March 27, 2012

Not party time yet for West Indies

The tie in the one-day series against Australia may be a glimmer of hope but they aren't quite out of the woods

If you want to know how the West Indies team is doing, check in any office in the islands. If, especially near the end of a match, the televisions have not drawn a crowd, victory is not in sight.

Things were a bit different in the one-dayers against Australia. Over the first four matches of the series, public scepticism over how the home team would fare diminished with each positive result. Long-suffering West Indians have been buoyed just a little by the way their team has not just threatened to succeed, as at so many times in the past, but actually done so. Parity in the series may not be as good as a win, but for Darren Sammy's team to have fought to a stalemate against the side currently ranked world No. 1 is a step forward. A small step, however, is all it is at this stage.

West Indies achieving parity had much to do with the element of mystery and potency that Sunil Narine brought to the attack and the greater length of time Kieron Pollard stayed at the crease. It was also the result of a fighting spirit embodied by the captain himself. Those who watched the final match of the series, in St Lucia, will long remember Sammy hitting sweetly, with precision and great purpose. He went to the crease at 118 for 7, chasing 282. Australia were poised to level the five-match series. When finally Sammy's attempt to claim his 13th boundary ended with a catch in the deep to Michael Hussey to end the match, West Indies were just 30 short of their target. What had transpired between that catch and Sammy's entry had been electrifying and inspirational; it was yet another period of play in the series that hinted at a new and emerging West Indies side.

In the fourth match Pollard had taken the Aussies to pieces with 102 off 70 balls, with support from Sammy and Andre Russell.

Despite his limitations as an allrounder, Sammy has always been positive, thoughtful and conscientious about his cricket. In this series, his batting, which has suffered most since he became captain, has come on. In that 101-run stand with Russell in the last ODI, which kept a dying game very much alive, the skipper shone bright as a flambeau.

There was no concession by either man that the task was beyond them, and they played the pressure situation, which called for a perfect balance between attack and the preservation of wickets, admirably. Shane Watson's Australians were visibly shaken by the forceful resistance. It was a response they would not have been accustomed to from West Indies teams over the last decade.

Sammy himself seemed close to tears as he walked off, frustrated that the job had not been completed. However, his work in this rubber, especially that last knock, could turn out to be a significant period in his time as captain. One senses that he is a leader growing in his role. Further success with bat and ball will certainly force the many sceptics to think again.

The trio of Sammy, Pollard and Russell in the middle/lower order was a big reason another visiting team did not carry off an ODI series in the Caribbean. Pollard's runs won both the second and fourth matches, while Russell's supporting runs and wickets and his great athleticism in the field were invaluable.

Big "Polly" truly earned his Man-of-the-Series accolade. The world always knew he could smack the ball. What it saw in this series was a man who was starting to put innings together. Pollard's game is maturing, thanks to the amount of cricket he has been playing in different regions. That is bad news for the world's bowlers.

As for Narine, before last year's Champions League he was an unknown, even to many in the Caribbean. Not anymore. His beguiling variety, inclusive of his self-described "knuckle ball", which spins the other way, has already made him a prime target for IPL teams. Most tellingly he has been able to combine skilful fingers with sharp thinking and excellent control. As a result, the Australian batsmen were as perplexed as the players in the West Indies regional competitions who have been entrapped by the Trinidad and Tobago offspinner.

Narine's addition gave a sharper edge to a West Indies attack that over the last year had been holding its own in all forms of cricket. Whether the pitches were slow, as in St Vincent, or allowed batsmen to play their shots, as in St Lucia, the West Indian bowlers took wickets. And this was not a series in which either last year's ICC Emerging Player, Devendra Bishoo, or the 2011 pace spearheads, Fidel Edwards and Ravi Rampaul, bowled a ball.

On paper and on the pitch, West Indies do seem a team with places to go, but any bursts of optimism need to be strongly tempered, for a number of reasons.

Sammy's work in this rubber, especially his last knock, could turn out to be a significant period in his time as captain. One senses that he is a leader growing in his role

West Indies have had brief periods of one-day success before, with no follow-up. In 2004, remember, they won the Champions Trophy under Brian Lara; they then beat India 4-1 in an ODI series in the Caribbean in 2006, and went to England in 2007 after the World Cup disappointment in the Caribbean under Chris Gayle and won the NatWest series 2-1. West Indies also beat Sri Lanka 2-0 under Gayle in the Caribbean in 2008. But none of those successes triggered a genuine revival.

Taken game by game, one would have to say they squandered the chance to put the Aussies away in this recent series. Chasing just 205 to win the first ODI, they lost by 64 runs. And needing just one run from three balls to win the third, Sammy and Kemar Roach contrived a run-out to tie with two balls still to go. Such missteps speak of a side not yet as clinical in execution as it needs to be. Such a lack is likely to be further exposed during the three-Test series next month. The lack of a productive opening pair also remains a problem, and the patent lack of runs for both Marlon Samuels and Darren Bravo at Nos. 3 and 4 is worrying.

West Indies' lack of strength in depth in batting is also likely to be seen soon. With the IPL starting early next month, Pollard and Dwayne Bravo will not be available for selection for the Test matches, if they were being considered at all. Gayle, whose long-running standoff with the West Indies Board seems to have just ended, is also IPL-bound. In addition, Samuels, Darren Bravo, Russell and Narine have also been picked up by IPL teams.

At this stage, it is not certain whether all will exercise that option; Bravo is the mostly likely to not go to India. The additional dilemma the regional selectors face, though, is: who will be the replacements? At the end of the qualifying round of the West Indies Cricket Board's Regional Four-Day tournament, there were precious few obvious candidates to make the step up.

Of players who have batted in three matches or more, only the Guyanese pair of Assad Fudadin (53.80) and Narsingh Deonarine (49.72), West Indies wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin (85.25), now returning from injury, Jamaica's Brendan Nash (63.50) and Delorn Johnson (43) from the Windward Islands have averaged 40 or more. Of those five, Kent-bound Nash is not available. If bench strength is the test of a team, West Indies are still weak.

But the people in the offices will prefer not to think too much about that for now. Living in the present is just fine.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express