June 4, 2012

West Indies' fatherless class of 2012

If Gayle and Sarwan return to the West Indies Test side, can they provide their inexperienced young team-mates the guidance they themselves did not receive?

At the end of the Trent Bridge Test, Darren Sammy sounded like other West Indies captains of old. In that moment of defeat, the ever-optimistic Sammy looked and sounded like Brian Lara or Jimmy Adams or Carl Hooper - all reduced in their time to saying not much of anything following beating after beating.

There was not much talk about winning the "big moments" or claims at satisfaction over the "fight" shown. As Mike Atherton probed for Sammy's plan to get his team to play better in the final Test, Sammy seemed at a loss for what to do next. "We really have to consider how we go about playing the cricket. We've been playing for a while now and we're not ready, so something has to be done," he said.

The potential and spirit of his unit was little consolation after two Tests, and the reality that defeat in the third would mean a whitewash against the game's top side - just what the cricket world expected - would not have comforted him either.

It may have taken Sammy a tad more effort to see the bigger picture after Trent Bridge, where his first Test century, Marlon Samuels' classy displays and the hard graft put in by Kemar Roach and Ravi Rampaul had been brought to nothing in one session on the third afternoon. In his post-game utterings Ottis Gibson found himself questioning the mental staying power of his young batting brigade. In more private moments, he may even have dared to ask himself how much longer it can go on this way.

Before the final chapter in this series is played out at Edgbaston, however, Chris Gayle's future with this team may be finalised. The West Indies selectors will be as keenly interested in the resolution of the "residual matters" between the estranged opening batsman and the West Indies Cricket Board as everyone else. They must be desperate to get in a man who will put runs on the board.

The West Indies' game against Leicestershire on the weekend could well have been a reminder that all the best West Indies players are not now wearing the team's colours, given Ramnaresh Sarwan is a committed player for Leicestershire. But the question is whether all the best West Indies players will make the best West Indies team; whether green but disciplined can in the long run trump flamboyant but mercurial.

Former Combined Islands and West Indies wicketkeeper of the 1970s Michael Findlay certainly hopes a place can be found for both types. "You can't get away from the exposure and experience of both Gayle and Sarwan. The current team is so inexperienced," he says. "I hope they are able to work things out."

Watching the action via television from his St Vincent home, Findlay notes with concern the shortcomings of the inexperienced. "The batsmen, bar Shivnarine Chanderpaul, don't seem to know where their off stump is. Darren Bravo is playing at too many balls he need not engage."

His uttered frustrations in 2012 must have feel like a dose of déjà vu. It was after all under selection panels of which Findlay was a part and eventually presided over as chairman that Gayle and Sarwan made their entries into international cricket in 2000. Findlay also had a hand in sending the precocious 19-year-old Samuels into the fire in Australia later that year, and saw Wavell Hinds, Ricardo Powell, Franklyn Rose, Mervyn Dillon, Nixon McLean and Reon King come on to the scene. He also saw them, by and large, fade away.

The names now are different but the predicament is similar: West Indies cricket has produced another generation of fatherless boys. Like their predecessors at the start of this millennium, the class of 2012 has precious few senior men to partner them through these tricky early years.

Findlay knows the difference a skilled senior pro can make. "I never forgot when I first went on tour with the West Indies team [1969]. An experienced player was given a younger player as his mentor," he says. "Wes Hall was a mentor to me. Jackie Hendriks was the No. 1 keeper, and Jackie would sit with me and pass on his experience."

So as both player and selector, he has seen enough to know how much more time West Indies cricket can lose because of a team not well blended. "Between No. 1 and No. 5 [in the batting order] is very brittle. If you have Sarwan and Gayle in between, they can guide the other players as Chanderpaul is doing, and that's what you need."

The current side will therefore seem to be crying out for the two men, who along with the injured/exiled Jerome Taylor, were mainly responsible for West Indies winning back the Wisden Trophy (for a month) in 2009 in the Caribbean.

But Sarwan's 626 runs at 104.33 in that series was not typical of him. Over his 87 Tests he has infuriated as much as he has delighted. An average of 40.01 barely does his considerable talent justice.

The combined presence of artists like Lara and Hooper in the middle order didn't help Sarwan turn into the finished product. Like the present crop, the Sarwans, Gayles and Samuelses had to learn their trade by trial and error. It has taken them a lot of time. Gayle apart, too much time. "I thought they would have matured earlier," reckons Findlay of Sarwan and Samuels.

Findlay's 1970s colleagues - Gordon Greenidge, Vivian Richards and Andy Roberts among them - had the solid finishing school of county cricket to aid them. For turn-of-the-century West Indian player, by contrast, regional competition just did not have senior pros of genuine quality to take up the slack. It is even less the case now.

"In many respects, Sarwan has not shown his maturity to guide the younger players," Findlay says. "They do not need to have Wes Hall's gift of gab to show true leadership. What West Indies cricket does need from all its players of greater experience - Samuels, Chanderpaul and Dwayne Bravo included - is leadership off the field, even more than on it."

Only the future will prove whether the 2012 versions of Gayle and Sarwan - given the chance - are better teachers now than those they might have had, or what they themselves might have been in the past. Some better cricket they can certainly make this team play. But make West Indies a stronger unit? History suggests that may be too high an expectation.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express