April 10, 2013

Behind Jamaica's hot streak

Their record is the envy of Caribbean first-class cricket, but it needs to be put into context

It is a rare but most pleasant thing when sportsmen win so much that it is difficult to remember the last time they lost. In the case of Tamar Lambert's Regional Four-Day Jamaica outfit, you would have to stretch the mind back three years - February of 2010 to be exact - to recall that last occasion, a ten-wicket defeat to Barbados.

Since then, the Jamaicans have known, in the reggae words of their late countryman Bob Marley, only "positive vibrations". Counting their 93-run win over Trinidad & Tobago last week in the Caribbean's first-class competition, Jamaica have now won 13 straight matches spread over three seasons. It is a new West Indies record.

Indeed, the Jamaicans are on a run unlike any other in the history of the four-day competition since the era of sponsorship began in 1966 with the Shell Shield. So far they have won a record five straight titles and are well placed to complete a sixth this season. With a game in hand in the round-robin phase, they are poised to top the standings, which will guarantee them home advantage in the semi-final, and also the final, should they get there again.

So complete is the Jamaican domination of four-day cricket, they have not actually played a match over four days so far in this campaign. All four of their games have ended on the third day.

On paper, the credentials of Lambert's side seem impeccable. Their place, and his as captain, among the best in the history of regional cricket are assured. But statistics can be misleading if not put into context. And there is much context for this Jamaican streak.

What cannot be denied, however, are the solid foundations upon which this remarkable run has been built. The principal one is stability. Much like Trinidad & Tobago in the T20 and 50-over formats, Jamaica, over the last six seasons or more, have relied on a core group. Batting allrounder Lambert has been in the side since 2004, and has been captain for all five titles. Alongside him have been allrounder Dave Bernard Jr, wicketkeeper-batsman Carlton Baugh Jr, opener Brenton Parchment, Donovan Pagon in the middle order, steady fast-medium bowler Andrew Richardson, and the prolific spin combination of Nikita Miller and Odean Brown. In addition, Chris Gayle, Marlon Samuels, and more recently Andre Russell, have added firepower when not on West Indies and T20 duty.

The role of left-arm spinner Miller and legspinner Brown cannot be underestimated. Think of great Jamaican bowlers and Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh come instantly to mind. But in regional cricket, Miller and Brown have combined for over 400 wickets. Miller, with sporadic appearances in limited-overs international cricket and just one Test, has been devastating at regional level, his 251 first-class wickets coming at a mean average of 15.45. The key for him has been his great accuracy and variations of pace. The combination has been too much for the impatient batsmen across the region.

Also, like in the T&T set-up, the Jamaicans have a settled technical staff. While Lambert has led well on the field, with instinctive captaincy, the coach, Junior Bennett, has been a nurturer and meticulous planner. It has helped that he has overseen the development of some of the island's best players at the dominant school, St Elizabeth Technical High School. Parchment, former West Indies pacer Daren Powell, and the gifted Jerome Taylor - struggling to revive an injury-plagued career - have all come up under Bennett.

The trainer, Dave Bernard Sr, is a former soldier and footballer. The discipline he has instilled has ensured that the Jamaicans have been relatively injury-free, a big aid to their consistency over the last six years.

Put those elements together and there is a profile of a steady, close-knit, well-drilled group of players, confident in their abilities as a team. What the Jamaica side of this era is not, however, is a team of stars, especially batting stars.

The slow, unpredictable nature of the surfaces gives bowlers a false sense of their own skill. Batsmen struggle to develop confidence in their footwork. Technique against quick bowling has suffered

Stalwarts Parchment and Bernard Jr both average below 30 in first-class cricket, and Pagon and Lambert just get there. Between them, they have played a mere seven Tests.

It is hardly a surprise therefore that while Jamaica have comfortably won all four games so far this season, they have passed 200 runs just four times in eight innings and are yet to total 300. Put those stats of the champs together with the fact that overall, in 17 matches so far this year, there have been 28 completed team innings of under 200, and five under 100, and another issue arises - the standard of play.

Comparisons are often odious but the paucity of runs, not just this season but over the last five years or so, would mark this period as either a very good one for bowlers in West Indies cricket, or among the poorest for batsmen. The great suspicion is that it is the latter. That belief tempers even Jamaican pride in what their team has achieved.

"[Jamaican dominance] would have been a great thing if our standard was high," says the Jamaica Observer's editor at large, Garfield Myers. "My biggest concern is the quality of the pitches. The pitches are not good. You keep getting pitches that are up and down. Batting becomes very challenging and it's too easy for the bowlers to get wickets."

The issue of pitches is as old as the decline of the West Indies Test team. Progressively, however, the effect on the quality of batsmanship in the Caribbean has worsened. The slow, unpredictable nature of the surfaces gives bowlers a false sense of their own skill. Batsmen struggle to develop confidence in their footwork. Technique against quick bowling has suffered. Don't expect to see hook specialists like Clive Lloyd, Richie Richardson or the late Roy Fredericks coming along anytime soon.

Times were different in the late 1970s, when Barbados won four straight championships between 1977 and 1980. Back then, captains David Holford, Vanburn Holder and Albert Padmore could call on a virtual Test team that included openers Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge, solid wicketkeeper-batsmen David Murray and Thelston Payne, who both averaged in the 30s, and a pace attack that featured at various times the combination of Joel Garner, Wayne Daniel, Sylvester Clarke, an emerging Malcom Marshall, and Holder himself. They were up against Lloyd, Fredericks and Alvin Kallicharran when they played Guyana; Holding, Lawrence Rowe and Jeffrey Dujon when Jamaica came to town; and Andy Roberts and Vivian Richards when playing the then Combined Islands.

Without a doubt, West Indies cricket in that era benefited from the players Barbados produced for the Test side, much in the way a number of Trinidad & Tobago players have had an impact on the success of the current West Indies T20 team. With the obvious exceptions of Gayle and Samuels, the 2008-13 Jamaicans have not had quite the same influence, in any format. No, this streak says more about the fragile state of West Indies cricket than it does about the strength of the Jamaican game.

Time will tell what kind of legacy they will eventually leave behind. It just seems at the moment to be as master Bob says: "Think you're in heaven but you're living in hell."

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express