Clyde Butts keeps the faith
When he played, Clyde Butts learned the value of being patient and enduring blows. It is how, as Guyana's offspinning trump card, he became the leading wicket-taker in the West Indies first-class competition before Mahendra Nagamootoo overtook him. As chairman of the West Indies selection panel, he finds himslf having to do the same once more.
Last Sunday afternoon, he would have watched, without pleasure, the senior West Indies side succumb to England for the fifth and final time on tour - in the one-off T20. Sunday evening at the Queen's Park Oval, it seemed as if the A team would offer him some respite. Having limited India A to 154 in the second match of their T20 series, West Indies had victory firmly within their grasp up to the last over.
Jamaican opener Nkrumah Bonner, 23 years old, with two senior T20 appearances already behind him, was still at the wicket. He had controlled the innings beautifully in a knock of 82. Then, with just three more runs to get, he lost control, slashed at Ashok Dinda and got a top edge. By the end of the over, West Indies A were still one short of victory, Christopher Barnwell having flashed at and missed three balls in a row. In the end, the win never came; India A turned around a near-loss in the one-over Eliminator.
There must have been a scowl and a bemused shake of the head from the chief selector. It was like a reprise of the third ODI against Australia in St Vincent three months ago, when Darren Sammy and Kemar Roach ended up on the same side of the pitch when they needed just one run off three balls. Finishing the job, and becoming the finished product, remains a seemingly insoluble problem for West Indian players. And a constant worry for those who manage them.
The enthusiasm Sammy's team whipped up in the Caribbean because of their play during Australia's visit dissipated rather quickly when the ODI and T20 matches in England failed to produce a single victory. In fact, Sammy's side left England with exactly the same record in the Test and ODI series that Chris Gayle's charges achieved in 2009 on that hastily arranged tour, which WICB CEO Dr Ernest Hilaire so often cites as a contrast to the way this current team plays - 2-0 losses in both Test and ODI rubbers.
West Indies A's surrender of last Sunday's game meant that two-match series was drawn; but foibles as those shown in that last over are the sort that prevent West Indies from achieving parity with international cricket's stronger teams. They have also made the Caribbean public increasingly restless and demanding of change.
Butts understands this, but he also appreciates that they are no quick fixes. "Every player has his own [pace] of coming through," he says. "Some take longer, so it's really a difficult thing to say you can give a player X amount of time or X amount of games. What we as selectors are trying to do is give players a fair chance to come through."
The patent lack of experience in the West Indies top order was exposed against Test cricket's best bowling attack this summer, but Butts is optimistic. "With Chris Gayle back, I think we'll see a difference in terms of the approach of the front line. There is no doubt in my mind that experience will help the younger players to come through."
The coming weeks, during New Zealand's visit, will prove how solid that theory is. The last 17 years of West Indies cricket do not suggest quick adjustments will be made. Chairman Butts, however, sees things differently.
"I think quite a few of those players [given opportunities] have adapted very well to what has happened over the past year. You are seeing players starting to build on their cricket. Of course, sometimes you are disappointed with how players go from time to time...
"I think they are going to come through for West Indies in the future, and one of the things we have to be careful of as selectors [is] if we chop and change, what happens? We go back again to the players we have tried over the years and keep rotating? You are investing in young players, you have to give them the chance to establish themselves."
Kieran Powell, the 22-year-old stroke-making opener from Nevis, is one of the investments Butts and his fellow selectors have made. He averaged just over 14 against England but returned to the Caribbean to make 139 and 56 not out against India A in the third and deciding unofficial Test in St Lucia to set up victory.
"Being in a West Indies team set-up, I think there is no doubt he's starting to learn, and I definitely think he's going to be a good player for us in the future," Butts says.
The West Indies board has invested afresh in an A team programme in recent times. Powell, Darren Bravo and Kirk Edwards are three first-teamers who have come through as a result. Their limited success at the highest level thus far, however, does not by itself say too much for A team cricket. Most of those series have been in the familiar environment of the Caribbean. Butts wants the programme to extend further overseas.
"I think when you talk about outside, you are talking more or less about South Africa and Australia. I definitely feel we need to go to those areas to learn the conditions, the different types of pitches that they play on. I think it would help us tremendously - there is no doubt about that."
He adds for emphasis: "There is no doubt in my mind that West Indies cricket is going in the right direction at the moment." As chairman, Butts must believe that, results notwithstanding. He and colleagues Courtney Browne and Robert Haynes will need to keep playing the patience game. And hope their faith is not misplaced.
Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express