The misdirection of Powell's power
When he first appeared on the regional scene, it triggered the kind of buzz one associates with the coming of a messiah or a prodigal son. He was hailed as the next Viv Richards, and the most exciting thing to happen to batting since Brian Lara. It might have been true, but the clamour carried a desperate resonance because of the doldrums West Indies cricket was in.
It might well be that the weight of these frantic hopes cast an unfortunate blight on the career of Ricardo Lloyd Powell, a young Jamaican now turning 20, and about to be thrust onto the world stage. After a brilliant showing in the regional Red Stripe competition, he made his Test debut against New Zealand without scoring in the first innings and only facing five balls, but bowling a tidy five overs with two maidens for 13 runs. In the second innings, moving up a place in the order to bat at No. 5, he scored a quick 30 runs in 32 balls, hitting seven fours in the process. Big hitter? He was that, and more. According to the pundits, he was an allrounder worth nurturing, a clean, powerful right-handed striker of the ball, with lightning-fast reflexes and the ability to see the ball early, both as fielder and batsman.
But youth is often inclined to recklessness unless steered towards temperance, and young Powell wanted to hit every ball over the boundary. Quick runs, sixes and fours, lively up the place, and off he went.
He had a chance at the 1999 World Cup that same year, and that was the beginning of a strange career that seemed only to be put to the Test during one-day matches. Strange because, although the following year he was sent off to the Australian Cricket Academy for a six-week stint along with other young players like Ramnaresh Sarwan, Chris Gayle, Daren Ganga and Jermaine Lawson, he was never again given a Test match until April 2004 (when Brian Lara scored 400 to reclaim his title).
At a time when cricket administrators had no tradition of historical research, data analysis or looking for patterns, it was easy, in the face of public hysteria over the state of West Indian cricket, to classify him as a one-day specialist.
Five years had passed for Powell before he played in a Test again. In the meantime, he'd played in 96 one-dayers, scoring 1937 runs, with a highest score of 124, eight fifties, and had taken 41 catches - not to mention ten wickets with his offspin at an average of 44.10.
A useful player, the kind the team needed - but no investment was made in developing his talent. He didn't seem to be given the kind of chance that Gayle and Sarwan had. Why not?
Even in the flush of excitement when he'd begun, and his likeness to Viv Richards was being hailed, it never occurred to the powers-that-be to look at temperament and age. Wasn't Richards wild and woolly in his early days? He was older than Powell on his debut. The boy had just turned 20; did he deserve to be plopped into a one-day slot without a grace period?
At 25, and still a young man, he has finally been given a place in the team, but he now has to contend with the image of the one-day slogger, and the idea that he is a veteran in an inexperienced team. He's been around, certainly, but not in a Test team.
Gayle and Sarwan have had chance after chance. Think of Gayle trying to drive everything through cover, or Sarwan repeatedly set up for the hook shot. Yet, an investment was made in their development. If the same had been done with Powell, he would have been fulfilling his potential by now. When he migrated to Trinidad and joined the Trinidad & Tobago team, he showed a lot more maturity in his game. He can still become one of the great players of this generation, but my feeling is that he has been deprived of a prime part of his career.
It is simplistic and therefore inviting for commentators to focus purely on individuals in assessing suitability. More often, flawed systems of assessment, selection and development contribute to performance levels. Obvious lessons about the rewards for investing heavily in education and training are still ignored by administrators.
Dwayne Smith has shown magnificent promise, but has failed in his last couple of matches. Will his potential be left unfertilised? If anything is possible, as it seems in West Indies cricket, let's hope the right investment will be made this time.
Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad.