“Hmmmmm, here comes the counter-offensive…”
It was not the first two questions that clued me in; it is what came next.
Early on in this week’s Mason and Guests programme, evincing not the slightest interest in the way the West Indies have used the mentors, host Andrew Mason had some pointed questions for lead selector Roger Harper.
“Have you,” he wanted to know, spoken with Carlos Brathwaite recently? Do you think he could be an asset?”
Harper’s responses were ‘No’ and perhaps ‘at the very top of his game’.
The next question concerned ‘Mr Pollard as captain’.
“Are you happy,” Mason inquired, “with his leadership?”
Wary, Harper hesitated before saying he thought Kieron Pollard had ‘done a fairly decent job’.
“Are there any areas,” Mason went on, “that you would want to see him improve in relation to his captaincy?”
Hold yuh horses, bro! Harper, weary, stopped him in his tracks. I see where you’re going and you’re not taking me with you.
End of story? Not by a long shot!
Mason then sought in vain to entice the former off-spinner down into the rabbit-hole, citing Pollard’s ‘predictability’. The explicit reference was to his apparent belief that ‘whenever you win the toss, you should send the opposition in’.
Without being asked, Barbados-born former England batsman Roland Butcher agreed that whenever Pollard wins the toss, he inserts the opposition, without taking account of the specific circumstances on the day.
For that reason, he suggested, the current WI unit will win matches but they won’t win tournaments.
It is, in my view, a completely naïve criticism. One of Frank Worrell’s keys to success as a captain was that he always opted to ‘leave well alone’. But Worrell was already among the dearly departed when the first ODI took place in 1971, let alone the first official T20I in 2004. And Sir Frank’s fine cricketing brain would certainly put him among the first to agree that, in the shortest format of the game, formulae and inflexibility are anathema, a recipe for disaster.
Ask Jason Holder. It is the reason the former Test captain’s white ball record is less than stellar. But don’t expect agreement from Mason. Or Butcher or Holder.
Pollard has forged a proud T20 captaincy record, albeit not as Barbados Tridents captain. One does not have to look closely to spot his awareness that tactics have to be constantly changed. In the just concluded series, on paper at any rate, batting was clearly the WI’s strong suit.
Batting all-rounder—perhaps more accurately, former batting all-rounder—Dwayne Bravo actually batted at #8 in Game 5 but was often listed all the way down at number nine.
In the first game against South Africa which the WI won comfortably by eight wickets, the openers demonstrated what they were capable of. Evin Lewis’ 71 off 35 balls meant that scoreboard pressure was never an issue and 160 was effortlessly overhauled with full five overs to spare.
In that game, to use Pollard’s words about a subsequent encounter, his batsmen ‘got it right’.
What would have been the justification for feeling that the Game 1 performance was an aberration, a fluke? What would have been the justification for changing what was not broken?
Besides, even when Pollard lost the toss and WI had to take first strike in Game 4, they struggled to get up to the scores that the opposition, batting first, had set them. The problem clearly was not batting first but batting badly, first or second. Not, to quote the skipper, getting it right.
Which is what the comment from Curtly Ambrose made clear. The former assistant coach, with a West Indies agenda and no water in his mouth, declared that the ‘foolish’ West Indian approach would doom them to repeated failure.
“We have to get away from that foolish notion,” he thundered., “We’ll win a few but we’ll lose more than we win.”
“Our batsmen have this foolish notion that T20 cricket is all about sixes and fours,” fumed the 6’7’ pacer with 405 Test and 225 ODI wickets to his name. “So we neglect ones and twos and, when we can’t get the boundaries, we soak up a lot of dot balls.”
Ambrose omitted to mention it but one of the problems, of course, is that we have repeatedly saved ourselves from defeat with lusty blows.
Remember Marlon Samuels in the 2012 final? Remember the name Carlos Brathwaite from the 2016 T20 World Cup final? Remember that we were struggling at 62 for 4 when Pollard took a liking to Sri Lanka’s Akila Dananjaya and hoisted him for an outcome-changing six sixes? Remember Fabian Allen’s heroics in Game Three when we almost retrieved an almost hopeless situation?
Yes, we remember. But do WI also remember the 1983 World Cup when we self-destructed in chasing a modest 183?
Do WI also remember Brathwaite in the World Cup in 2019, indefensibly going down in a blaze of glory against New Zealand when needing six runs off seven balls? And let us not forget the powerful quintet who, in Game 2, all swung for the hills only to end up in safe South African hands on the plain.
Tactical flexibility is infinitely more important but there is room for flexibility in the strategy as well. There are few T20 targets that can only be reached by leaps and boundaries and there is often more than one way to skin a cat.
Giving your hand away is sometimes defensible. for example, when the required run-rate threatens to ramp scoreboard pressure up to impossible levels. But you need game awareness to know what the risks are and when they are worth taking.
And game awareness is the captain’s responsibility when his team is in the field. It becomes an individual responsibility or, more accurately, the responsibility of the pair at the wicket when the team is at bat.
In my view, Pollard’s record in the field will easily stand scrutiny. His bowling patterns are virtually non-existent and his batting order is always flexible, responsive to the demands of the moment.
Occasionally, at bat, he too falls to a rush of blood. But in the case of Shimron Hetmyer, Nicholas Pooran, Lendl Simmons, even the in-form Lewis and, latterly, Dwayne Bravo, it now happens far too often.