January 31, 2013

West Indies' chance to move closer to the top teams

In Australia, Sammy and his men have to show if they can build on their successes last year

Darren Sammy's team will begin their 2013 programme of international cricket on Friday with a limited-overs series in Australia. Ask them privately and some of the West Indians would have probably been happy to still be back on their islands, easing into the new year. In December they were trekking back from Asia, having lost the ODI series 2-3 to Bangladesh after winning the two Tests. Now they turn up in Australia for five ODIs and one T20. One could well ask, why bother?

Lacking the history and tradition of Test cricket and the concentrated drama and newness of T20s, ODIs have become the suffering middle child in the family of formats. Outside of the World Cups every four years, the average one-dayer is as forgettable as yesterday's news - hardly remembered beyond the day, or at best the series it was part of.

This particular rubber comes in an Australian summer where the hosts have already taken on World No. 1 South Africa in three Tests and Sri Lanka in three Tests, five ODIs and two T20s.

Sammy's side, ranked a modest seventh in ODIs, has now come to wrap up the summer. Once upon a time, West Indies were the headline acts of the Australian season, not the clean-up men. But in every assignment there is opportunity. Especially for West Indies now.

Even the smallest signs of recovery can be significant for the very ill. So, debilitated by over a decade and a half of steady losses in formats old and new, each win, when it has come, has been a confidence booster, a lifeline of sorts for West Indies cricket.

The year just past, bringing global success via the World Twenty20 triumph in Sri Lanka, parity with Australia in ODIs and T20s, and outright series wins in Tests, ODIs and T20s against New Zealand hinted at better days to come for the international team.

In all ODIS in 2012, Sammy's side won half of the games they played. Success this time in Australia will be a further indication of a side growing in strength.

But for some individuals, one especially, this series is big.

Ramnaresh Sarwan has spent 18 difficult months on the outside, battling the WICB and publicly lamenting his treatment by both board and team management. Cricket rehabilitation seemed to come over the English summer with Leicestershire. And then somewhat out of the blue, he found favour again with the West Indies selectors for this tour.

The eye injury Marlon Samuels suffered in the Big Bash is probably why Sarwan was picked for Australia, but he isn't in great form right now. T20s are not his strongest suit, but even so, 61 runs in eight innings at the Caribbean T20 series was well below his standard, and would have done little for his confidence.

Now Sarwan comes to a country in which he has struggled to score runs in the past, and he must work with coach Ottis Gibson, who he has publicly suggested caused him mental and emotional hurt. The odds of success do not seem great against such a background. But here is a great chance for Sarwan to display the strength of character that can bring his unquestioned physical gifts as a batsman to the fore.

Samuels' loss will be a great one. Not even Gayle was able to match his consistency towards the end of last year. But Samuels' absence means it will be crucial for Gayle to return to form following that dip after the World Twenty20. His 122 for Jamaica in that remarkable Caribbean T20 playoff against Guyana earlier this month was as awesome an innings as he has ever played in the format. That type of leadership, that imposing presence at the crease at the start of the innings, will be vital in Australia.

This tour also gives Darren Bravo the chance to enhance his reputation as an all-round player. He was, but for Gayle's brief intervention, the batsman of the Caribbean T20. If he can play with similar freedom against the Aussies, West Indies' bowlers will have a decent chance of defending good totals.

Sunil Narine will be more familiar to the Australian batsmen now that he has played in the BBL, but he too will be more comfortable with the conditions and the opponents he will face.

However, as Sri Lanka's recent trip Down Under showed, it is the seamers who may hold the key to victory for West Indies. In Kemar Roach, a Big Bash winner himself, and the resurgent Tino Best, West Indies have the weapons to get the job done.

Gibson knows how important it is for his team to make full use of their assets. On arriving in Australia he said of the World Twenty20 win: "It's something we have to move on from and think about moving up the ladder in one-day cricket and getting ourselves in the mix with the best teams in the world. We believe we're a top team, but we now have to show it with the way we play."

The coach has questions to answer, since his future with the team is uncertain. When he flew to Australia, West Indies and Warwickshire were vying for his services. That Gibson would allow himself to go onto a shortlist as a replacement for Ashley Giles at the English county tells a story in itself.

But for the moment his business with the West Indies team is not finished. In Bangladesh there was plenty of indiscipline in executing plans on the field. This series will show whether or not that end-of-year assignment was indeed merely an aberration.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express