Outskilled! Thus did England Test captain Joe Root sum up the reason for his team’s 1-3 defeat in the recently concluded four-Test series at the hands of Virat Kohli’s India.
West Indies white ball captain Kieron Pollard, whose team eked out a narrow 2-1 victory over Angelo Mathews’ Sri Lanka side on Sunday evening, never conceded the point. But his men could so easily have also found themselves outskilled in the series.
Thank the cricketing gods for a handful of critical events that went WI’s way.
And for former captain Jason Holder.
Had Ashen Bandara not failed, at 107 for 6 in the 1st T20, to hold on to Holder’s dolly of a lofted drive at long-on off wrist-spinning hat-trickster Akila Dananjaya, Mathews’ side might well have found themselves 1-0 up after Wednesday.
But after a stern talking-to from Dwayne Bravo following the fortunate let-off, Holder put his head down and the pair steered WI to a 4-wkt win.
Then on Sunday, long-on Danushka Gunathilaka dropped a sitter from Lendl Simmons off Wanindu Hasaranga’s very first ball. Later, the spinner had the misfortune to overstep off the second ball of his final over, the 18th of the innings. Holder clattered the free-hit ball for six, reducing the runs required to 20 off the last 12 balls.
Had those three outcomes been different, what ended up as a narrow 2-1 West Indies win might well have become an easy 3-0 Sri Lanka clean sweep.
And it helped that, on Sunday, right-arm leg-spin/googly specialist Dananjaya (4-0-53-0) did not bring his ‘A’ game.
The balance of power in the series changed once the Sri Lanka leadership had taken a close-up look at the details of Wednesday’s first match. A cursory analysis revealed that, but for Pollard’s record-breaking 36-run power-play in the last power-play over, there really was not too much to vaunt about the much vaunted WI batting line-up.
That analysis done, the tourists made their move, adding left-arm wrist-spinner Lakshan Sadakan to the attack. The move paid rich dividends on Friday and Sunday, the new boy returning match figures of 3.4-0-10-3 and 4-0-29-3 in Games 2 and 3.
In Game 1, a morale-boosting fourth over hat-trick had turned bitter-sweet for Dananjaya. In the sixth over, Pollard enrolled him in the exclusive two-member international sixers club featuring Stuart Broad and Daan van Bunge. But he returned to claim a momentum-slowing 1/13 in his four overs on Friday when eventual Player-of-the-Series Hasaranga’s 3/17 helped leave Pollard’s men 44 runs short of their 161-run target.
Hasaranga had claimed 3/12 on Wednesday and on Sunday also compelled Holder to opt for safety after the liberating free hit.
The Sri Lanka spinners tied the WI batsmen up in knots but, despite claiming 18 of the 23 WI wickets to fall, they did not have it all their way. Dushmantha Chameera twice cleaned up Pooran, accounting as well for the experienced Bravo and Pollard in Games 2 and 3.
The spinners dismissed Nicholas Pooran, Chris Gayle and Fabian Allen for golden ducks in the opening game and Dwayne Bravo on Sunday.
In sharp contrast, Pollard’s own spinners claimed only four wickets in the three matches, two each for Allen and young rookie off-spinner Kevin Sinclair in Games 1 and 3. This brings grist to the mill of those who insist that the WI batsmen have a problem with the spinning ball.
Only Pooran and Holder seemed comfortable against it although the former captain twice nullified that potential advantage by opting for clearly injudicious shots in the first two games.
In fact, towards the end of Sunday’s game, the left-handed Allen confessed his discomfiture at the prospect of having to face Hasaranga. But once Holder had nullified the Hasaranga threat, he smashed three sixes off Dananjaya’s final over to make his personal tally 21, settling WI nerves and taking his team to a 3-wkt win.
Allen’s electric fielding has long been the outstanding element of his game but on the weekend he finally put his all-rounder’s hand up. He first did so literally to take a splendid right-handed return catch off Gunathilaka and break the opening partnership that had essentially won Game 2 for the visitors by 43 runs.
Included in place of Fidel Edwards in Game 3, Rovman Powell looked completely at sea; as a former American Secretary of State, his namesake, Colin Powell, one felt, knew more about spin than he did.
Looking on from the stands, lead selector Roger Harper was probably hemming and hawing. He might have felt that his panel’s decision to keep faith with Allen has at last been justified. Less so the decision to recall and include in the starting XI the three 35-year-plussers.
In fact, Edwards’ meagre 4-0-29-1 and 2-0-19-0 returns in the first two games saw him lose his place in Sunday’s final game.
Bravo, however, was quite obviously taking his mentorship role very seriously, repeatedly shouting advice and encouragement to the team as a whole and consistently walking over from mid-off to have one-on-one discussions with the inexperienced Obed McCoy.
The stern talking-to he gave Holder after his fortunate let-off in Game 1 might well have still been ringing in the former skipper’s ears during his match-winning Game 3 partnership with Allen.
Both in the field and at the crease, Gayle made his fans conscious more of his age than of his experience.
So it would be a major surprise if the trio returned for the three-T20 series against Australia in June/July or the similar one that follows against Pakistan in July/August. None is included in the squad for the ODIs which begin on Wednesday at the Sir Vivian Richards Ground in Antigua.
All in all, what the series showed is that WI have serious work to do between now and October to have any real chance of retaining the ICC T20 World Cup title they captured so spectacularly in India in 2016.
The architects of India’s convincing come-from-behind series win were Axar Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin, who claimed 59 England wickets between them in four Tests. That or some similar pairing will feature in India’s squad in October/November.
In his post-series match comments on Sunday, skipper Pollard diplomatically opted not to deal frontally with the issue of his team’s readiness, focusing on the victory.
More forthright, coach Phil Simmons has more than once since Game 1 discussed the need for his batsmen to make the necessary technical and tactical adjustments. They must, he has stressed, learn to give a better account of themselves as a team and as individuals against the turning ball.
So as new and old talent takes centre-stage in the next three weeks, the T20 specialists have their work cut out for them.
All those who want to ensure Harper’s panel deems their inclusion in the final analysis potentially a net gain rather than a net loss will have to spend long hours in the nets.