October 8, 2012

Good times, but mind the road ahead

West Indies finally have a world title after eight years, but they need to look for consistency on the field and stability off it

Two-thousand-and-four is such a cricketing lifetime away. And of the West Indies players who did their Gangnam dance over and over again at the Premadasa stadium Sunday evening in Colombo, only Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo would have had memories of West Indies' Champions Trophy victory at The Oval* eight years ago.

For both, Sunday's triumph over hosts Sri Lanka was probably sweeter than beating England back then, if only because they have both been through more dark times in West Indies cricket than they might have anticipated when Brian Lara lifted that Champions Trophy. For Gayle especially, the previous 12 months or so may have been the most trying of his career. To experience a tournament victory again in their playing days was a reminder that black clouds must burst some time and then the sun will come back out.

No question, the sun is shining on West Indies cricket right now. The comfortable manner of Sunday's victory in the end over a Sri Lankan side previously unbeatable by the West Indies, was a surprise. It was, however, another beautiful demonstration of why cricket is such compelling drama.

Lasith Malinga, flawless virtually throughout this tournament, suddenly had no answer for the supreme determination that Marlon Samuels - once again in this series - married to his sublime batting skills.

Darren Sammy, underwhelming with bat and ball, made important runs late in the innings and conjured up a well delivered, perfectly executed slower ball to remove Angelo Mathews at a crucial time, halfway through Sri Lanka's slow chase.

Mahela Jayawardene, pivotal all tournament at the top of the order for Sri Lanka, failed to be the anchor this time. Kumar Sangakkara and Tillekeratne Dilshan fell cheaply and suddenly, everything fell apart.

It must have been numbing for Jayawardene to have to find words to explain a fourth failure in a final, and at home too.

But Sammy's team and West Indies cricket have suffered even more, for longer. Victory on Sunday was like that welcome rain in a long season of drought.

"This morning I got an email from [Clive] Lloyd, saying he was very proud of what the team is doing and that the Caribbean people are very happy. He told us just to go out and win," Sammy told the media the day before the final.

Yes, Sunday's win resonated everywhere in the West Indian diaspora. But so did that victory out of the blue in 2004.

Sammy, as fine an ambassador as West Indies cricket has had in two decades, was still sober enough of thought at the trophy presentation to note that the triumph was but "a step in the right direction". "We are not back yet," he cautioned. He is right.

For teams to win tournaments, they need momentum. West Indies got that from surviving against New Zealand in the Super Over. And at the moment, the T20 format is the one that best suits the mercurial nature of West Indies sides.

But prolonged success in international cricket requires consistency of application both by the group and the individuals on the field, and stability off it.

Those ingredients were not in place back in 2004. Even as Lara's team progressed through the tournament, the West Indies Cricket Board was looking to replace Gus Logie, the last Caribbean-born coach before Ottis Gibson. Courtney Browne (now a selector) and Ian Bradshaw, the batting heroes in the final, were out of the team in a year and two years' time respectively.

By the time the 2007 World Cup came around, West Indies were a different team, with a different spirit.

In 2012, however, a different scenario is unfolding. Gibson, whose initial three-year contract ends next February, will surely now be given an extension after delivering a trophy. It should also mean that the management team, which includes the former captain Richie Richardson, will remain in place. Stability.

No one who has been entertained by their dancing and celebrations over the last week could miss the fact that this was, by and large, a group of friends enjoying their ultimate adventure

It is also inconceivable at this point that Sammy will be moved as captain. His individual contributions in the tournament may have been modest, but he has grown even more as a leader; thinking on his feet in the field and generally being in control of what his players did on it.

It is also to the great credit of Gayle, Sammy and Gibson that they have allowed mutual respect to guide their relationship. A happy Gayle makes for a dangerous Gayle, and a dangerous Gayle makes for an even more dangerous West Indies.

Sammy's side had already showed it was making progress this year before Gayle's reintegration into the squad. But that improvement has been accelerated since his return. And the transformation of Samuels this year - at long last - has been just as significant as Gayle's comeback. West Indies now have a worthy leader, a pool of youthful players of promise, and some mature men of experience playing at their peak. They have a real team.

No one who has been entertained by their dancing and celebrations over the last week could miss the fact that this was, by and large, a group of friends enjoying their ultimate adventure. It was a sight to warm the hearts of long-suffering West Indians on all continents.

But the days of the World T20 have been just 20 days in the life. The other realities of West Indies cricket did not melt away into the Colombo night - like the uneasy relationship between the board and the players' body, which ultimately affects everything, and the refusal of the board to alter its governance structure in a meaningful way.

West Indies cricket has had its bubbles burst before. Remember, a rare Test series triumph over England was followed by a players' strike in 2009, which resulted in a humbling Test whitewash by Bangladesh. Such success against a top side in Tests hasn't come since. It pays to learn from history. West Indies have another golden chance to do so now.

*17:30 GMT, October 8: The article had previously stated West Indies' Champions Trophy victory came at Lord's. This has been corrected.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express