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There are signs of a fragile recovery in West Indies cricket and a place in the World Twenty20 final - the prospect of silverware - would give long-suffering fans something to cling to
October 4, 2012
When you can boast the two fastest men on the planet, it has to do a lot for your sense of sporting well-being. West Indies meet Australia with the exploits of Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake at the London Olympics still fresh in the mind. They won gold and silver over 100m and 200m for Jamaica, but throughout the Caribbean the millions looking on with pride felt able to take ownership of a magnificent spectacle.
For decades, West Indies cricket has been the unifying force for the Caribbean. At times it has seen an unwelcome task as the individual islands increasingly seek out an independent identity. But Bolt and Blake proved that the Caribbean can still think as one and, if West Indies follow up Olympic glory with victory in World Twenty20, they can ensure the sense of belonging deepens.
There was a time during the Olympics, for a few hours or more, when Blake - perhaps with the exclusion of Chris Gayle - was arguably the Caribbean's most famous cricketer. He suggested ambitiously that he was a better cricketer than a sprinter, ceremoniously rang the bell at the start of a day in the Lord's Test and claimed that he was seriously eyeing an opportunity in the Big Bash League. Bolt followed suit, although unlike Blake he could not claim to have a bowling machine at home cranked up to 90mph. Whatever, it was great theatre; a marketeer's dream.
In Colombo we have reached the second semi-final of World Twenty20 and the bona fide cricketers of West Indies now hope to capitalise on such uplifting memories. Their coach, Ottis Gibson, would have missed a trick if he had not extolled the achievements of Bolt and Blake at the start of the tournament and West Indies are contesting World Twenty20 under the slogan: "One team, one people, one goal."
It has to be said that 24 hours before the match unity in West Indies cricket was not 100% apparent. In Port-of-Spain, the entire Trinidad and Tobago squad had threatened not to travel to the Champions League in South Africa because of issues of the share of the payments received by the board for the involvement of Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo and Sunil Narine in IPL. The Trinidad contingent in Colombo with the West Indies were said to be closely involved.
At such times, an old inspirational speech by Gibson might be recalled with a raised eyebrow or two, but Darren Sammy, West Indies' captain, referred to it with pride intact.
"That was definitely remembered in our preparation," he said. "What happened in the Olympics has given the Caribbean people a lot of inspiration. I remember being in Jamaica watching the men and women's 100 and 200 metre finals. Even though it was Jamaica winning, it felt like the entire Carribean.
"Cricket is a game that unites the Carribean people so I know everyone at home is rooting for us. With all that's happened at the Olympics, it's another step for us to put a smile on the face of our fans' faces. We dedicate this tournament for all the die-hard fans supporting us through thick and thin. Now it's a golden opportunity to go out and win this for them."
If Jamaica, a country of 2.7 million people, can take a clean sweep of the men's Olympic sprinting gold, then it can also produce, in Gayle, a cricketer worthy of a winner's medal in the World Twenty20. The charisma of both is undeniable. They keep in contact quite regularly. Gayle once batted against Bolt in a charity match and is happy to suggest that Bolt made him hurry with a "competitive bouncer."
Sammy even uses imagery from athletics to describe West Indies' progress to the semi-finals. "Since the coach came on board, we've instilled a positive, can-do attitude in the team," he said. "In any organisation, any team, any group - the more you work together, the more you achieve. We have a lot of belief, and that's been the biggest factor for us. We saw it as a 100-metre hurdle. We've got two more hurdles to jump to reach the finish line. Tomorrow is about jumping that hurdle."
It has to be said that West Indies have struck a few hurdles along the way. They were well beaten by Sri Lanka in the Super Eights at Pallakele, hammered by nine wickets after making only 129 for 5 against an unorthodox Sri Lankan attack, bamboozled by Ajantha Mendis' spin assortment, Nuwan Kulasekara's mix of inswingers and huge slower balls and Jeevan Mendis' skiddy legrollers.
They also lost to Australia in the qualifying group, but it was a game wrecked by rain and Australia's 17-run winning margin on Duckworth Lewis was largely an irrelevance in which batsmen flayed bowlers out of sight all night. Pitches have deteriorated at Premadasa in the intervening days.
"We believe we can go onto win matches. We've not had the best tournament, but we're still in the semi finals," Sammy said. "We've always had good games against Australia. We've always scored heavily against them. We back our guys and their pace attack seems to favour us. Our game against Australia was shaping up to be a very exciting one. Hopefully we have another exciting game and we come out on top.
"They have a lot of experience at the top of the order, but as we saw against Pakistan, you can get into that middle order. We back ourselves and we think we have the bowlers in there to get wickets against them.
"It's a different stage of the tournament. It's the semi finals and there's a lot at stake. We just have to bring our A game."
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