'I want to be the workhorse of the team'
Darren Sammy was the cat that got the cream when he faced the press after his third-day heroics at Old Trafford, with visions of that three-wicket over still dancing in his eyes. Two days later, despite a series loss and a troublesome groin that required a precautionary scan, he was still grinning from ear to ear. And why wouldn't he be? On the strength of a single magical bowling spell he had set himself up for life. Now all that remains is for him to live up to his instant reputation.
There have been more stunning arrivals than Sammy's 7 for 66, but few have provoked quite such a deluge of political plaudits. "I got a fax today from the British High Commission in St Lucia," he says. "And also from the office of the prime minister back home. And one guy called to say the last time he had felt this way was when St Lucia got independence in 1979." Who says cricket no longer matters to West Indians?
The truth is, cricket possibly matters to West Indies more than ever before, particularly for an island like St Lucia that invested millions to host a World Cup semi-final in a newly-refurbished stadium - a staggering leap of faith from a country that, until Sammy came along, had never produced a single international cricketer. Until this week, the island's administrators had been wondering how on earth they'd persuade a tenth of the nation's 160,000 residents to come along and fill the ground (and the treasury's coffers) at the next home match. One thing is now for sure - they'll be bursting at the seams whenever it is that Sammy eventually makes his home debut.
The man himself knows it too. "When I walk along the streets at home, you see how the young kids and school children come and shake my hand. It's like the feeling I'd have if I met David Beckham. One young guy said: 'Mister, are you Darren Sammy?' Yes, I replied. He shook my hand and said: 'You make me very proud.' And from that day, his thoughts have always been in my mind. Every time I go out to play cricket, I have an onus on me to go out and perform, and make West Indies and the St Lucian people proud."
|Mister, are you Darren Sammy?' Yes, I replied. He shook my hand and said: 'You make me very proud.' And from that day, his thoughts have always been in my mind. Every time I go out to play cricket, I have an onus on me to go out and perform, and make West Indies and the St Lucian people proud|
And all this, it must be reiterated, came before his Test debut. It seems a terrible burden on one so young, especially someone who - by his own admission - is neither an express fast bowler nor an out-and-out batsman. But Sammy is nothing if not grounded. After all, he's already been named as his country's Sports Personality of the Year three years running, in which time he has also been St Lucia's captain - "captaining a bunch of youngsters", as he puts it. The trappings of fame are nothing new to him, albeit they will have increased exponentially by the time he next goes home.
"It will be a wonderful reception. The St Lucian people will reward me nicely," he says. "But I'm not worried about fame because I know the type of individual I am. The whole nation expects me to do well all the time, but it's been like that since I was growing up from Under-15 to Under-19 level. If you ask anyone at home, I'm a humble type of fellow. I'll walk the streets the same way and talk to everybody because that's the way I was raised. Everyone recognises me but I've handled it well already. I see no reason to change anything."
Given Sammy's extreme circumstances, it's not hard to see how easy it is for the modern-day West Indian cricketers to lose focus, and yet here is a cricketer who really does seem to have his feet firmly nailed to the ground. Partly it's his upbringing: "My father always told me, when you get that opportunity, make sure you grab it with both hands, toes, your whole body ... everything." But partly it's his lack of extreme talent - a blessing that his idol, Brian Lara, was never afforded. Hard work is everything to Sammy, because he knows that without it, he is nothing.
"All the guys [in the team] work hard at their game, but I have to do that little bit extra that somebody who's more potentially capable won't have to do," he admits. "I have the term allrounder because I bowl, I bat and I field, but in reality I'm not really one thing or the other. Coming from St Lucia, where the game is not played to a very high level, I have to practice quality cricket whenever I can.
"I have to work really hard on my batting, and I'm not an express fast bowler so I have to try to contain batsmen, and sometimes work them out to get wickets at the other end. I understand my role in the side and I just work hard in the nets or practice. Throughout my career, I've been known for long spells. I just want to be the workhorse of the team."
|I have the term allrounder because I bowl, I bat and I field, but in reality I'm not really one thing or the other. Coming from St Lucia, where the game is not played to a very high level, I have to practice quality cricket whenever I can|
Sammy has certainly put in the hard yards in preparing himself for his Test debut. His international debut came three long years ago, when he was drafted into the West Indies squad on their last tour of England in 2004. Though his actual debut, against New Zealand at Southampton, was washed out without a ball being bowled, he was back at the Rose Bowl before the English season was out, taking 1 for 19 against Bangladesh in West Indies' opening match of the Champions Trophy. "September 15th, 2004," he recalls. "It was next to politics. I brought the country to life."
At the time Sammy had been working at Lord's on the MCC groundstaff, an experience he describes as the turning point of his career. "Some guys go through their whole international career without playing at Lord's. But here I was, turning up every single day - using the facilities, working with the coaching staff and the cameras and the video clippings. I just had to grab it. And also I was able to learn about playing in English conditions, which suit my game - playing the swinging ball and watching the ball a little longer onto the bat."
Sammy scored over 1100 runs and took more than 100 wickets in two seasons with MCC Young Cricketers, starting with a match against Surrey 2nds at High Wycombe. "At home we have five first-class games a year, maybe seven or eight if you include regional finals. And here I was, a young boy, living the cricketers' dream." Former West Indian pros, such as Michael Holding and Colin Croft, say that the time they spent in county cricket in the 1970s was the best education they ever got. "I'd love to play for a county," says Sammy. "I'd gain a lot. If you are successful in England you will most likely improve on your game."
His performance at Old Trafford was full of the sort of nous that comes with playing in England. Long accurate spells of 11 or 12 overs off the reel, and a willingness to let the pitch do the work. "Runako [Morton] said the effort I put in really lifted the team. I think that's what we needed - somebody to do something special and lift up our spirits, and from then on it was a different West Indian team. That's what our West Indian people are asking, for us to show the fight and zeal - the desire to win. We're getting there. Although we lost the Test match, the enthusiasm we had in the last two-and-a-half days could be a turning point."
Although the glory days of the Caribbean are fading fast, Sammy is not too young to recall the greats when they were in their pomp. "I grew up when West Indies was on top, and I remember staying up late watching Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Lara - I'd die for these guys. I remember sneaking home from school when Brian broke the world record, and later I remember checking his stats and thinking that if I played for West Indies by the age of 21 I could still be playing with him. And so happened in 2004, and it was unbelievable to be in the dressing-room with my childhood hero, talking and rubbing shoulders with him. He's just a living legend."
But that legend has gone now. Instead the flame of West Indies cricket has been passed to men such as Sammy - a man who, if he is embarrassed by the adulation he receives from his St Lucian faithful, does his best to hide it. "We're trying to follow a great legacy but the guys are aware of that and sometimes you have to work with what you've got," he says. "Look at New Zealand; they've not got any big stars. What we have to do now is combine everybody's efforts to get back to winning ways."
Sammy's first imperative, however, is to cope with the tidal wave of adulation that is headed his way. If West Indies is to build on the rocky foundations left by the World Cup experience, St Lucia's first genuine sporting star cannot afford to be its last.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo