As Jason Holder and Kemar Roach battled manfully to stave off defeat on Friday evening, a friend of mine sent me a sarcastic text.
“No chance of West Indies winning,” it read, “but not a soul has left the stadium. My, my! The excitement of playing for a draw.”
Almost without realizing it, we West Indians have considerably lowered our expectations for our team. In that eminently forgettable recent period when Darren Sammy was in charge, we managed to get ourselves very excited about a string of six matches without defeat.
These had all come, we either forgot or conveniently ignored, against opposition that a WI “best” team, meaning one worthy of the name, would have blown Zimbabwe and Bangladesh out of the water in two or three days. Perhaps twice.
But enthusiastic new coach, two century-makers and a hard-earned First Test draw notwithstanding, Denesh Ramdin’s side is not a WI “best” team. Not by a long shot. At least one well-placed cricketing official agrees with that assessment. Incoming EBC Chairman Colin Graves is reported to have warned that if Alastair Cooke’s men fail to get the better of these “mediocre” West Indians, “there will be some enquiries.”
So despite Tony Cozier’s positive parting shot in yesterday’s Express that “Cooke’s (…) team leaves Antigua ‘on a bit of a downer,’” don’t go holding your breath and waiting for regional cricket to start reaching for the upper regions of the international game any time soon.
His conclusion notwithstanding, Cozier adduces enough evidence in the body of his piece to remind the discerning that the potential for disaster characteristic of West Indian teams since the elevation of Brian Lara to the captaincy has not disappeared with Sammy’s departure. Or Phil Simmons’ arrival.
A “best” team such as the World Cup Champions of 1975 would have contrived to make Graves eat abundant crow. Remember how Clive Lloyd’s men responded by putting England in their place in 1976 after Tony Greig commented that he would make them grovel?
The would-be grovellers became the shame-faced grovellees as Viv Richards made 829 runs in eight innings to help the WI to a convincing 3-0 win. Richards, who missed the Second Test, hit his highest Test score of 291 in the Fifth while Michael Holding earned his best-ever match return of 14 for 149, including no fewer than 12 batsmen either bowled (9) or LBW (3).
But do we realistically expect a similar response from Ramdin’s team? Can we?
Like my friend’s text, the Express headlines over the week of the First Test suggest that the answer is “Not really.” “Still alive,” the back page boasted on Friday morning, followed by “Defiance” on Saturday. And I really envy the insight of those who saw in the First Test performance reason for genuine optimism about the outcome of the next two Tests. On the basis of what I have so far seen, the tourists are indisputably the stronger team with both bat and ball. And they look likely to get even stronger.
On the face of it, I agree, the England batsmen weren’t all that more successful than their WI counterparts. Each side scored two centuries and the visitors recorded four half-centuries to the home side’s three. But the difference lies in the attitude. As Cozier points out, the form of Cooke and Jonathan Trott at the top of the order is a cause for English concern but which of their batsmen can be said to have surrendered his wicket cheaply?
In contrast, Darren Bravo’s first innings dismissal does not do him proud while, in the second innings when survival was clearly the order of the day, three of the WI top order, Jermaine Blackwood, Marlon Samuels and Devon Smith, all gave their hands away.
And then there is the regression of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, for so long the Great Wall of Guyana, who has repeatedly stood between the opposition and victory. Ever since he earned his first maroon cap in Richie Richardson’s side in 1994, the left-hander has been nothing but absolutely reliable.
Statistics may be akin to damn lies but 162 matches spread over more than two decades for an aggregate of 11,834 runs at an average of 52.13 tells an incontrovertible story of productivity, dependability and solidity.
ESPN Cricinfo’s profile says that “the possessor of the crabbiest technique in world cricket (…) has hardly had any prolonged lean periods, and has managed to keep his own standards at a remarkably high level despite the perennial problems that West Indies have faced.”
However, his last four Tests have yielded scores of 21, 4, 7, 9, 50, 46 and 13, a total of 150 runs. Neither four Tests nor the four months that have elapsed since the First Test against South Africa can properly be called a “prolonged period.” Yet all good things must come to an end and the Tiger we saw in South Africa was already, in my view, if not quite toothless, at least already in need of dentures.
Late on in South Africa, the television analysts provided technological evidence that his reactions are now consistently a few nano-seconds slower than when he was in his prime. For those whose instincts drive them to protest that nano-seconds don’t matter, ask Usain Bolt or, closer home, Richard Thompson. Or, if you want to stay with cricket, Cooke or Trott. Or perhaps more to the point, James Anderson and Stuart Broad and the two Mitchells, Starc and Johnson.
And for those whose instincts drive them still to demur, look back at Chanders’ dismissals in the just concluded match. In fact, forget for a moment that he fell caught in front of the wicket off an off-spinner and then to a faster ball from Joe Root, no more than, in the words of one radio commentator, “a partnership breaker who is clearly elated merely to be given a bowl;” consider the fact that, given the circumstances of the game, he was dismissed at all on the last day on Friday.
Might that in and of itself not be evidence that, at 40 years old with 20 years of Test cricket in his bones, the doughty middle-order fighter with 49 not-outs to his credit is no longer the force he used to be?
My view is that the Great Wall has been so breached that, even if he remains fit enough to be selected for the remaining two matches in this series and the two against Australia in June, he is unlikely to add to his tally the 120 runs he still needs to overhaul Lara as the top-scoring West Indian Test batsman of all time.
The cynics will say that is what is keeping him in the game; the sentimental will want him to be given the chance anyway. The pragmatists –– and the dutiful subjects of the Prince of Port-of-Spain –– will call for him to be replaced now without wondering about the answer to the crucial question of with whom.
As far as the bowling department is concerned, the West Indian selectors and the Express headline writer seem to be on the same page. Why on Earth would anyone, given a choice between an in-form Devendra Bishoo and the ultra-predictable Sulieman Benn, select the latter?
Clearly, the selectors too were feeling the feeling and were fired with the excitement of playing for a draw. Thankfully, they have seen the light and have slotted the little Guyanese leg-spinner in in place of the lanky, left-arm orthodox trundler; Ramdin, I feel certain, is breathing a sigh of relief.
But even with Bishoo as an option and the reliable Holder as first change, the skipper is going to have his work cut out for him. Roach and Jerome Taylor clearly are bowlers of genuine class with the ability on their day to scythe through any top order that lacks the discipline the English batsmen as a whole displayed in Antigua.
But if batsmen are prepared to be patient against the new ball and judicious in their shot selection, Samuels, who bowled 25+ overs in the match for his one wicket, and Benn, who bowled twice that number for his two, are simply not going ever to have too much to write home about.
And Ramdin has no Dwayne Bravo (thanks, Mr President), no Sunil Narine or Andre Russell (thanks, IPL) or no Sammy (thank God!) to call on.
So I’ll be either in front of my television or glued to my car radio once the Second Test starts tomorrow. I’ll be hoping to see evidence to support the selectors’ choice of Kraigg Brathwaite over ODI captain Holder as the Test vice-captain.
And I’ll be hoping to see more evidence that what Holder did at the SVRCG was more than merely a stitch in time.
But most of all, I’m hoping to see evidence that the new coach has indeed had an impact on attitudes. With 26 Tests under his belt, he is, in my view, better qualified than his authoritarian predecessor to speak authoritatively to his charges.
He’ll have his success with Ireland to point to; my instincts tell me he will harp on the pivotal part played in his results by trust and discipline. He may be a little hard-pressed to explain why there are 17 single-digit scores and only one century in his 47 Test innings or why he was out caught 29 times –– often, as I remember it, in the arc from wicketkeeper to backward point.
But those who can’t, they say, teach. Or, I submit, coach although the tenure of the last holder must raise questions about the essential truth of that adage.
And I’ll also be monitoring President Cameron’s retweets closely. I hear the incorrigible Mr Graves is monitoring the weather in Grenada where there’s said to be dark cloud around.
“When it rains,” we may just hear from the Englishman “you poor suckers should rejoice.”