August 17, 2007

Lessons from a salvo

How Ramnaresh Sarwan's recent criticism of former coach Bennett King is symptomatic of what ails West Indian cricket at large



Sarwan's claims are true about King's manner being rough, but there is evidence that the players have not been inclined to regard coaching instructions © AFP

Recent comments by West Indies captain Ramnaresh Sarwan while he was in Toronto for therapy for his shoulder injury have raised eyebrows and set tongues wagging. Sarwan was reported to have called former coach Bennett King the "worst coach" he had ever had, and to have said King's manner was aggressive and intimidated younger players.

Much speculation has been raised over the timing of Sarwan's remarks, especially as King had returned to Australia a couple of months ago. Had Sarwan been waiting for the new administration to be assembled before airing his gripe? It seems more likely that Sarwan was simply responding to a pointed question and his remarks were neither premeditated nor part of some unfolding strategy.

His history alone reveals the likeliness of this: Sarwan is a chatterbox and will talk freely once he gets going. Perhaps the acupuncture treatment made him more relaxed and inclined to greater frankness, but it is unlikely that he has been biding time and planning a hit.

Yet hit he did. Not only at Bennett King, towards whom his remarks were scathing, but also at his former captain, Brian Lara. Sarwan was bitter as he spoke of the circumstances under which he was dropped for the second Test against Pakistan at Multan in 2006.

"I was in the dressing room on the morning of the Test preparing to go out for batting practice when Brian approached me and said I was not playing," he recounted. "I was very shocked, but I said nothing and went out to do some batting drills. I don't think my omission was justified. I was very angry because there was no specific reason given for the decision to drop me. It made me understand that the sport is also about politics and that people would do what's necessary to accomplish their own goals, whatever that might be. It was a very humiliating experience, but I think it has made me stronger as a person."

The incident was one Lara had explained as aimed at sending a message to Sarwan to help him improve his game. Indeed, reports were circulating behind the scenes that Sarwan's behaviour at the time was arrogant and that he heeded no one.

Was it appropriate to tell him on the morning of the Test that he was not playing? He was not the first to have been summarily dropped, but surely he was not clueless about the impact of his behaviour. Remember, Clive Lloyd had been asked (after Garry Sobers was unavailable) to come out to join the team to help with player relations.

Sarwan's ego was reasonably wounded by the cut. With many non-cricket months under his belt since, one expects that he would have revisited the circumstances mentally and tried to assess the situation from a distance. If he has done so, and still arrives at the conclusion that his being dropped was a politically motivated move to facilitate other people's goals, that says a great deal about Sarwan, about his relationship with Lara, and about the general atmosphere in which these players huddle (or don't).

Whether Sarwan's remarks were intemperate or not should not cloud the issue because, right or wrong, he has communicated quite clearly that these flawed relations are as much to blame for poor performance as anything else

Sarwan's criticism of King follows similar statements, notably by Marlon Samuels, about the relationship between coach and players. Perhaps Sarwan's claims are true about King's manner being rough, but then there is also the question of how rough is rough. I don't doubt that Sarwan believes what he says. I also think there is evidence that the players have not been inclined to regard coaching instructions, and those concerning nutrition and physical fitness, with respect. Some months ago a physio's report was circulated that cited some serious slackness within the outfit in each of these areas.

Sarwan himself is not known to be keen on training. In the same Toronto interview he spoke of his ambivalence as he went after the ball, attempting to field which he injured himself. "I wanted to dive earlier, but by the time I realised I was very close to the boundary, I lunged forward and fell awkwardly. Looking back, it was obviously not the right thing to do."

Is it that they are not trained on how to slide and dive, or is it that they ignore the training? Coaches galore have come and gone, most complaining that they cannot get the team to comply. Even Malcolm Marshall threw up his hands in despair. Is it a coach problem, a team problem, or the inability of both sides to understand each other's roles and responsibilities?

Sarwan may have inadvertently started another debate over what ails West Indies cricket. Whether his remarks were intemperate or not should not cloud the issue because, right or wrong, he has communicated quite clearly that these flawed relations are as much to blame for poor performance as anything else. The new board would do well to address that, rather than seek to employ the old method of disciplining the messenger.

Who do you think is to blame: the coach or the players? Tell us here

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad