February 10, 2014

England and West Indies focus on youth

Both have lost their previous series and key players ahead of their limited-overs clash in the Caribbean. It's time to blood emerging talent

Things haven't gone to plan for either West Indies or England as they prepare to contest the strange combination of three ODIs in Antigua and three T20s in Barbados from February 28 to March 15.

One way or another, their soul-destroying tour of Australia has taken a heavy toll on England. Missing from their squad for the West Indies tour are five of the stalwarts who carried them, if briefly, to the top of the ICC's Test charts and near the top in ODIs just over a year ago. Their places have been taken by younger rising stars.

West Indies also have five prominent players on their absentee list; others with once-settled places have been worryingly out of sorts in the regional Nagico Super50, presently into its final week in Trinidad. Another was withdrawn from the tournament by his association for declining to sign for his team outfit, as all their players are required to do.

West Indies warm up for England's challenge with a couple of T20s and one ODI against Ireland in Kingston on February 19, 21 and 23. The Irish were so disappointing in the Trinidad tournament over the past ten days that it presents an ideal opportunity for West Indies to introduce the most promising newcomers.

It's all the more reason to expect the England matches to feature those of the coming generation. That alone heightens expectations.

For West Indies, Chris Gayle, Marlon Samuels, Darren Sammy, Kieron Pollard and Kemar Roach are still carrying injuries of varying degrees. Pollard (knee strain) and Roach (damaged right shoulder) haven't appeared in West Indies colours since the home series against Pakistan last July. Gayle has played no cricket since November 21, when he tore a hamstring in the first ODI in Kochi on the back-to-back tours of India and New Zealand that were every bit as ill-starred as England's in Australia.

Sammy, also with a hamstring problem, and Samuels, recovering from an operation to correct a chronic wrist injury, haven't had a match since Boxing Day.

Normally, selectors would not hurry them back against international opposition. The West Indies panel's conservatism in favouring the tried and trusted over the young and untested is clear from those players contracted for 2014.

At the top level, worth US$120,000 each, are Gayle, 34, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 39, both with strong records but clearly in the twilight of their careers.

Also there are Samuels, 33, who followed his outstanding 2012 with an inconsistent 2013, Sammy, the Test and T20 captain, whose position, by his own admission, is "on the line", and Dwayne Bravo, 30, the last of whose 40 Tests was more than three years ago. The only under-30 in that group, at 25, is Sunil Narine, the mystery spinner.

Among those two levels below (at US$60,000) are Darren Bravo and Denesh Ramdin, along with Johnson Charles, Kirk Edwards, Kieran Powell, Ravi Rampaul and Shane Shillingford.

"Lil Bravo", as he's called in his native Trinidad, is 25 and the team's finest young batsman, averaging 44.68 in 27 Tests, and the highest of his five hundreds, 218 against New Zealand, was just three matches ago.

Ramdin has finally cemented himself as wicketkeeper-batsman after a period of inconsistency that cost him his place. In 14 Tests over the past two years, he averages 44.29 with three hundreds, a favourable comparison with Australia's Brad Haddin (42.26 in 12 Tests) and even MS Dhoni (41.52).

Surely contracts should be either reward for performance or incentives for emerging players. It is patently not so with West Indies.

Of those on show in the Super50, Charles and the left-handed Powell, the opening pair in the New Zealand ODIs, have been worryingly short of runs, as they were on tour. Darren Bravo seems still distracted by the "personal" problems that caused his premature exit after a solitary ODI in New Zealand. Ravi Rampaul's bowling has lacked its usual zip and control. Shillingford can't even bowl as he's under an ICC suspension for an illegal action.

To add to the predicament, Kirk Edwards was dismissed from Barbados' Super50 team for reasons being challenged on his behalf by the West Indies Players Association (WIPA). According to the board president, Dave Cameron, he is still eligible for selection to the regional teams but is now under a dark, unwanted cloud.

For England, Alastair Cook has remained at home to consider his previously unquestioned position as captain. Jonathan Trott, the established No. 3, left Australia after the first Test through "a stress related condition"; his future as an England player is in doubt.

Offspinner Graeme Swann declared his retirement after the third Ashes Test and departed for no other reason than that he wasn't satisfied with his performances. Matt Prior, the long-serving batsman-wicketkeeper, was dropped at the same time, after his form deteriorated sharply; at 31, he is unlikely to be back.

The biggest setback of all was last week's controversial rejection of Kevin Pietersen, unquestionably England's best and most dynamic batsman but deemed by management to be a disruptive influence.

The upshot is that Stuart Broad takes over as captain and that three of those under him are new to international cricket and four others 25 and under. The beginners are Moeen Ali, a batting allrounder who has been outstanding for Worcestershire in the County Championship, and two left-armers, Harry Gurney of Nottinghamshire (fast-medium swing) and Lancashire's Stephen Parry (conventional spin).

Ben Stokes, an aggressive allrounder, England's only century-maker in the Ashes Tests and a bowler capable of high-80s mph pace, was one distinct positive from Australia.

Jos Buttler, a similarly belligerent batsman, has the makings of Prior's successor. Joe Root, the diminutive right-hander capable of playing in any position in the order, from No. 1 down, didn't flourish in Australia but his potential had already been confirmed.

Stokes is 22, Buttler and Root 23. They and others of similar age who didn't make it - batsman Gary Ballance, batsman-keeper Jonny Bairstow - are the future of English cricket.

If West Indies lack such depth at present, the two upcoming series, brief as they are, offer a chance to introduce those previously confined to the A team and others who staked their claims in the Super50.

Batsmen such as the left-handers Jonathan Carter and Leon Johnson, both 26, with A team credentials, and Carter with the further boost of a Super 50 hundred against Trinidad and Tobago; the slim, distinctly rapid 21-year-old Ronsford Beaton; and the big Vincentian left-armer Delorn Johnson, another A team graduate.

If such players are not given their chance and the customary recycling continues, West Indies will remain just where they are, near the bottom of the pile.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years