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With a misfiring seam attack and the mystery absent from their chief spinner, West Indies must hope their batting can gun down all before them
September 30, 2012
It was Poya day in Sri Lanka on Saturday and at dead of night, in the hills beyond the broad, slow-moving Mahaweli River, dogs were howling at the full moon. It was quite a concert, each howl or bark encouraging another until the luminous green hills were awash with noise.
It was not a time for restful sleep and, if he heard the racket a couple of miles downriver in his Kandy hotel, West Indies' captain, Darren Sammy, might have been tempted to emit a guttural cry of his own. The West Indies were many people's favourites at the start of the World Twenty20, but after their convincing Super Eights defeat against Sri Lanka they, too, are howling at the moon, anxious, powerless, no longer having the strut of potential champions.
Their batting can potentially overpower any opposition, especially if the chief attack dog, Chris Gayle, is in the mood, or if Kieron Pollard, hugely disappointing so far, begins to muscle the ball over the ropes, but if it takes a strong bowling attack to win Twenty20 then they might as well be discounted now.
West Indies can still qualify for the semi-finals. They feel like they have the measure of their final opponents, New Zealand, after beating them heavily in the Caribbean in July, 4-1 in an ODI series as well as Test victories in Jamaica and Antigua. Victory would give them four points, enough to go through if Sri Lanka beat England, but leaving their fate to be determined on run rate if England discover the "perfect performance" against Sri Lanka that their captain, Stuart Broad, believes is just around the corner.
Deep down, Sammy must know that his batsmen are best placed to fashion that victory, and that Gayle is more likely to fashion it than most. Sammy bristled during a qualifying match against Ireland when it was suggested that spectators just watched West Indies to watch Gayle - such suggestions undermine the team ethic he has fought so hard to implant - but Gayle's influence on West Indies' success is undeniable.
Against Sri Lanka, for the first time in the tournament, Gayle failed, and West Indies failed with him, indubitably so. Even then attention remained with him. When he was dismissed, the Sri Lankan DJ dared to taunt him by playing Gangnam Style, the Korean rap song from which he has adopted his signature dance. The assumption in Sri Lanka's celebrations was clear to see: get Gayle and you get West Indies.
|To hide behind the enduring image of West Indies cricket as under-resourced and, as a result, slightly ramshackle, is hardly a vision for the future.|
What was it someone once said about Sammy? That he was the sort of big-hearted, affable man they would gladly follow him into battle but they would not give much for their chances of survival? That remark sprang to mind at Pallakele on Saturday night as Sammy took it upon himself to bowl four overs of mundane medium pace while Sri Lanka eased their way past an inadequate West Indies total of 129 for 5, winning by nine wickets with nearly five overs to spare.
His combined record in all formats produces a batting average of less than 20 and a bowling return in the mid-30s. In T20 cricket, he barely averages double figures with the bat. On West Indies' tour of England last summer, he was persistently asked whether he was worth his place in the side and he would respond heartily that he was captain, he was in the side, showing no sense of ill will towards his inquisitor. When he made a rip-roaring maiden Test hundred at Trent Bridge, there can hardly have been a person in the ground who was not cheered by what they had seen.
But his presence in the West Indies side at No. 8 adds further vagueness to a side that since their opening match of the tournament has omitted three specialist batsmen - Lendl Simmons, Dwayne Smith and Darren Bravo - and yet even with this imbalance still managed to field a bits-and-pieces attack in which it was difficult to place much faith.
Tactically, West Indies came adrift against Sri Lanka. A dry pitch had the capacity to turn in the opening match between England and New Zealand. By the end of the night, it was a perfect surface for Sri Lanka's spinners, but West Indies omitted Samuel Badree's legspin (he will surely return against New Zealand) and, as Mahele Jaywardene batted much as he pleased, overlooked the spin options of Gayle and Marlon Samuels.
As for the mystery spinner Sunil Narine, the only mystery at the moment is why there no longer seems to be much mystery. So far there has been more mystery in a bad episode of Agatha Christie. His success against New Zealand only two months ago will give him hope of better denouement on Monday.
Jayawardene insisted, though, that as well as he and Kumar Sangakkara played Narine, he could not be discounted. "The bigger picture is we were just chasing 130 and we had a good start, so we didn't have to take unnecessary risks against Sunil," he said. "We just milked runs off him; he had a very defensive field. According to the situation we just handled him.
"I have played him three or four times in the IPL but he is still a fantastic bowler. It is one thing to pick him; it is another thing to play him as well. Kumar played him for the first time and batted really well against him. When we bat against guys like Murali and Mendis in the nets we learn to watch the ball properly or those guys will have a web around us."
Either West Indies did not bowl much spin against Sri Lanka because presumably because they felt that, even if they picked Badree, they did not have the quality to trouble them or they simply misread the pitch. "I don't think we have a pitch consultant," Sammy said when asked how the decision had been reached. To hide behind the enduring image of West Indies cricket as under-resourced and, as a result, slightly ramshackle, was a jovial response but it was hardly a vision for the future.
"I said the Sri Lankans would be a challenge in these conditions and they proved to be," Sammy said. "The pitch definitely suited them but we are playing international cricket and in Sri Lanka we expect the wickets to turn. It is nothing new to us. But I don't think we adapted quickly enough when we batted. Even though they had a lot of dot balls, normally they get the partnerships."
Against New Zealand, Sammy hopes for a substantial turnaround with bat and ball. "It will be good to have a big total on the board - 190 plus - so it gives our bowlers a little bit of leeway." As the tournament progresses, the pitches tire and the scores potentially fall, that would certainly be some leeway, even with Gayle and co. at their most destructive. In fact, as the Sri Lanka hills were bathed in half-light, Poya day slipped away, and the dogs began to howl, 190-plus felt a little like moonshine.
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Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge
Plays of the day from the tri-series match between Zimbabwe and South Africa
Would he have fared better than the incumbent middle-order batsmen, Root and Ballance?