September 28, 2012

West Indies' winning opening combos

Johnson Charles and Chris Gayle with the bat and Ravi Rampaul and Samuel Badree with the ball clicked against England. But who will play against Sri Lanka?

Darren Sammy pumped both fists when Marlon Samuels completed the last over in Pallekelle, with the England pair of Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler still 16 runs short of giving their side victory in the Super Eights opener for both teams.

Given their stuttering starts to the World Twenty20, victory on Thursday was as vital for the self-confidence of the two teams as it was for the points. Sammy's side got both.

Having rain affect both West Indies' matches in the group stage last week, Sammy would have been keen for his men to get the chance to decide their own fate entirely. And here, West Indies finally got the opportunity to play the full 40 overs.

The dry conditions in Pallekele and the true pitch gave them the ideal chance, and it would have pleased Sammy immensely that victory did not come down to just the usual suspects.

Johnson Charles, Sammy's raw countryman from St Lucia with just eight T2I0s behind him, was more Chris Gayle than Gayle himself in getting his first international half-century. Using the crease cleverly to make room for himself, he was hitting straight down the ground. He also capitalised on the one life he got by striking ten fours and three sixes in his 84.

More impressive than those numbers was the way Charles moved through the gears as his innings progressed. Having begun scoring at a rate of less than 100, he motored upto 150 by the time he wearily offered a catch in the 18th over.

Preferred in the opening slot to the more proven Dwayne Smith, Charles did what West Indies normally rely on Gayle to do, and batted most of the overs. It was the beginning of a plan that worked almost to perfection with West Indies also getting the usual thunder from Gayle. The 103 that the left-hand/right-hand combination managed in 11 overs set the game up, although a score of around 200 would have been more satisfactory given that platform.

Stuart Broad was not off the mark when he reckoned that West Indies were short by about 20 runs. The game might have turned out differently had England been more productive in the Powerplay overs.

Broad, however, did not count on Ravi Rampaul bowling the most crucial over of the match at the start of the chase. There was talk before the game - including from Sammy - about Sunil Narine being the key to the outcome. But Rampaul has always been a good and courageous bowler. He started the tournament with a bad game against Australia, but here he was perfect with his length to remove Craig Kieswetter and Luke Wright in succession in his first over.

His only rivals for play of the day after that would have been Kieron Pollard's breathless running catch on the boundary under the floodlights to dismiss Jonny Bairstow and Andre Russell's limb-twisting effort from beyond the ropes to parry Morgan's certain six and limit it to two.

Morgan also put himself in the highlight reel with some typically audacious hitting in the century partnership with Hales that threatened to snatch the game from West Indies. But Rampaul's strikes and legspinning newcomer Samuel Badree's four overs for 20 runs at the top of the innings were vital. England just managed 29 in the Powerplay overs and Sammy capitalised well on that good start by using Gayle and Narine, and then Samuels at the death against spin-suspect England.

West Indies just about got it right and it is their all-round ability that is going to determine how far they get in this tournament, especially in their bowling. The batsmen have enjoyed themselves and will continue so to do in Pallekele. West Indies will find Sri Lanka a more difficult prospect when they play them at the same venue on Saturday.

The much-hyped Narine may yet have big moments in this series, but so far he has not proven to be quite the wicket-taking threat that Sammy and, no doubt, coach Ottis Gibson have been counting on. Too much expectation has been heaped upon his shoulders.

Spin will not be such a worry for the home side's accomplished batsmen. So it will be interesting to see whether West Indies stick with Badree or bring Fidel Edwards back.

In their post-mortems, it could not have escaped the West Indies management that Morgan and Hales put on 107 in just 58 balls, and that England lost just four wickets in coming up 16 runs short. Still, progression to the semi-finals looks a decent prospect at this stage if West Indies can beat either Sri Lanka or New Zealand. The opponents they can more likely brush aside are New Zealand.

In their three previous World Twenty20 meetings with Sri Lanka, West Indies have been comfortably second best. To change that record will require more all-round brilliance, but especially with the ball. It is no easy assignment.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express