June 20, 2011

Beware the Caribbean curse

As India kick off their Test series in the West Indies, a look back at a few cautionary tales from the past

Many of us are familiar with Jack Sparrow and the Curse of the Black Pearl. But for some Indian cricketers, especially batsmen, heading to the islands that the pirates of the Caribbean once preyed on has brought with it misfortune of another kind. Think woe in the West Indies and your mind goes to Nari Contractor and a career cruelly cut short by a fracture to the skull in Barbados. But as Abhinav Mukund and Virat Kohli prepare for their Test debuts, and Suresh Raina bids to get his career back on course, there are at least three men who could tell them which channels not to sail.

Long before Contractor, there was Madhav Apte, who outperformed even Sir Frank Worrell in scoring 460 runs at 51 on the 1952-53 tour. Opening the batting, his painstaking unbeaten second-innings 163 saved India the Trinidad Test after they had slumped to 10 for 3. But after that tour, he was never selected again, disappearing into a black hole of administrative ineptitude and bias.

On the Contractor tour, where India were hammered 5-0 by one of the all-time great West Indian sides, the Afghanistan-born Salim Durani was one of the consolations, scoring 259 runs and taking 17 wickets. In Port of Spain, where India made a match of it after conceding a big first-innings lead, he scored 104 in the second innings and had match figures of 4 for 118. But though he would represent India another decade, there would only be 19 more games and no more hundreds. The wait for an allrounder would last till 1978.

The Queen's Park Oval saw more Indian heroics in 1976. Most supporters are aware of the third Test, where India chased down 403 with just four wickets down. Brijesh Patel, who would go on to have one of the most celebrated Ranji Trophy careers, was in the middle when the winning runs were hit, but his finest hour had come a fortnight earlier at the same venue.

That forgotten Trinidad Test, saved only by Clive Lloyd's obdurate 70, saw Patel make 115. In 21 Tests, it was the only time this pillager of domestic attacks would get to three figures. As for the big picture, those two Trinidad results and the loss of Andy Roberts to injury pushed Lloyd towards the four-man-pace solution. Wayne Daniel made his debut in Jamaica, and you don't need Fire in Babylon to tell you what happened next.

In the colour-television age, we have the story of Sanjay Manjrekar, who walked in at 68 for 4 in only his third Test, at the abattoir that was the Kensington Oval. Less than 18 months earlier, Winston Benjamin had sent him to a Delhi hospital in his debut Test. Against Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop, he made a marvellous 108, handling both pace and bounce with a veteran's aplomb. There would be two more centuries in Pakistan later that year (1989), but little to celebrate afterwards, as a career that promised so much fizzled out.

The likes of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Michael Holding, Roberts and that 1989 quartet no longer await Kohli and Mukund. But as India head into a series that will reveal much about the bench strength, they can reflect on a one-day campaign where little went according to plan apart from the scoreline.

India know what they have to do in the Caribbean. Victory will be gracefully accepted - they have, after all, won only four of 42 Tests in the West Indies - but they also need to make a statement before heading to England

The standout batsman was Rohit Sharma, who at times resembled the player he was in Australia in 2008, when it seemed that India's batting would one day revolve around him. He remains on the wait list as far as a Test berth is concerned, though, and only Kohli of the other young hopefuls made any sort of impact.

Raina specialised in the Bollywood shots, and will doubtless be put through a short-ball wringer if he plays at Sabina Park. S Badrinath had a golden opportunity to cement a place, but three innings that brought to mind Lot's wife mean that he's again likely to be on the outside looking in.

The bowling, too, offered little by way of encouragement. Amit Mishra and Munaf Patel excelled in patches, but given the welter of absentees, they were likely to play anyway. Praveen Kumar remains a new-ball specialist, while Ishant Sharma's form fluctuates like the wind at Port Royal.

In the season that has seen that cinematic paean to Lloyd's side released, India know what they have to do in the Caribbean. Victory will be gracefully accepted - they have, after all, won only four of 42 Tests in Guyana and the islands - but they also need to make a statement before heading to England.

Once the five missing stalwarts return, this is a very good side, potentially a great one. But it's also a team with more than a touch of grey at the temples. For Kohli, Mukund, and even Raina, these storied venues that once resounded with the footsteps of Headley and Sobers offer a matchless opportunity to be part of the process of renewal that the team will have to go through sooner rather than later. Hopefully they can steer clear of the Caribbean curse.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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