West Indies Cricket July 11, 2011

Sammy and friends

From M Swaroop, India

From M Swaroop, India

There is a theory doing the rounds that with Darren Sammy in the XI, West Indies will always be either one batsman or one bowler short. It is an easy argument to make. Sammy, the batsman, struggles to make an impact because he does not have the defensive technique to play a long innings. Sammy, the bowler, is a holder, and he cannot be more than that at his pace. The only successful attacking Test bowler at Sammy's pace in recent memory is Shaun Pollock, and Sammy doesn't have the skill or the control to be him.

On the morning of the first day of the third Test, I prayed West Indies would have the courage to play one batsman less, and pick Kemar Roach to bowl with Fidel Edwards, Ravi Rampaul, Sammy and Devendra Bishoo. In this series, every time West Indies had the Indian batting on the mat, the batsmen found a passage of uninspiring bowling to capitalise on - Harbhajan and Raina did it in the first Test, Laxman and Raina in the second. A fifth bowler might have helped, I thought; a fresh pair of legs, some variety.

Moreover, the extra batsman hasn't done much. On Friday, with Rampaul missing - an unfortunate, unforeseeable problem - West Indies still had India in trouble, at 18 for 2 and at 172 for 5, and both times, the bowlers who were doing the damage were too tired to continue. A fifth bowler might really have helped. But with Sammy in the fold, a fifth bowler means a batsman less. It means Carlton Baugh bats at six, and Sammy at seven - not confidence-inspiring at all. Which brings us to that easy argument again - that Sammy is a fielder, not good enough as a bowler or batsman.

Let's look at the tougher argument. That West Indies have been struggling to compete in Test matches is obvious. They won a Test after two years against Pakistan earlier this year. They ignominiously lost to Bangladesh at home some time ago when their top players walked out of the series. The board and the players’ association are locked in a battle that resembles a socialist trade union clamour for better pay and working conditions. There are player strikes, suspensions, mysterious selection decisions, controversial interviews, talks of corruption, mishandling, unnecessary interference.

For ten years now, since Walsh retired, West Indies have been fissured and fractured by politics. Sammy's appointment as captain - he's known as a board man, rather than the players' association man his predecessor Gayle was - happened in this context. He was never a regular in the Test side, and in the shorter versions, his report card read, "Can do better". His appointment came as a bolt in the blue. And it was well understood that his role as a captain is similar to his role as a bowler - hold until the next guy is fit and ready. Sammy has done a lot more.

Before Sammy, there were flashes of team-play, in that unexpected Champions Trophy win, for instance. Fans of the team, like myself, have consoled ourselves in individual brilliance - Lara's exploits against Murali, Chanderpaul's invincible runs of attrition, Gayle's random, merciless attacks, and Jerome Taylor's freak spell.

For the first time in ten years, under Sammy, West Indies are playing like a team, pooling in collective resources to punch above their weight - in a manner that reminds one of the way New Zealand play their cricket.

In this home season, they drew with Pakistan, and have troubled India more than most imagined. On Friday, with Rampaul out of the XI, it would have been easy for West Indies to bend over and submit. But two bowlers and Sammy - who, by the way, always bowls better than he looks like he's bowling - all carrying niggles, made India fight for their runs. Except in that last hour, when the bowlers were too tired to make an impact, they traded on equal terms with the Indian batting line-up. Sammy has brought this will to toil to the team, along with heart and commitment

When he's badgered in the press conferences, his responses are never tired, they are honest. When he is asked about his own merit, he responds with belief. When asked about selection, Gayle's for instance, he responds with a shrug, it's not his job to comment. And that is exactly how he plays his cricket, and how he captains the side - with enthusiasm and devotion that belies his natural talent. Maintaining his morale, his conviction amid this pressure from the media and the players is admirable enough; that he infects his team-mates with this courage is the sign of a true leader.

Today's West Indian cricketers are still only discovering how to win, and Sammy is pushing them to discover it together, as a team. Sammy is still doing a holding job, he knows that. When Bravo, Bishoo or Barath are ready, he will, most probably, make way. But he is doing a lot more than he was expected to - it is just a question of time, and a little luck, before results follow.