem, and Samuels, recovering from an operation to correct a chronic wrist injury, haven’t had a match since last Boxing Day.
Normally, selectors would not hurry them back against international opposition. The West Indies panel’s conservatism in favouring the tried and trusted over the young and untested is clear from those players contracted for 2014.
At the top level, worth US$120,000 each, are Gayle, 35, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 39, both with strong records but clearly in the twilight of their careers.
Also there are Samuels, 33, who followed his outstanding 2012 with an inconsistent 2013, Sammy, the Test and Twenty20 captain whose position, even by his own admission, is “on the line”, and Dwayne Bravo, 30, whose last of 40 Tests was more than three years ago.
The only under 30 at that group at 25 is Sunil Narine, the mystery spinner.
Among those two levels below (at US$60,000) are Darren Bravo and Denesh Ramdin, along with Johnson Charles, Kirk Edwards, Kieran Powell, Ravi Rampaul and Shane Shillingford.
‘Lil Bravo, as he’s called in his native Trinidad, is 25 and the team’s finest young batsman who averages 44.68 in 27 Tests with the highest of his five hundreds, 218 against New Zealand, just three matches ago.
Ramdin has finally cemented himself as wicket-keeper/batsman after a period of inconsistency that cost him his place. In 14 Tests over the past two years, he averages 44.29 with three hundreds, a favourable comparison with Australia’s Brad Haddin (42.26 in 12 Tests) and even M.S.Dhoni (46.27).
Surely contracts should be either reward for performance or incentives for emerging players. It is patently not so with the West Indies.
Of those on show in the Super50, Charles and the left-handed Powell, the opening pair in the New Zealand ODIs, have been worryingly short of runs, as they were there.
Darren Bravo seems still distracted by the “personal” problems that caused his premature exit after a solitary ODI in New Zealand. Ravi Rampaul’s bowling has lacked its usual zip and control. Shillingford can’t even bowl as he’s under an ICC suspension for an illegal action.
To add to the predicament, Kirk Edwards was dismissed from Barbados’ Super50 team for reasons being challenged on his behalf by the West Indies Players Association (WIPA). According to West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) president, Dave Cameron, he is still eligible for selection to the regional teams but is now under a dark, unwanted cloud.
For England, Alistair Cook has remained at home to consider his previously unquestioned position as captain. Jonathan Trott, the established No.3, left Australia after the first Test through “a stress related condition”; his future as an England player is in doubt.
Off-spinner Graham Swann declared his retirement after the third Ashes Test and departed for no other reason than that he wasn’t satisfied with his performances. Matt Prior, the long-serving batsman/wicket-keeper, was dropped at the same time after his form deteriorated sharply; at 31, he is unlikely to be back.
The biggest setback of all was last week’s controversial rejection of Kevin Pieterson, unquestionably England’s best and most dynamic batsman but deemed by management to be a disruptive influence.
The upshot is that Stuart Broad takes over as captain and that three of those under him are new to international cricket and four others 25 and under.
The beginners are Moeen Ali, a batting all-rounder who has been outstanding for Worcestershire in the county championship, and two left-armers, Harry Guerney of Nottinghamshire, fast-medium swing, and Stephen Parry, conventional spin.
Ben Stokes, an aggressive all-rounder, England’s only century-maker in the Ashes Tests and a bowler capable of high 80s mph pace, was one distinct positive from Australia.
Jos Buttler, a similarly belligerent batsman, has the makings of Prior’s successor. Joe Root, the diminutive right-hander capable to any position in the order, from No.1 down, didn’t flourish in Australia but his potential had already been confirmed.
Stokes is 22, Buttler and Root 23. They and others of similar age who didn’t make it – batsman Garry Balance, batsman/keeper Jonny Bairstow – are the future of English cricket.
If the West Indies lack such depth at present, the two upcoming series, brief as they are, offer a chance to introduce those previously confined to the ‘A’ team and others who staked their claims in the Super50.
Batsmen such as the left-handers Jonathan Carter and Leon Johnson, both 26 with ‘A’ team credentials and Carter with the further boost of a Super 50 hundred against Trinidad and Tobago and the slim, distinctly rapid 21-year-old Ronsford Beaton and the big Vincentian left-armer Delorn Johnson, another ‘A’ team graduate.
If such players are not given their chance and the customary recycling continues, West Indies will remain just where they are, near the bottom of the pile.