March Madness – can West Indies crash the party?

The wild roller coaster ride for the West Indies at the carnival that is the International Cricket Council’s 2015 World Cup continues and they are hanging on for dear life. But the team which represents the Caribbean that once played a unique brand of cricket that so many fans around the world would like to see do well, are finding it difficult to catch a break these days.

Having said that though, either the weatherman or mother nature smiled on the West Indies as the cyclone which was forecast for Napier in New Zealand on Sunday never showed up and they took advantage of the fair conditions to swamp the United Arab Emirates (UAE) handily defeating them by six wickets and improving their run-rate significantly in the process to secure the final spot in the quarterfinals.

Skipper Jason Holder, who seems to be gaining in confidence with each match, spearheaded the attack having given the UAE first strike, with a man-of-the-match performance of 4 for 27 which, along with opening partner Jerome Taylor’s 3 for 36 demolished the winless minnows frontline batting reducing them to 46 for 6. The Windies however, fell into a typical mid-innings slumber allowing the UAE to recover to 175 all out in 47.4 overs thanks to a partnership of 107 between Amjad Javed 50 and Nasir Aziz 60.

Cosmo Hamilton
Cosmo Hamilton

As the West Indies sought to overhaul the modest score within 36 overs essentially to improve their run-rate to advance to the knock-out round of eight, chalk up one for their much maligned selection panel as newcomer and opener Johnson Charles, who recently replaced the injured Darren Bravo, gave the team the impetus it needed at the top of the order slamming 55 off 40 balls with nine fours and two sixes.

Mercurial Marlon Samuels’ brief, unconvincing, appearance at number-three slowed the tempo somewhat but his departure ushered in another newcomer Barbadian Jonathan Carter who fashioned his maiden ODI 50 from 58 balls and, along with wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin’s 33 off 50 deliveries, saw the regional team home at 176 for 4 in just 30.3 overs.

For their efforts the West Indies have earned the right to face none other than one of the two top seeds of the elite eight in this ICC version of March Madness –  the undefeated New Zealand Black Caps at Westpac Stadium in Wellington in the fourth quarterfinal game on Saturday. It is undoubtedly the toughest assignment thus far in the West Indies World Cup campaign and although they might possess the skill set to challenge the Kiwis on a good day, the question for the inconsistent West Indies squad is – do they have the mindset to confound the odds and surprise one of two prohibitive favorites New Zealand on their turf before a sellout home crowd.

New Zealand is the prototype ODI team equipped with batting all-rounders like left-hand medium pacer Corey Anderson, Grant Elliott and Kane Williamson, and bowling all-rounders such as Tim Southee and the experienced wily left arm spinner Daniel Vettori while their batting line-up is led by skipper and pugnacious opening batsman Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill, Williamson, Ross Taylor and wicketkeeper/batsman Luke Ronchi. And the Kiwis, who narrowly defeated the other favorites in this tournament Australia in an earlier encounter, are led by the inspirational, tough, hardnosed captain McCullum.

And so to eke out a victory on Saturday, the West Indies must hatch and execute a perfect game plan bolstered by an encyclopaedic knowledge of every member of the New Zealand team’s skills and tendencies, win the toss, bat in perfect conditions, post a score of well over 340 runs against arguably the best fielding team in the tournament, and bowl immaculate lines and lengths with no no-balls and minimal wides, backed up by a predatory catching and fielding display.

Team selection as always would be particularly important in this knockout phase of the competition where teams are expected to be at optimum health and fitness and focus with the right combination of players with no margin for error to avoid sudden death. For the West Indies, ideally opener Chris Gayle would be fully fit to assume his position at the top of the order accompanied by Johnson Charles who would replace the out of form and evidently out of shape opener Dwayne Smith. In the absence of Darren Bravo, Lendl Simmons should be moved up to bat at number three to maintain the momentum created by aggressive openers Gayle and Charles instead of the notoriously slow starter Samuels who should occupy the number four spot in the line-up.

Lefthander Jonathan Carter has earned the right to bat in the midst of the order at number five not only because of his current good form but also as a left-hand batter to disrupt the fielding balance. He should be followed by Denesh Ramdin, Darren Sammy, Andre Russell and Jason Holder. Rounding out the 11 should be Jerome Taylor and left arm spinner Sulieman Benn who, although not particularly guileful, would provide some variety to the attack instead of the out of form pacer Kemar Roach.

In the melee of March Madness as Sri Lanka take on South Africa, India face Bangladesh, Australia encounter Pakistan, and West Indies battle New Zealand favorites could fall by the wayside and surprises might yet abound as only two teams emerge to battle for the coveted ICC World Cup on March 29th at the MCG.

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