May 30, 2012

The swap Samuels made

Older, wiser, more sober, Marlon Mark 3 has traded in some of the flash and impetuosity of his younger self to good effect. Might the captaincy be next?

So Marlon Samuels is 31. Discovering this a few days ago had a similar impact on me to the one my 19-year-old daughter suffered following my revelation, a year ago last week, that Bob Dylan had just turned 70.

Why, wasn't it only the other day that the lean, lissom Jamaican had proved himself heir apparent to Carl Hooper as cricket's King of Kool, taking guard at 28 for 4 at the MCG in his second Test and digging in for an unbeaten 60, then adding an unbowed 46, twice the next most manful contributor, as Jason Gillespie conducted a second-innings rout? Here was love at first exquisitely caressed glance. How, as my Laura doubtless wondered about Mr Blowin' In The Wind, did he get so old, so quick?

In actual fact, of course, it is now nearly a dozen years since that Melbourne overture, and nearly a decade since Eden Gardens became the most fitting of stages for Samuels' maiden Test hundred (a suitably remorseful essay in discipline after breaking the team curfew) and Vijayawada witnessed a more characteristically imperious, ODI-winning 108 off 75 balls, bejewelled with five sixes. Hell, it's even been nearly four years since his second coming, a century in an innings drubbing in Durban.

All the more reason, then, to rejoice in the advent of Marlon Mk III. The contrast with Mks I and II seems vast. Those sumptuous, effortless sixes off Graeme Swann at Trent Bridge on Monday afternoon, expanding West Indies' lead to three figures, and the final blows of the resistance, marked virtually the only reminder of the lordly young thing of 2000; concentration, commitment and focus were in unimagined abundance. Easily the most conspicuous commonality was the serenity that provoked Jimmy Anderson's latest accomplished impersonation of Glenn McGrath.

Not for the first time, Mike Atherton proffered an astute observation from on high (okay, the Sky commentary box). Since slicing a drive in the second innings at Lord's, Samuels, he warranted, had been waiting for the ball. As in, not chasing it, rather than spending the best part of a fortnight anticipating Stuart Broad's next delivery. As a metaphor for maturity, for crossing the bridge separating knowledge from wisdom, it was supremely apt.

To Shane Warne - whose latest, improbably Mad Men-esque hairdo suggests even he has tired of playing Peter Pan - it was the very essence of simplicity: Samuels is putting a higher price on his wicket. Mortgage, family and dog can do that to you, as Samuels has readily conceded; ditto a ban for consorting with bookies. For us greedy stylies (if you can have foodies, why not stylies?), given that flowing and mercurial and intoxicating have been displaced by measured and sedate and sober, the trade has just about been worth it.

It's a familiar tale, but never one that tires in the telling - because it celebrates the human spirit. For Samuels read Swann read Mike Hussey. Or, to go back a bit further and span a couple of generations of Ashes legends, for David Steele read Clarrie Grimmett. For cricketers as well as other competitive artists, attaining one's quarter century in a young man's trade, let alone leaving the nervous and tremulous 20s behind, need not be the death of hope.

Manvindar Bisla is another inspirational case in point. As a teenager he bowled seam-up in the Under-19 World Cup, then took up glovemanship, but not until Sunday, deep into his 28th year, did he attain wider acclaim (beyond last October's Hong Kong Sixes). First he gobsmacked the punditocracy by being chosen ahead of Brendon McCullum in the Kolkata Knight Riders XI, then he grabbed his moment so gratefully and lustily that his IPL-winning 89, a knock that owed as much to slogging as Dylan did to hip-hop, looked uncommonly like the handiwork of a budding master - and not merely of cartoon cricket.

Samuels, though, is a bit different. After all, he had both a fast start and early recognition. He just kept finding ways to blow it. Running out Brian Lara in his final international, for instance, wasn't terribly bright. Then again, nor was skipping schoolwork, especially on the somewhat cocksure basis that, as a future star, he sure didn't need no education.

These days he resembles Hooper every bit as much as anticipated, albeit Carl the elder statesman rather than Carl the minor genius: Samuels exudes self-restraint, reluctant to engage top gear for fear of the nightmares that would ensue and the old habits that could resume. In many ways, nevertheless, the Samuels saga reminds me most of the Graham Gooch story.

Both looked good from the get-go; both were capped young; both found consistency as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel; both misbehaved and paid the price (whether Gooch's decision to lead a tour of apartheid South Africa was any less despicable than Samuels dipping both feet into the pond of corruption is strictly a matter of taste, but it was certainly forgiven with a great deal more alacrity). Both, moreover, enjoyed a fleeting rebirth before sinking anew: the launch of Gooch Mk III, his appointment to lead England's 1990 Caribbean expedition, was immediately preceded by an Ashes encounter that saw Terry Alderman rob him of his confidence, lock him in his shell and chuck away the key, prompting him to drop himself.

Responsibility, primarily, did it for Gooch. But then so, to a lesser extent, did a regular partner. Once, asked to cite the link between a host of batsmen while guesting on the interminably popular TV quiz show A Question of Sport, he failed to spot that, well, ahem, he'd opened with all of them. The ascent of Atherton at the fag end of that ghastly summer of 1989 certainly helped. "You seem to get more strength from batting with Graham," suggested the Lancastrian. "He doesn't say a lot, but his determination and concentration are incredible." Less than a year later, Gooch struck the highest score for Pomland since 1938; inside two years he was hitting 154 against West Indies on a horror show of a pitch at Headingley, unanimously acclaimed as the best innings by a Pom during the entire reign of Our Liz.

These days he resembles Hooper every bit as much as anticipated, albeit Carl the elder statesman rather than Carl the minor genius: Samuels exudes self-restraint, reluctant to engage top gear for fear of the nightmares that would ensue

Samuels must now strike similar awe into the hearts of Adrian Barath, Kieran Powell, Darren Bravo and Kirk Edwards. In his four innings in this series he has faced 677 balls - 14 more than Bravo has confronted across his last ten visits to a Test crease, and 300 more than Barath has met in his last ten. Indeed, Samuels' balls-per-innings average at Lord's and Nottingham, a smidge shy of 170, is laps clear of even Shivnarine Chanderpaul's 131-and-a-bit. If this should lead to an outbreak of stiff-upper-lippiness among the junior elements, so much the jollier.

Gooch turned the corner, as Frank Keating put it, once he divined the difference between "scoring" a century and "making" one. Samuels seems to have walked up to the same crossroads, sniffed the air, reeled in the years of frustration and non-fruition, and elected to turn right too, into the arms of pragmatism, though mercifully not into the toxic clutches of puritanical, grim-faced orthodoxy. The only folk he needs to impress now are those who depend on his wages.

The next chapter beckons. The admirable Darren Sammy can lay claim to being the most unexpectedly effective captain the game has yet known, right up there with Courtney Walsh (real fast bowlers, after all, simply aren't natural tossers, or so the unsaid saying seems to go). Time and again, no matter what the result, his teams have opened their legs and displayed, not their class (as that inimitable BBC athletics commentator David Coleman so memorably said of the great Cuban hurdler Alberto Juantorena), but their backbone. Class lies on the next rung up. And to make that climb, this Caribbean co-operative needs a leader who can be looked up to on something more than a spiritual level, not as one who has to prove himself all over again every time he flips a coin.

This is not to propose that Sammy's time is up (even as England jogged the final lap to victory on Monday, his refusal to throw on the part-timers served as a pair of Marshall speakers cranked up to No. 11, booming out the intention to fight to the last). Yet longer-term considerations will surely soon prevail. Toppermost of these concerns is Kemar Roach: if he is to fulfil his seemingly boundless promise, he will unquestionably need more support than his captain currently offers with the ball. And while Edwards is Sammy's official deputy, luck, without which no cricketer can prosper, is keeping an extremely indiscreet and disrespectful distance.

Is this Samuels' destiny, then, to lead West Indies into the halls of respect and respectability? There are riskier left turns the selectors could make. As he prepared to bowl the concluding over at Trent Bridge, the Sky cameraman fixed him in his sights. The shot was from the midriff up but the eyes still shone - calm, still, patient, strong. An hour later, he spoke of "this glorious game of uncertainty": this time, the eyes glistened. Calm, still, patient, strong - and optimistic.

Another Marlon sprang to mind. For far too many years, the late Mr Brando's immortal lament in On the Waterfront was made for Samuels: "I coulda bin a contender…" Now, at last, he is. Next stop: Championville. Let's hope he buys a one-way ticket.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton