October 27, 2013

Sidekicks' chance to steal the show

It might be Tendulkar's farewell party, but the hastily arranged two-Test series gives the boys from the Caribbean a chance to play with freedom and score points for themselves

Road trips haven't been the most pleasant experiences for West Indian teams over the past decade, especially those to the Indian subcontinent.

It was not always so. Up until the 2002-03 tour, West Indies had lost just one Test series in eight in India, stretching back to their first tour in 1948. But since then, the tourists have lost four of six matches and have not managed a win on Indian soil.

Seeing that their last 2-0 beating was just two years ago, the likelihood of a turnaround in results is not great. In fact, Darren Sammy takes his side to India very much as part of the sideshow entertainment for Sachin Tendulkar's retirement party. The tour was arrangedso that India's master batsman could finish his career at home and in his native Mumbai, and the focus will not be on the West Indians, or even so much on the Indian side as a whole, but on saying goodbye to India's hero and seeing whether Tendulkar can finish off his stellar career with a few more magnificent innings.

One of the most noteworthy things about the way his career has unfolded is how Tendulkar has managed the extreme level of expectation that has been attached to him, starting with his first Test back in Karachi in 1989. That city does not host Tests these days, but 24 years and 198 Tests later, the world still expects great things from the Little Master. So, in a very emotional and nostalgic way, in this upcoming series he will have to manage the spotlight like never before, for it will be on him all the time. That may be good news for West Indies.

They have nothing to lose on this tour. Pakistan's slip-up in Zimbabwe temporarily moved Sammy's side into a mid-table position they had not occupied for quite a spell. They have since dropped back to sixth* following Pakistan's drawn series with No.1 ranked South Africa.

The example of the Pakistanis' upstaging of the series favourites, and the realisation that even a drawn result in India could again see them on the move in the rankings, should add a greater sense of urgency to what the Windies do on this tour. Perhaps the one-week team-building camp in Florida, which the West Indies Cricket Board organised, rather than the usual preparation in the Caribbean, was an indication of how eager the authorities are for the team to give a good showing.

But the need to succeed will really be felt by the Indians. As the home team and one of the current powers in world cricket, defeat, or even drawing this rubber, will be seen as a major let-down at home, especially because of the Tendulkar factor. So since India are expected to win, anything but a series defeat will be a plus for West Indies on this tour. Playing with the freedom that such a feeling can prompt will not be a bad thing. It may just help the underdogs win more key moments in the Tests, something West Indies have consistently failed to do against the top four sides.

Throughout the ranks there will be opportunities to seize the moment. So mighty has been the struggle to achieve consistency long term, that there is no one department that is not open to question. But this tour could be especially important for a few, like Shane Shillingford.

There will be no new enemies confronting Sammy and his men, just old, frustrating ones that have little to do with the opposition on the field

Sunil Narine's success in limited-overs cricket has made him the focus of attention when it comes to West Indian bowlers. But his failure so far to trouble Test batsmen has left the door wide open for Shillingford to carve out a niche for himself. The tall offspinner, prolific against the Australians last year and in West Indies' sole series thus far in 2013, against Zimbabwe, has used his height and accuracy to great advantage, especially when conditions have assisted him. The fact that spin will also be India's forte should mean that Shillingford will get surfaces that will aid him. It will also be interesting to see what impact Saqlain Mushtaq's recent tutelage has had on Shillingford's game.

Shillingford is one of two specialist slow bowlers on this tour, the other being left-armer Veerasammy Permaul. England's offbreak-and-left-arm combination of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar won them their series in India last year. At the moment, the similarities between the two pairs lie only on paper. But here is a chance for the West Indian duo to make a name for themselves. Permaul will have the advantage of having just played against India A on Indian turf, and the confidence of being one of the leading bowlers in the drawn rubber.

Permaul was one of five from that tour who will also be on this one, the others being Kirk Edwards, Narsingh Deonarine, Kieran Powell and back-up wicketkeeper Chadwick Walton.

Edwards, who averaged just under 38 in the series in 2011, has since lost his place in the starting XI and will have to battle Deonarine for a middle-order spot. Deonarine's usefulness as an offspinner may give him the edge.

When Darren Bravo left India two years ago, the comparisons with a certain Brian Lara were growing, quite prematurely. He returns to the subcontinent not with his place in question, but rather his ability to add more substance to his style. Bravo's vulnerability against short bowling on the body is no secret, but another solid tour would be reassurance for West Indies' selectors and for coach Ottis Gibson.

It is way past time that Chris Gayle, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and Marlon Samuels over the last year or two, were seriously rivalled as the side's premier batsmen. Bravo and opener Powell can restate their credentials on this tour. Denesh Ramdin, with Walton shadowing him, has a similar challenge.

Really, in the series ahead there will be no new enemies confronting Sammy and his men, just old, frustrating ones that have little to do with the opposition on the field. Properly managing their own games will be more vital to a good series for the West Indians than what the opposition can throw at them. That is especially the case with this generation.

So the psychology gurus in Florida would have earned their keep if just enough freedom can reign in the West Indian camp so that even half of those demons can be slain at Sachin's party.

* October 27, 07:50 GMT: West Indies' Test ranking was corrected from fifth to sixth

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express