May 2, 2012

The truth about Sammy

Darren Sammy may not have the best numbers but he is a man steadily improving while handling a difficult job

Being the West Indies captain is like being the holder of high political office. You have a constituency to answer to, their expectations are very high and some will be detractors no matter how much good you do. You will also be judged on performance.

Since taking over one of the highest profile jobs in Caribbean society from Chris Gayle in late 2010, Darren Julius Garvey Sammy has experienced first-hand the effects of all the above. Especially the judgement on the performance part. Strictly on bald figures, a record of two wins and six losses in 16 Test matches and 13 wins, 19 losses, a tie and a no-result in 34 ODIs does not present a case for an extended stay in office. But with good reason, the expression "damned lies" often is mentioned in the same breath with statistics.

For the past week, I have been thinking about Sammy and his record and his critics. He was not obligated to take the job when the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) offered it to him, and no one can say that he campaigned to be captain. But at the same time, it is hard to imagine that any past West Indies captain has come to the job with a greater degree of skepticism hanging over him. In so insular a place as this, the fact that he is a St Lucian under a board with a St Lucian president and CEO has not helped him ease into the job. His modest record with bat and ball made an even stronger case for the opposition. By popular consensus it seemed, Sammy was a man not worth his place in the team and should never have been captain. As he gets ready for what will surely be another difficult experience in England this week, he still cannot shake the "loser" tag.

I wonder, however, if he is not a victim of a thing being repeated often enough until it is accepted as fact. It does not seem to matter what the evidence may show in the case of Sammy. But consider a few things, please. When it comes to having a losing record as West Indies captain, Sammy has plenty of company. Since Richie Richardson gave up the job after the 1996 World Cup, no West Indian captain has won more than he has lost. Excluding Ridley Jacobs, Dwayne Bravo and Floyd Reifer who were stop-gaps, we are talking about eight men. Sammy's record is comparable and in some cases better than his predecessors. Shivnarine Chanderpaul for instance won one, lost 10 and drew three in his tortuous 14 Test matches in charge. In 15 games, Jimmy Adams won four and lost eight, Carl Hooper won four and lost 11 in 22, while Gayle's 20 Tests at the helm brought three wins but also nine losses. Already however, Sammy's teams have drawn as many matches in 16--eight--as Gayle managed in his 20. And it is unlikely that Sammy will be allowed to stay in charge for 47 matches like Brian Lara did in three spells and lose 26 games while winning just 11.

Of course, there are many variables, like strength of the teams and the quality of the opponents against whom wins were achieved. The point is though, that Sammy's team - a currently very green side - is doing no worse than the ones that have gone before. And what about the captain's own cricket? Ad nauseam, it has been said by experts and John Public alike that Sammy as allrounder (a very loose description) is not worth his place in the side, that he unbalances it, that he is keeping a more deserving player out. Who exactly, on current form is that more deserving player?

Since they both fill the same role, let us use Dwayne Bravo as a comparison. There can be no question about Bravo's ability and overall value to the teams he plays for. But in his last five Tests (2010) he averaged 19.10. In Sammy's last five he averages 24.44 which is higher than his overall 19.09. With the ball, Bravo got five wickets in his last five games, Sammy took nine in his last five.

If the time gap makes you suspicious, then check what happened in the last ODI series against Australia. Sammy averaged 53.33 with the bat in those five games and took four wickets (36.75) and Bravo 18.80 with the bat and six wickets (34.16) with the ball. Just by extension, Andre Russell averaged 28.25 with the bat and took six wickets (26.33). Numbers sometimes are useful. In this case, they show the captain is contributing more runs to the team now, in both forms of the game. In the just concluded Test rubber against Australia, a difficult series for batsmen on both sides, Sammy averaged over 31 and was third behind Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Darren Bravo only among West Indians. And while his bowling has not been as penetrative as he no doubt would like so far this year, last season he contributed 30 wickets in Tests while Devendra Bishoo got 39, Fidel Edwards 32 and Ravi Rampaul 31. Sammy also had the satisfaction of actually winning a match for his team - the first Test against Pakistan in Guyana - with his seam bowling.

This season, Sammy's runs surely played a part in West Indies' sharing the ODI and Twenty20 series with Australia, the No.1 ranked ODI side. Those results were unexpected and represented an improvement on results in the corresponding ODI series last season when West Indies lost to both Pakistan and India.

Even in losing 2-0 to Australia in the Tests, West Indies so far in 2012 have mirrored the spirit of their captain who never stops trying. Sammy is a man who recognises his limitations and plays within them. He keeps working for improvement and this year, has been reaping some reward. So has his team. In separate interviews in Dominica, both Australian captain Michael Clarke and coach Mickey Arthur were moved to speak of the improvement they saw in West Indies as a team.

To stay in the job, Sammy will have to keep getting good results against the better teams, especially in Test cricket. But it would be disingenuous of the naysayers to downplay the improved results this year, even if they are limited, or to brush aside his own contributions to the side. And at a time when it is the norm to question the commitment of players to West Indies cricket, is it not a bonus to have a leader of Sammy's disposition? Watching him handle the media in this recent series, I noted the greater poise he seems to have, the bits of humour he allowed himself. He was a credit to the office, a man handling a very difficult job with all the grace he could muster.

Eventually, this West Indies team will outgrow Sammy. But that time has not come yet. So in the meantime, as the song says, keep doing what you're doing Sammy.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express