November 17, 2013

A no-show by West Indies

All the apparent progress they made last year amounted to nothing when they faced India

Not for the first time in recent years, the pre-series words of a West Indies captain have come back to haunt him.

In the customary interview prior to the first Test in Kolkata, Darren Sammy said this about his side's preparation in Florida for the two-match series: "Many people may feel that we should have been hitting cricket balls, but the mental side of the game is very important, and team bonding and working on our mental toughness, I think will pay off for us, and I want to thank the West Indies Cricket Board for coming up with it... The guys really enjoyed each other's company and we became closer as a unit, so hopefully we can take that on to the field - the mental toughness - together with our cricket skills and have two good Test matches here."

The word "hopefully" was probably Sammy's attempt at caution should things not work out well.

They didn't.

So as so many before him have had to do following a series sweep by the opposition, Sammy had to plead guilty for his side.

"We never turned up in the series," he said after the innings drubbing in Mumbai. "We won six Test matches against teams we were ranked higher than. Now we play against a team that are ranked higher than us, it was an opportunity to showcase what we have. What we displayed over the last two Test matches, or over six days, we're much better than that.

"If you look at the way we played, every time we've been under pressure, we've not responded well... I guess it's is a mental thing. Myself as captain [have] not led from the front at all in this series."

A mental thing. How ironic, given that the whole purpose of the one-week camp in Florida was to prevent the kind of mental vacation the West Indians seemed to take against India.

In a series where Sachin Tendulkar and not India v West Indies was the focus, Sammy's side still managed to lose more than the two Tests they were not expected to win in any case.

India's master batsman deservedly went out as the champion that he is, but his final series was robbed of some of the lustre appropriate for such an outstanding competitor. Even by their less-than-stellar standards these days, West Indies outdid themselves. In four innings, not once did they bat the regulation 90 overs. They didn't even come close. The more they batted, the worse they fared. Saturday's final capitulation lasted just 47 overs. Such limited occupation of the crease meant that Indian fans could see their hero bat just twice.

More of Sammy's pre-series words were made to sound quite hollow. Words like these: "Now we have Shiv, Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels. Two players that were young then, Darren Bravo and Kieran Powell, have matured. Narsingh Deonarine and Kirk Edwards were part of the A team that visited recently and did well, so we have more experience in the batting."

Even by their less-than-stellar standards these days, West Indies outdid themselves. In four innings, not once did they bat the regulation 90 overs. They didn't even come close. The more they batted, the worse they fared

That experience counted for nothing in the end after totals of 234, 168, 182 and 187. Even the West Indies A side would not have been excused for putting up those numbers. And what they reflect yet again is a mental breakdown. Psychological preparation of teams in the modern age is becoming standard practice. But the ad-hoc manner in which such help is given to West Indies sides is counter-productive. One-off events like the Florida trip are simply not adequate. Not in this era.

However, even without regular professional help, the current crop is still culpable. Powell and Bravo, who both showed much promise when they toured the subcontinent two years ago, did not demonstrate in their shot selection and management of their innings the maturity their captain had spoken about and was within his rights to expect.

Opener Powell, who averaged 30.25 in the series, did not improve from his unbelievable attempted hook shot that cost him his wicket before lunch on the opening day of the series. And Bravo's struggles - he averaged 25 - to maintain a scoring tempo in his innings continued. India's spinners could settle against him, not having to worry about conceding too many rhythm-disrupting singles.

Immediately therefore, much of West Indies' pre-series planning fell through. Success in India was dependent on heavy scoring by the top five. That only the old pro, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, fared better, and only marginally, (133 runs, average 44.33) was telling.

It is always dangerous to write off proven warriors like Gayle. But his recent numbers are worth some scrutiny. Since his return to the Test team last year, in 15 innings Gayle has managed two centuries and one half-century - of which a a hundred and a fifty came in his very first game back, against New Zealand in Antigua. Hand-eye coordination, not footwork, has been the big man's key to success over the years, along with his long reach, power and fighting attitude. It may now be that time is beginning to take its toll on his skills, at least in Tests. The cause for real worry for the selectors and coach Ottis Gibson must be that unlike India, who have found a Shikhar Dhawan to replace Virender Sehwag, there is no obvious successor at the top to Gayle.

Similarly in the bowling, a settled opening attack is still proving elusive. The big gamble to carry an injured Kemar Roach to India backfired, robbing the attack of its spearhead. It was a void that the big-hearted Tino Best did not fill, and the excellent Shane Shillingford was left to toil on his own virtually.

Watching up close the no-show in India, chairman of selectors Clyde Butts must have had an uncomfortable and depressing time. The progress that seemed to have been made in 2012 did not seem like much at all on this Indian trip. Yet another examination against a top team was flunked.

Maybe Clive Lloyd is right. Captain when professionalism and West Indies went together, Lloyd said this recently at a forum in his native Guyana: "I think our cricketers must start thinking about the West Indies; they need to start showing more loyalty to their country and once that is being displayed, West Indies cricket can move up the ladder. We have the talent here, but we don't have the players who are disciplined. Natural talent is just a part of it. You must have discipline to succeed. You must have discipline in your fitness, training, bowling, batting, fielding and all other aspects of the game."

Lloyd was stating the obvious in that last bit. However, on the latest evidence, his successors don't get it.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express

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