May 2, 2011

West Indies' mentorship problem

The experienced players are out; the legends of the past aren't exactly interested. Who is to guide the new generation?

Roughly the teams are not that far apart in terms of inexperience. The latest installment of one of the statistics-driven columns on this website, the List, compared limited-overs sides with bare Test experience, and Travis Basevi and George Binoy put West Indies and Pakistan pretty much in the same boat. But with three ODIs played according to a pattern, the teams seem oceans apart.

The rudderless West Indies dropped anchor on still water and ended up castaways at the end of each encounter. Sturdy, purposeful starts, discomfort against spin, reckless shots, clatter of wickets, indefensible totals - that's been the pattern. If there were lessons, there was no sign that anybody had learned them.

After someone dropped a catch, the captain, Darren Sammy, dropped to his knees as if his body had lost every supporting muscle, his head tilted skywards, eyes pressed shut as he skidded along, bellowing. It was unbridled anguish and helplessness. What might he have communicated by such melodrama?

The dropping of Christopher Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul seems to have provoked a discussion that is fixated on the three individuals rather than their value as providers of experience, to nurture, guide and instill confidence in the unseasoned ones.

Experience alone does not a mentor make. It is the quality of the experience to be passed along that matters. So Gayle might be able to show the young players how to keep a cool head when the pressure builds. Sarwan might be able to teach them how to size up any opposition, and Chanderpaul to show them how to hunker down for a long haul. It is what a particular presence can bring.

Importantly, a mentor has to be someone who inspires confidence and respect. Who on this team can steady nerves so easily rocked by pressure? Who can say look out for when the bowler's shoulder drops a little - it means he's changing the delivery? Who can tell Devendra Bishoo not to go for a reverse-sweep at a critical moment? Who can tell Dwayne Bravo that he should know better?

Bravo has played 40 Test matches, Marlon Samuels 29, Sammy 11, and none of those who have played Tests in the ODI team have had more than 10, as the List pointed out.

Frankly, a look around doesn't reveal too many prospects. There's a body here and another there with a couple of elements of the character needed, but scarcely a fully assembled model that could do the whole job. At times like this, despite the penchant for a captain with a swagger, West Indians muse about installing a rock: a Chanderpaul, a Brendan Nash, even a Daren Ganga gets considered. They seek the Larry Gomes model. The objective is to find balance.

So if the internal cupboard is bare it might seem logical to find the mentoring support externally and install it in close proximity to the team. We cannot help but wonder how Darren Bravo would fare under the tutelage of Brian Lara. Could Lara help him develop the capacity to construct a long innings? Could Lara not teach them how to play spin? (Can't say Lara would want to, but…) With so many spinners on the West Indian landscape, how is playing it still such a mystery to the batsmen? How about Dinanath Ramnarine taking up his WIPA guard (or dropping it) and offering some tips?

Desmond Haynes has been appointed a batting coach on a temporary basis. With his stint defined as a transient one, would he or the players feel that it can be anything but a superficial relationship?

For many of yesterday's cricketers it seems too easy for today's players to achieve what it took them a lifetime to acquire - if they ever did. Worse, they're certain that, with what they see as their superior talents, if they had to compete on the same playing field, they would make the youngsters snort

Because they have been kept at a distance, and have known fractious relations with the WICB, former players, particularly those who knew and were part of a winning West Indies team, generally suck their teeth at the crop of the past two decades.

While it is not uncommon for each generation anywhere to roll their eyes at the ones after them, several factors exacerbate it in the case of West Indies.

The mess of knickers in a flap over the IPL's allure and its perceived threat to the nobility of playing for country tells the story eloquently. The IPL has become a wanton siren tempting nationals to forsake patriotism for the sake of money. Test cricket has been promenaded as its victim. One comment to Dileep Premachandran's perspective on the issue was, "We need people to see the beauty of Test cricket again." Even as someone who loves Test cricket, I have to ask this question: How many people can still find the time to watch every day of a beautiful Test match?

In the quest of a moral high ground from which to condemn today's players for opting for IPL money, many compare Test players of yore with today's and swear that they would never have chosen club before country. Heroes who have been elevated to a pantheon are inclined to believe the stories and legends surrounding them, no matter how gossamer. Erased are all their foibles.

Without the kind of money that now pours in and out of cricket, a player then was reaching for prestige, glamour and glory, and for most it was attainable only through representing one's country. Why was cricket turned upside down by Kerry Packer? He was paying them money they had never imagined. And it caused a furore then too.

The point is that for many of yesterday's cricketers it seems too easy for today's players to achieve what it took them a lifetime to acquire - if they ever did. Worse, they're certain that, with what they see as their superior talents, if they had to compete on the same playing field, they would make the youngsters snort.

Add the disregard the youth have for their ancestors, borne either of ignorance, or of a backlash to the hostile way the glory days have been drummed into their skulls, and you have a mentorship programme fraught with complication.

If the mentoring cannot come from either past or current players, where then can it be found?

"They need a professional psychologist to become part of the team's management," says psychiatrist Professor Gerard Hutchinson. Players, past and present, would benefit from the kind of counselling that psychology offers, "like having a mental physiotherapist dealing with things as they occur", he says.

Hutchinson, Head of Psychiatry at the University of the West Indies and a close follower of West Indies cricket, believes that the players lack confidence and self-belief. Even Dwayne Bravo, who seems to have a surfeit of those attributes, may not be quite as cocksure as he seems to be. Hutchinson believes with the nurturing and guidance offered by a psychologist, the likes of Lendl Simmons and Darren Bravo could last longer at the crease; that other batsmen would find confidence to play the spin he thinks they are afraid to face (though they know how); that they would know how to stand their ground under pressure and would know how to keep the momentum going to the end of a day's play.

Many years ago, when Pat Rousseau was WICB president, he had scoffed at the idea that such therapies could help, dismissing them as unmanly approaches to a man's game. Rousseau reigned during the South Africa tour of 1998, a massive stain on the West Indian soul. I remember Michael Holding saying how he could see the fear in the eyes of the players, as they were demolished without defence in that miserable series. They all needed therapy after that. They did not get it.

Given that the history of the last two decades is so pocked by eruptions of hostility, malice and deceit between the WICB and players at all levels, I'd say the psychiatrist is right, but that the WICB needs the same treatment just as urgently. Their approach has been a bit too manly for the gentleman's game.

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad

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