Good news has been in short supply of late, as much for West Indies cricket as for their nervous finance ministers, central bank governors and insurance moguls.
If the former have been caught unawares by the suddenness of their recession, the latter’s has been so prolonged and entrenched that any sign of recovery, however slight, sparks optimism.
They were plentiful out of St. Kitts during the week as the West Indies ‘A’ team, a hodge-podge combination of discards, young hopefuls and unknowns, staked out England in the hot sun until after tea on the second day of a three day match, amassing 574 for eight before their captain, Darren Sammy, finally did the merciful thing and declared.
It’s been rare for a West Indies team, of whatever variety, to enjoy such satisfaction against any England team.
Lendl Simmons, the lithe Trinidadian who has not worn West Indies colours since he was a member of the champion team in the international under-15 Costcutter Cup in England nine years ago, compiled 282 on his own, the highest score in the Caribbean since Chris Gayle’s 317 against South Africa at the ARG in 2005.
His fellow Trinidadian, the diminutive teenager, Adrian Barath, who Brian Lara mentioned in the same breath as the young Sachin Tendulkar a couple of years back, aided him in a partnership of 262. Others down the list helped themselves to easy runs.
A few others helped themselves to more easy runs before it was over.
The pitch at Warner Park was, obviously, as hard and as smooth as the nearby Kennedy Simmons Highway, except without a single pothole.
The boundaries, as Herschelle Gibbs discovered with his six sixes in an over in the 2007 World Cup, are still invitingly short. And England’s bowlers hadn’t shaken off the rust accumulated during the last six weeks in a northern winter.
For all that, 282 and 574 for eight were massive efforts against a team which, we are told at every given opportunity, is in the Caribbean simply to warm up for the real series at home during the summer, against Australia for the Ashes.
So what Simmons, Barath and their colleagues achieved over the past few days was a timely boost of confidence for the West Indies before the first Test, starting at Sabina Park on Wednesday.
It was, indeed, a lift for West Indies cricket as a whole. It came against the backdrop of the failure of new players on the recent tour of New Zealand, the continuing distressing standard of the First-class tournament, the flight of sponsors and the increasing Bush-like inanities of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) chief executive (“I have read that we are broke, and that sponsors are leaving us, but it really is that we are leaving them” being the latest).
Those picked for the Test now know that England are not quite so formidable after all and, more significantly, that there are worthy contenders waiting in the wings should they falter.
There is no denying the present parlous state of West Indies cricket. The reasons for it are myriad and well documented. After all, the West Indies haven’t won a Test against England since 2000 and have lost 13 of the 16 since. So the exchanges at Warner Park have come as much of a revelation to the England team and the sizeable cast of its accompanying media as a lift for the West Indies.
“The danger in writing about the decline of West Indies cricket is that it can be overplayed,” Mike Atherton, who was the last England captain to lose a series in the Caribbean (twice), wrote in The Times from Basseterre.
“There are, as England are discovering, still some very good players in the Caribbean, players who combine natural athletic gifts, an instinct for the game and plentiful ambition.”
There is not much doubt about that. Every regional team contains individuals who fit Atherton’s comment. But at least a couple of generations of West Indies cricketers haven’t had the tools necessary to turn their natural talent into the consistency and mental toughness required to succeed at the highest level.
Simmons is a case in point, but not the only one. His quality was identified very early. From the under-15 Costcutter Cup, he went into the West Indies team to two Under-19 World Cup tournaments (in 2002 and 2004). He played his first first-class match, for Trinidad and Tobago, aged 17, toured England with the West Indies ‘A’ team and, inevitably, moved into the senior team to Pakistan and England in 2006 and 2007, only for one-day series.
He should, aged 24, be an established member of the West Indies team in all forms of the game by now. He is, by the way, also a capable wicket-keeper and medium-pacer.
Instead, even with his 282 at Warner Park, his average after 52 first-class matches is 33.39 with just five three-figure innings. It is a record that has restricted him to eight ODIs and one 20/20 International.
A similar story applies to a host of Simmons’ teammates at age-group level with similar potential who have not advanced.
Denesh Ramdin, Ravi Rampaul, Xavier Marshall and Lionel Baker were others in the under-15s who won the Costcutter Cup in 2000 and the under 19s who reached the World Cup final four years later to have made it all the way.
Rampaul has been dogged injury, Ramdin and Marshall are struggling to keep their places, Baker has just got his.
As Atherton and others discovered over the past few days, there still is available talent in these parts. It just needs to be properly harnessed and directed and that remains beyond the capacity of those responsible for administering West Indies cricket.