England v West Indies, 2nd npower Test, Chester-le-Street, 5th day May 18, 2009

West Indian listlessness a sign of the times

As West Indies slumped to a series defeat, Caribbean ire has been as high as the jubilation a few weeks ago

Not long after lunch on the final day, West Indies returned the Wisden Trophy they had held for barely two months back into the English hands that had polished it for nine years.

If there was anything surprising about that, it could only have been to the president of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), Julian Hunte, who had declared himself unaware that the Wisden Trophy was at stake. Could he be excused for hinting that the newly resigned CEO, Donald Peters, was responsible for agreeing to a two-match tour outside of the schedule? Whether it was the doing of Peters, the ECB, the ICC or the WICB, the series itself was devoid of anything but commercial meaning and the West Indies players were evidently not up to even those demands.

From the moment England lost the first Test in the Caribbean a few months ago, Andrew Strauss and his men played with the same formula that they used in this series. The difference this time around was the English weather.

Strauss went for first-innings totals and declarations that guaranteed draws under the Caribbean sun, but the ploy worked like the Snow Queen chilling out Narnia in England, freezing West Indian players to icy capitulations under four days.

Caribbean ire was as high as the jubilation had been weeks before. All the WICB components were branded as jokers: President, CEO, and the captain, Chris Gayle. Who authorised Gayle's extended stay at the IPL? How dare he come into the team two days before the match (against the expressed wishes of Coach John Dyson and manager Omar Khan) and complain about cold wind stinging his eyes?

What did he mean by yawning all over Test cricket and suggesting that it could never bring 'nuff love beads to break him into a sweat like Twenty20? He said it to the English but West Indians went wild. This Test business is where they had formed an identity. What made this upstart think he could dismiss it in favour of Twenty20 scintillation while he was captain of the West Indies Test team?

He should have kept it to himself. A few whispers in his ear later, he tried to backtrack, not recant, but soften the wounds which, like all West Indian injuries, lie suppuratingly close to the skin. Too late.

What had changed with Gayle? Absolutely nothing. As Tony Cozier said, he spoke just as he bats.

It took nearly 10 years of sliding for people to recognise that a cultural shift had taken place within West Indies cricket. It took another five to recognise that players carried different values, beliefs and knowledge. Basic skills and technical competencies were present, but they rested on flimsy platforms and crumbled easily.

Leadership that could help restore the missing discipline, commitment and fitness was what the times called for, and as the Brian Lara epoch ended, it seemed these would be key factors in filling the captaincy. Daren Ganga, working with a supportive Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board of Control (TTCBC) had built a formidable national team that carried these qualities as their esprit de corps. Proposals that Ganga be considered as the newly required type of West Indian leader were dismissed on the grounds of his low Test average. Gayle, with his big wooden bat and his cool nonchalance seemed to be just enough one of the boys to counter the aloofness that characterised the captaincy styles of Lara and then Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

In selecting Gayle, the WICB chose to endorse the same deleterious cultural attitude and actively promoted its spread. Curfews were scoffed at, training was a matter of convenience, the captain need not direct his team on the field; claps on the back and comradely jokes dissipated tensions that arose from poor judgements. A man could turn up when he wanted, forget the coach and manager.

Gayle, it must be said, has never claimed to be anything other than what he has consistently been. He's made it clear that what we see is what we get. He never lunged for the captaincy, and he has offered his resignation more than once, but gestures aside, the reality is that he holds the position whatever his reservations.

So having reluctantly accepted the captaincy, did he offer a strategic plan? Did the WICB enunciate theirs?

I don't wish to dredge up the past that infuriates contemporary players because of its whip-like application, but when Clive Lloyd became captain, he made it very clear what he saw as the thrust of his captaincy. He had talented players, but felt they lacked discipline, commitment and fitness, and he set those as his deliberate targets. His team became known as world champions when those elements coalesced with hitherto un-harnessed talent.

Whatever Gayle's talents, they are as much in need of focus as the rest of the team, and without someone like a Ganga to lead him, he will continue throwing his bat and his words intemperately.

But Gayle's words, as skanky as they may be, predict a paradigm shift which has already begun. A generation that is marked by the quest for instant gratification, where speed is paramount, where celebrity status is attainable right on the boundary ropes, such a generation cannot be induced to the often soporific pace of Test cricket. And nothing in Test cricket's stature can be enhanced by its custodians' preference to flatten pitches than to enliven the game.

This generation wants lights, action, cameras, raucous crowds and lots of moolah. Nothing suggests that this will change. Ian Bishop was making the point that within the Twenty20 folds there are several players who've never been seen in international cricket at Test or ODI level. This means that they are building their careers entirely with the Twenty20 parameter, and are not even bothering to aim for Test status.

Gayle was annoying, but he wasn't lying, and while his words seem blasphemous, they tell the story of our time because they reflect what this generation wants.

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad

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