'One day you're a hero, another a villain'
The West Indies side was at its dominant best when you got your break. How was the experience of sharing the dressing room with a bunch of legendary cricketers?
Since I was so short and the smallest member in the team, they used to treat me like a baby. They handled me as if wrapped in cotton wool, and I felt very comfortable being in a dressing room with these greats… Malcolm Marshall, Viv Richards, Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge, Jeffrey Dujon, Gus Logie - great guys all. I had such a great relationship with the seniors. I could ask many questions about cricket, about bowling and captaincy. So I learned a lot. Now I am a coach, and I still try to put things I learned from them into practice.
The way these guys played their cricket was a no-nonsense deal. So diligent, so hard. It was really amazing. I adapted to the special talent they had. They were athletic men, which made things a lot easier for them. But they worked unbelievably hard despite the natural talent they had.
Coming in as Jeffrey Dujon's successor, you had huge boots to fill. Did that add to the pressure when you got your chance?
I had to wait a long time. My first tour was here in India in 1987-88, and I played my first Test match only in 1992, in Barbados, so that was almost five years I had to wait to play a Test. Most of time, I was sitting on the bench while Dujon was keeping wicket. He was a fantastic wicketkeeper and batsman as well, so they were definitely big boots to fill. I did learn a lot from him - how he applied himself with bat and the gloves, and I just had to wait my turn.
Your debut was a historic game - West Indies' first against South Africa after readmission. How did it feel to be a part of such a big moment?
It was a historic Test match, but equally it was a great game of cricket. We came back from behind and won that match. The two greats, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, bowled South Africa out dramatically on the final day. It was my first Test, and it is still very, very special to me.
It was a one-off Test match for us. Cricket is cricket, and irrespective of who you are playing you want to make friends, ensure that you enjoy yourself. You play as hard as you can and you want victory. We were just happy to play South Africa and weren't concerned about what was going on outside. Every nation wants to play cricket, and in spite of the differences that abound, it was very important for everyone to understand that.
You held seven catches in your second Test, in Brisbane, but were dropped after the next match and stayed out for five years. Did you feel you got a raw deal?
Not really. I had a very poor Test match in Melbourne, and we lost that Test. I dropped Mark Waugh, who went on and made a hundred. And I didn't bat very well either - I got a pair! After doing so well in the first Test, I was brimming with confidence, but that's the nature of cricket. One day you are hero, another day you are villain.
Shane Warne got seven wickets in the second innings, and got me caught at extra cover. I was trying to drive him, but I just didn't get to the pitch and was caught by Mark Waugh. It was a challenge, having seen Warne on TV and then being out there playing against him. I was pretty calm but I wasn't as confident as one would have expected me to be. Batting against Warne was not going to be easy, especially on a third- or fourth-day pitch.
I think the drop was justified, because I had somehow lost my confidence in just one game. It was a four-Test series. We had drawn the first one and lost the second, so we had just two Tests to change things around, and decisions had to be made. They saw it fit to add some batting to the team as well, and they brought in Junior Murray. Looking back, it was probably the right decision, since Murray did well in the Adelaide Test.
Your best innings was the match-winning 65 at home against England, after you forced your way back into the side. Can you take us through that memorable fourth-innings stand you had with Carl Hooper?
It was a great game. Hooper's experience rubbed off on me. When I first came to bat, I was trying to play my natural game. Hooper came up to me and said: "Listen, look at the scoreboard. We are going to try and maintain a share of runs for each one of us." His advice sort of changed my mindset as to how I was going to score those runs. I became more selective and started looking for more singles. We kept knocking these guys off for ones and twos, coming down until we got to touching distance. By the time I got out, we were almost there. That was a tremendous experience. Having won that game for West Indies was so important. It was one of the highlights of my career.
You had the privilege of keeping to some of the best bowlers of all time. Who was the best of the lot?
It has got to be Curtly Ambrose. Malcolm Marshall was a great bowler too, but I kept to him when he was a little past his prime. Ambrose was undoubtedly the best I kept to. He was a very smart bowler, and because of his height he bowled a length to which the batsmen could not really go back or forward. When he pitched it up he also got it to move about, and he could bowl pretty fast too. He was very difficult, very economical, and he built up a lot of pressure with his accuracy. And he was very intimidating.
When you keep to a bowler who is so disciplined, it becomes a little bit easier. When a bowler is accurate, there's not much to do since you expect the ball to be in a certain area. The difficult part about that is when he keeps hitting the edges and you have to catch them! When you keep to an erratic bowler who is all over the place, that's when you have a problem. So Ambrose was the easiest man to keep to, since he was so consistent. Patrick Patterson, on the other hand, was fast and a bit on the wild side, so he was a little more difficult. He would bowl one outside off, one down the leg side and then bowl a fast yorker to knock the stumps out. Those are the guys that are a little more difficult to keep to, not the likes of Curtly and Courtney.
Coming from Trinidad and Tobago, you also stood up to a bunch of varied and unconventional spinners.
Whether you're keeping to a legspinner or offspinner, you try to maintain the basics - stay down as low as possible and keep your eyes on the ball. In T&T, there were a number of top-class spinners, like Rajindra Dhanraj and Dinanath Ramnarine that I got exposed to.
Once you keep to a good spinner, it augurs well for your future. I got to keep to a number of good spinners in T&T - Rangy Nanan, Ganesh Mahabir and so on. But once I came to the West Indies side, we only had one spinner. Carl Hooper was the guy we used to keep things tight while we rotated the three fast bowlers. So we never had a situation where we had spinners who could win games for us, apart from Ramnarine, who played when I was out of the team. So I kept to a lot of good spinners in T&T, but at the West Indies level, not so much.
What's your take on the evolution of the role of wicketkeepers in recent years?
Everything is changing nowadays. You used to pick a specialist keeper 10 to 15 years ago, but most of the batters are failing now, so they want an extra man at No. 7. That's how it seems to be. If you have an added batter at No. 7, it helps. From a bowling point of view, if you get rid of the top four and if the keeper is not too handy with the bat, then it is just a matter of time before you are into the tail. So that No. 7 spot holds the innings together and keeps the opposition on the back foot for a little bit longer. That's the way it is going in all three formats.
Isn't that trivialising the wicketkeeper's role in the game?
I think it is good to have a part-time keeper who bats well playing in your side, but it is also important to have a specialist keeper on standby. If you drop one or two catches, or miss a run-out or a stumping, it could be crucial. It happened to us in the World Cup in Barbados against Sri Lanka. So it is okay to have guys like AB de Villiers there, but you must have a specialist back-up keeper in case something goes wrong.
You have been West Indies' assistant coach for a while but got the top job in an emergency situation ahead of the 2009-10 Australia tour. Were you prepared for such a tough assignment?
That was a great experience. John Dyson had just lost his job, and since I was the assistant, they put me in charge of the team. It was a big thing for me since Australia is not an easy place to tour. They play their cricket very tough out there, but I had some experience in those conditions. Having been there, knowing the wickets and the way they played helped us. We were humiliated in the first Test, but we sat down and had a chat and looked at their side and said: "Listen, this Aussie team may be good, but it is not as good as it looks. If we play sensible cricket, we can beat them." And we played extremely well in the second and third Tests.
We should have won in Adelaide and taken the series 2-1. [Brad] Haddin and [Michael] Clarke batted pretty well to save the Test, and we lost by only a few runs in the third Test. But it was a good experience. It showed us that we can compete, we can beat these guys if we play to our ability. They were still No. 1 in the world at the time, and everybody said we were going to suffer a clean sweep and come back. That series gave us some hope. The guys in that team were committed to the cause. They worked really hard. Maybe if we had one or two practice games in there, things could have been different. We had only one practice game and a few net sessions, which weren't enough when we were playing the world's No. 1.
T&T have been the best domestic side in the Caribbean for years now, and their ascent coincided with you taking charge as coach. How have they managed to be so consistent?
The T&T side is very close-knit. The current bunch of guys started together right from the lower age-group levels. About 80-85% of the guys started at the same time, around 2004, when I took charge of the team. So we started to build the momentum from there. We started to realise that there was a lot of talent in the team, so if we trained hard, worked on our fitness and improved our intellect to the game, we knew we could be the best.
The core group included the likes of Denesh Ramdin, Dwayne Bravo, Rayad Emrit, William Perkins and Sherwin Ganga. Daren Ganga had emerged a little earlier, Adrian Barath came a little later. All these youngsters were in the mould when we started to turn things around for T&T.
Denesh Ramdin is your protégé. You must be happy with his comeback into the West Indies side?
Denesh is a special talent. Like every keeper, he went through a poor phase. Even Dujon went through a phase when he didn't score at all and they wanted to drop him. And he was a great player. Denesh started extremely well - he got a 50 against Sri Lanka on debut - but for some reason he fell away. He went through a bad patch and was dropped, and sometimes that's the best thing that can happen. If you are so young, you have the time to reflect. International cricket nowadays is so constant that you have no time to think about yourself and your future - it is just cricket, cricket, cricket. So sometimes it is good to give them a break and bring them back into the fray.
Denesh went back and worked extremely hard on his glove work, and his batting continued to improve. He did very well in the regional series, and he is right back at the top of his game now. He has been selected to go to Bangladesh. Every cricketer goes through that sort of a phase where things don't go your way. Sometimes they feel the drop is not justified - even I felt that way when I was left out - but when you have youth on your side, sometimes the best thing is to have a break.
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo