Roger Harper is tall, is built like a broad-shouldered boxer and was a great fieldsman and an off-spinner in his time on the cricket fields of the world.
Relevance? At the media conference called to discuss—defend?—the 15-member squad selected by the West Indies lead selector and his panel for the World Cup in the UAE and Oman in October/November, only the boxer turned up.
Harper was short on useful information and not at all impressive in fielding the scores of questions fired at him by a largely dissatisfied media cohort. Rather than the off-spinner who ended his career with 46 wickets in 25 Tests at an average of 18.44, in the conference setting, he closely resembled a mystery wrist-spinner.
He never quite achieved Muhammad Ali’s maxim to float like a butterfly–‘flit’ would be more applicable—and sting like a bee. He sometimes preferred to run away as if he had been stung by a bee.
But boy, did he bob and weave!
Two of the panel’s surprise inclusions, Ravi Rampaul and Roston Chase, met with unanimous approval. The selectors, one questioner offered, were right on the ball in their assessments of this pair. But there seemed to be general disgruntlement with the final squad.
Oshane Thomas in and Akeal Hosein out? The grossly underachieving Darren Bravo in the reserves?
Yet Harper offered no satisfactory answers to those seeking to find out about the reasons for the selectors’ choices. ‘Errors’ neither of commission nor of omission.
The tone was set with the very first question. Quoting copious statistics, including one half-century since 2016 and an average of 16 in the current CPL, the questioner inquired what were the grounds on which almost 42-year-old Chris Gayle had been included in the final 15.
Harper and his panel, came the response, were entirely certain and happy that Gayle has the pedigree to bring value to this team despite averaging 16 in 17 matches this year.
The position of the selection panel is that Gayle ‘will help to make the team a better team’. The elements that won him his place were identified as, inter alia, ‘his experience, we know what he is capable of and I think the squad feels that, with him in it, they are a better squad’.
No one, however asked the obvious question about why we need selectors if what the squad thinks is a metric for selection. Or whether there is indeed a squad to consult before the selection is complete.
Later, Harper would add that Gayle ‘does not have to meet the same fitness standard as some of the younger players do’.
Harper did reveal two of the ‘younger players’, Sherfane Rutherford and Odean Smith, who were required to meet a certain fitness standard and had not done so—whence their non-selection. Sunil Narine’s absence too was due to his failure to make the fitness cut but, at 33, he hardly qualifies as ‘younger’ anymore.
Because Gayle had the benefit of a ‘medical exemption’, Harper explained, he was legitimately held to a lower standard than the others. And, Harper implied without quite saying so, he had met his bar.
The good gentleman did not see it fit to offer any details of the ‘medical exemption’.
Sorry, he said, that is the province of the medical panel; they provide the information and we merely act on it.
Is that kind of thing provided for in the selection policy, someone subsequently inquired?
The long-standing selection policy, Harper deadpanned, is accessible on CWI’s website.
But he did explain helpfully that some of the criteria for selection were ‘performance during the international series we had, composition and balance, fitness policy and what we think will help to bring balance and strength to the team’.
In that sentence, ‘the team’ really meant the ’19-man squad we picked to play the international series’.
That became clear when Harper responded to a question about the date from which the selectors looked at the performance of players.
To Barry Wilkinson’s polite inquiry as to whether he was prepared to concede that, in selecting this squad, the panel had not abided by the guidelines provided by CWI, Harper advised the questioner that that was merely his (the questioner’s) opinion.
Laughably, he further advised him, a journalist, not to try to put words in his (the lead selector’s) mouth.
Once again, it did not seem to occur to the lead selector to quote the relevant section—a relevant section of the policy document in question, which might have helped to put the issue to rest.
Harper explained that the rationale behind including Darren Bravo in the reserves, (any of whom, by the way, will only be called up if one of the 15 is out of the tournament for good), was that: “we thought he was the best of the options available [to fill that spot].”
No concerns about the 37-year-old Dwayne Bravo who just pulled up lame in the CPL?
“I think that is something the medical panel will address.”
And they had been given an assurance that the injury was not serious enough to warrant not considering Bravo the Elder for selection.
Finally, what of Oshane Thomas, who is capable of bowling very fast but often not very straight, who was preferred to former guaranteed all-three-formats player, former WI ODI captain and current Barbados Royals skipper, Jason Holder?
“Oshane brings that sort of X factor,” he began. “We know that when Oshane is at his best…”
I did not hear how the lead selector ended that sentence. In my head, I completed it thus: “…he is very, very good but when he is bad, he is horrid.”
There is little doubt that Harper is not allowing himself to go there. He ended by expressing confidence in the capacity of the team and sounding extremely positive about the possibility of a successful defence of the title.
“The squad is one with good depth and strength in all departments,” Harper said. “There is tremendous T20 experience along with World Cup-winning experience, which should stand the team in good stead.
“This squad is made up of many world-beating players, who, once knitted into a world-beating team, will be extremely difficult to beat. I expect the team to do very well and […] I think the team has a good chance of defending the title.”
Nobody had a chance to ask the smug lead selector what he thought would happen if, for some reason, the team failed to be ‘knitted into a world-beating team’.
Or if there was any chance of that.
Nobody wants to see either the WI or their lead selector kayoed.