The suggestion that the West Indies’ straight sets loss to Pakistan in last November’s three-match Limited Overs encounter in Abu Dhabi, was due in large measure to a euphoria hangover, at least among those members of the team who had just a few days earlier been the beneficiaries of cricket’s biggest ever payday – the Stanford Twenty-Twenty for twenty million US dollars encounter against England, is a reflection of the extreme cynicism that attends the outlook of analysts of the regional game. Indeed, a friend of mine even suggested – with that typical dry and direct Caribbean wit – that the uncharacteristic single -mindedness which the West Indies brought to the big-money game in Antigua may well be repeated several times over if some wealthy philanthropist can be persuaded to pack his cheque book and pen and become a fixture in the team.
I am not on the side of those who suggest that our boys are only in it for the money. I continue to believe that part of the education of the West Indian cricketer embraces an infusion of the awareness of what cricket means to the Caribbean and the tremendous emotional satisfaction that winning brings to the people of the region. Still, I hesitate to bandy words with those who contend that the thought of a cricketer pocketing one million US dollars from what can hardly be termed a decent night’s work, provides a compelling indication of how far the game has come or, perhaps more accurately, the direction in which it is heading.
What happened in the encounter with Pakistan had little to do with events in Antigua. The latter affair amounted to more of the same as far as the West Indies is concerned – a familiar repetition of the kind of bewildering up and down cricket that has come to characterize the West Indies’ game – one day breathtakingly brilliant and the next, woefully inadequate.
The outcome of that Limited Overs series provided three successive examples of the West Indian propensity for the wheels to come off just when the bandwagon appears to be rolling well; and if we are to be honest with ourselves the outcome would hardly have come as a shock. We have grown thoroughly accustomed to those kinds of outcomes.
The New Zealand tour was significant for a few mundane reasons. Half a dozen or so rookies were being ‘blooded’ and Chris Gayle’s fledgling captaincy was, arguably, still under the microscope. Then there was the question of the role of the New Zealand tour in measuring just how far the West Indies have travelled on the road to the long talked-about recovery; whether or not, as a team, we had as yet become good enough to defeat opponents who are probably a good deal more competent than their ICC ranking suggests.
Gayle was the dividend of the New Zealand tour. Without being able to completely slay the ghost of inconsistency which, so often, has been the cornerstone on which the team’s batting collapses have been built, he scored heavily in both the longer and shorter versions of the game during the tour. His redeeming feature in New Zealand was that the familiar Gayle grin was transformed. In New Zealand it bore a closer resemblance to a thoughtful frown. Gayle, it seems, is beginning to wear the responsibilities of captaincy on his sleeve. One clear indication of this is the habit he appears to have cultivated of making public his fretfulness with underperformance. Gayle, evidently, is mindful of winning as much for the team’s sake as for the sake of his own legacy as captain.
At the end of the tour Gayle said that his own cricket was essentially a mind game. That too is a good thing if only because we have become accustomed to a Gayle who appeared to approach his batting with a disposition that appeared blighted by unfathomable rushes of blood. In New Zealand he appeared more determined, more dogged and, particularly during his match-saving innings in the second New Zealand Test, more mindful of the significance of his wicket to the outcome of the game and the series.
I believe that Gayle has showed encouraging signs that he has become chastened by the responsibilities of captaincy and that he is calling for a team approach that is more reflective of the mind games which he infused into his approach in the Second Test.
Sometimes, often, the West Inides simply do not appear to turn up to win. Gayle’s contention that winning, doing well, begins in the mind, is all the more important to a West Indies team that needs to find ways of compensating for its various other deficiencies.
Little else, frankly, offered anything to write home about save and except the continuity of Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s peerless consistency at the crease. The point about Chanderpaul’s amazing string of outstanding performances is that our expectations of him have now become sufficiently lofty for us to take what he does entirely for granted.
More than a modest case can be made for Brendan Nash as a new “find.” In New Zealand he appeared competent rather than complete. Nash comes across as the kind of player from whom you can expect focus and commitment which – whether with the bat, the ball or in the field – will make an important difference to the collective effort. Watching him perform in New Zealand one got the impression that Nash offers a departure from the culture of batting and bowling stars – the Richards,’ Laras, Marshalls, Holdings et all – who ‘carried’ West Indies cricket for so many years. Nash, in my view, belongs to that genre of determined, hard-working performers whose less than prodigious talents are subsidized by an admirable work ethic. These, in my view are the qualities around which the revival of West Indies cricket may well have to be built. Without giving up on our search for prodigies we need, perhaps, to be more energetic in seeking to expose and encourage those players who bring to the game that measure of grit and determination that can perhaps compensate for less than prodigious talent.
That, as far as positives are concerned is probably the sum total of what came out of the New Zealand tour. No other player really made what can honestly be described as a telling impact and if a few of them are given another chance against the England team currently touring the region that will not be because their respective performances in New Zealand recommended them. Indeed, if the truth be told, some of the rookies – Xavier Marshall, Shawn Findlay and Keiron Pollard come readily to mind – appear far from ready for international cricket which is simply another way of saying that “reputations” secured through a few good performances in our largely sub-standard regional tournaments have, invariably disintegrated in New Zealand in the face of what, based on ICC ratings, was hardly what one would describe as top of the line opposition.
The familiar post-event analyses of the relative batting and bowling strengths of the West Indies team hardly seem to be applicable after the New Zealand Tour since the weakness appears to apply across-the-board, so to speak. We toured New Zealand – a tour which we knew would directly impact on our ICC ranking – with only three batsmen of any significant calibre – Gayle, Chanderpaul and Sarwan – one of whom failed miserably in the longer version of the game. At the bowling end the trio of Taylor, Powell and Edwards – the backbone of the West Indies bowling – demonstrated that as a strike force they lack the sheer consistency and, more to the point, the requisite penetration to repeatedly dismiss opposing teams for modest scores. The sad fact is that there are times when each of the three, mostly in turn, have demonstrated their capabilities at the highest levels. Unfortunately, they rarely perform well as a strike force. Their poor bowling, in turn, appears more reflective of a loss of discipline than a loss of skill. The advent of Sulieman Benn symbolizes what has now become an increasingly fruitless search for a world class spinner, one who can enter the test arena already blessed with the critical skills on control and penetration. Our deficiencies in the spin department are, perhaps, understandable in the context of our traditional focus on breeding quickies and the notorious unhelpfulness of our pitches. That has to change. Spin bowling has unquestionably asserted itself as a critical element in determining the outcomes of both versions of the game – particularly the shorter versions – and we can no longer turn a blind eye to the fact that as far as spin bowling is concerned we continue to be limited to selectees with strictly limited talents or else to stand-in options – Hooper, Sarwan, Samuels, Gayle (and one can think of quite a few more options) whose relents are limited to some measure of containment but who can hardly be looked to either to unduly trouble top flight batsmen with meaningful frequency or to rout opposing teams.
This mind you, is hardly a requiem for Benn and company in the spin department. The point is, however, that spin bowling having become universally more central to the competitiveness of teams the world over, the West Indies must create an infrastructure that specializes in teaching the art of spin bowling – and refining the skill where it manifests itself – with all of its various skills, variations in pace and other subtleties.
I believe that the future of Dwayne Bravo is one of the more important – though least talked-about issues – in West Indies cricket. Bravo, since his emergence, has demonstrated a capacity to psyche himself up whenever he wears West Indian colours and since it is my view that the underperformance of the West Indies is, in large measure, a function of the difficulties which most of the members of the team have had in simply raising their game, I believe that Bravo’s presence on the team, alone, is a good thing for both example and for motivation.
I read a letter in the January 22 edition of the Stabroek News which claimed in its headline that there was a “structural flaw” in the West Indies Cricket Board. Personally, I believe that it really is a great pity that we are compelled to take account of the travails of the WICB as part of our broader contemplation of West Indies cricket since the Board appears to be a law onto itself, a separate entity that really has nothing to do with what, as far as our cricket is concerned, is the West Indian’s primary preoccupation……….. restoring the habit of winning. While I understand that there has to be a body responsible for fashioning and administering regional cricketing policy I fear that the WICB – and many of the regional Boards – have come to symbolize that Caribbean propensity for bureaucratizing things to dearth. Somehow, we need to find a way of separating the Board and its problems from the pursuit of playing and winning, the latter being what we, as West Indians – to say nothing about the sponsors of the game – are really concerned about. The Board and its problems have really done little more than serve as an irritating distraction from that pursuit.
The naked truth – that our international ranking is altogether consistent with the standard of the regional game cannot be glossed over by the kinds of arguments about “selection problems” that arose in New Zealand. If it is true that there were members of the tour party who were undeserving of their places, one can hardly think of many viable alternatives who were left behind and whose presence in New Zealand might have changed the outcome of the tour for the better as far as the result was concerned.
The fact of the matter is that we are deficient where it really counts insofar as, given all the available talent at this time we are unable to select a team that is likely to compete consistently with the best that world cricket has to offer.
If cricket continues to mean as much to West Indians as it has meant over the years, I believe that more of us are beginning to take a kind of leave of absence from the exacting routine of taking to heart the successive disappointments comprising what has been a continuous downward spiral in the standard of the regional game. While – God knows – we have so many other things to think about. I believe that the growing emotional separation of many West Indians to game that has brought us so much pride and euphoria is, in its own right, as considerable a tragedy as our loss of proficiency as a cricketing nation.