‘Fight and character’ have been replaced by distressing reality

Kieron Pollard was somewhat hasty in his assertion following the West Indies’ tight victory over India in the opening round of the current Celkon Mobile Cup at Sabina Park last Sunday.

Perhaps it was the euphoria of the team’s success in his first outing as captain (in place of the injured Dwayne Bravo) that prompted his statement that “in the recent past, West Indies teams would have capitulated completely, so it shows we have a bit of fight and character in this side”.

He prefaced it by acknowledging that, in the end, “we got over the line and that’s what matters”.

20120708cozieronsundayIn fact, it needed the last pair, Kemar Roach and Tino Best, to squeeze out the last 10 runs to camouflage what had seemed likely to turn a 116-runs fourth wicket partnership of “fight and character” between Johnson Charles and Darren Bravo into one more West Indies capitulation.

Until the fast bowlers came together, 142 for three had gradually become 220 for nine against the familiar backdrop of jangling nerves.

That win, as close as it was, followed the thrashing of Sri Lanka by six wickets with 12.1 overs to spare in the opening match. The West Indies headed the points table and were seemingly headed for Thursday’s final at Queen’s Park as well.

Distressing reality returned in Friday’s rematch with India. The “fight and character” hailed by Pollard was nowhere to be seen – except, futilely, in the carefree ninth-wicket stand of 58 between Roach and Sunil Narine. Even that couldn’t avoid humiliation in front of the large, expectant crowd or the surrender of a vital bonus point to the Indians.

An opening partnership of 123 of 23.1 overs between the left-handed Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma negated Dwayne Bravo’s decision to bowl first on winning the toss yet India themselves had declined to 221 for six in the 42nd over when the No 7 Ravichandran Ashwin joined Kohli.

It was then that the West Indies folded under the pressure of a calculated assault from Virat Kohli, one of contemporary cricket’s finest young batsman and now captain in the absence of the injured MS Dhoni.

Restrained by his own assessment of the situation, tight fielding and steady bowling from Darren Sammy and Marlon Samuels (and probably fired up by the criticism directed at him for India’s loss to Sri Lanka at Sabina), Kohli spent 53 balls over his first 50.

Favoured by Sunil Narine’s finger injury that limited the key spinner to five overs and by end-of-innings bowling it would not be unjust to describe as rubbish from Roach and Dwayne Bravo, he blazed two sixes and 13 fours for his second 50 off 28 balls to complete his 14th ODI hundred.

Bravo was taken for 57 off his seven overs. Roach had two maidens in his 10 overs; his other eight cost 69, boosted by 12 fours. The total of 13 wides, five from Best mostly for over-the-head bouncers, was a further hindrance.

Inexplicably, Sammy (8-1-28-1) and Samuels (8-0-39-0) were left two overs short of their allocation.

The momentum was all India’s as the West Indies began their daunting challenge. The quick losses of Chris Gayle and Darren Bravo before the rain temporarily intervened just about settled the issue; there was limp submission once play resumed. The scenario was not unusual.

In going down 3-2 in the ODIs in Bangladesh last December, the West Indies struggled to totals of 199, 132 and 217.

In their 5-0 whitewash in Australia in February, they were routed for 70 in the opener. In two later matches, they couldn’t convert promising positions; Australia turned 98 for six into 266 for seven in the second match, 82 for four to 274 for five in the fifth. In the Champions Trophy first round in London last month, they lost eight wickets in edging Pakistan’s 172 for eight. In the next match, India breezed past their 233 for nine to eight wickets and 10.5 overs in hand.

Time is getting short for building a squad to challenge for the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. That was the board’s stated aim after the team was eliminated from the 2011 World Cup once shot out for 112 by Pakistan in the quarter-final in Dhaka.

Turmoil immediately followed as the three most senior players, Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, were omitted from the T20 and ODI squads for the home series against Pakistan a couple of weeks later.

It led to the standoff between Gayle and the board that kept the powerful left-hander out of the team for a year and a half. Sarwan was soon recalled but lack of form cost him his place.

Chanderpaul, for 15 years the rock on which totals were created, was told he could no longer be considered for the shorter formats as he would be 40 in 2015 and, so the argument went, would be past his best. It was a vague presumption; Chanderpaul has been sorely missed in the interim.

In fact, eight of the 11 beaten by Pakistan in Dhaka two years ago were in the original squad for the current tri-nation series – Gayle, Devon Smith, the two Bravos, Pollard, Sammy, Roach and Rampaul (since injured and replaced). The odd men out are Sarwan, whose international career seems at an end following his struggles in Australia and in the Champions Trophy, the wicket-keeper Devon Thomas and leg-spinner Ravendra Bishoo.

Yet the defeats and the disappointments continue, raising the question as to whether the continuing combination is the best available.
The selectors may feel constrained by the failure of younger players to press their credentials in regional and ‘A’ team tournaments but they need to start taking chances.
They should be encouraged by the example of Johnson Charles.

When Charles was picked, initially for the two T20s against England at the Oval in September 2011, the question was Johnson who? Perhaps they got the names wrong way wrong and it was Charles Johnson, so little was known of him.

His first-class average for the Windward Islands at the time was just over 15; there was no three-figure score to his name. It was just that the selectors liked his temperament and his unconventional, stand-and-deliver method (one radio commentator in the Champions Trophy said he gave hope to every aspiring club cricketer).

Their hunch has paid off. Charles has since opened the batting in 17 ODIs. Only Gayle (38.62) of the present squad betters his average of 37.52 but not his strike rate (85.29 to 84.46). Only Darren Bravo (31.75) and Marlon Samuels (30.39) of the rest average above 30.

Why, Charles can also keep capably as was evident when he filled in for Denesh Ramdin in the Champions Trophy.

There might be another Johnson Charles or two in the ranks out there. They just need the chance of which he has made full use. The forthcoming home series against Pakistan would be an ideal place to start.

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