March 31, 2014

Sammy settled in finisher role

The West Indies captain has repaid the faith the selectors invested in him with some thrilling late-order performances recently

The rollercoaster ride that was one of the exercises for the West Indies team on the one-week training camp in Florida last October is an apt metaphor for Darren Sammy's captaincy. Designed to rid nervous players of a fear of heights, and by extension a fear of failure, it worked for Sammy, by his own admission. He already had ample experience of the ups and downs of the position; he had handled them with such composure, the venture on the Big Dipper seemed a redundant escapade.

His inconsistency has been most striking in the past five months. Sammy has gone from the depth of despair following the disastrous Test series in India and New Zealand to the highly charged euphoria of victory over the typically boorish Australians in the World T20 in Bangladesh on Friday.

After the humiliation of two three-day innings defeats in Tests in India and then two more thrashings in three Tests in New Zealand, Sammy's mood appeared lower than at any previous time. "We cannot continue like this," he said, adding that some careers were "on the line". He included his own among them. His constantly tenuous position seemed shakier than ever. He had already been replaced by Dwayne Bravo as the ODI captain, according to the selectors "to freshen the leadership".

Such pressure has kept him company from October 2010, when he was named to replace Chris Gayle at the helm. There has been a constant debate ever since, not just over whether Sammy is the best man for the job but whether he merits his place in the best XI.

He repeatedly, and politely, pointed out that he didn't appoint himself but, once entrusted with the responsibility, would carry it out to the best of his ability. The team has staggered through appreciably more hard times than good since. Sammy held it together even as the board and Gayle carried on an unseemly, very public, row that kept out the team's most commanding batsman, and character, for 18 months.

Sammy earned widespread admiration for his commitment through these trying times, but his modest all-round returns on the fields couldn't curtail the doubts. The selectors and the board would not be moved. Back home after India and New Zealand, a raft of limited-overs matches followed, against England in Antigua and Barbados, and then the World T20 in Bangladesh, where the team he led to the championship in 2012 would defend the title.

He was retained, both as ODI player and T20 captain. This was his strength; the question was what would be the effect on his confidence that had been so shaken in India and New Zealand.

While he enjoys his team's present successes, Sammy will be cautious about not getting ahead of himself. He, of all people, understands that the drop from the top of the rollercoaster to the bottom can be rapid and gut-wrenching

His answer has been emphatic.

His fierce clean-hitting has always made him a dangerous batsman. His unbeaten 58 off 24 balls, with six fours and two sixes, against South Africa in Antigua in 2010 is the fastest half-century by a West Indian in ODIs; the problem was that such fireworks came along only occasionally. Now, perhaps galvanised by his own plight and that of the team, he has found a more settled role as finisher: the one to put the emphatic exclamation mark to the closing overs.

In his only ODI in New Zealand, last Boxing Day, his unbeaten 43 off 27 balls, with five fours and three sixes, carried West Indies across the line by two wickets in a low-scoring contest; it earned him the Man-of-the-Match award.

Two games later, against England in Antigua, he and his fellow captain Dwayne Bravo exploded for 116 off the last ten overs; Bravo ended with 87 off 91 balls, Sammy was out off the last ball, for 61 from 36 balls, with four sixes and five fours. It was enough for the win.

His unbeaten 30 off nine balls with three sixes clinched an unlikely victory in the second T20. His hits, dispatched into the stands like some guided missiles, sent the Kensington Oval into fits of raucous celebration more associated with carnival.

He was within another six hit of repeating the magic two days later after belting 15 off six balls. In his eagerness to put bat to ball, he tapped what would have been a wide slowly to point.

Then came Friday's bombardment, the most satisfying of the lot. Twelve were required off the final over. The Australian captain, George Bailey, entrusted it to the left-arm quick James Faulkner, who had issued some provocative, widely publicised, pre-game insults against the West Indies players. "I don't particularly like them," Faulkner said. "Good players are good players. You have to do things to get under their skin and try and irritate them to try and get them off their game."

The young Tasmanian was clearly unaware of history, of West Indies' reaction to England captain Tony Greig's "we'll make them grovel" remark in 1976, and Curtly Ambrose's to Dean Jones' demand in an ODI in Sydney that he remove his wrist band before bowling. They would have cautioned him that it's not such a good idea to irritate West Indian cricketers.

After Faulkner's first two balls went scoreless, Sammy sent the next two sailing over the ropes with the familiar free swing of the bat. It triggered West Indian rejoicing every bit as spirited as it was after the victorious final in the previous tournament in Sri Lanka.

As always, Sammy did not gloat at the post-match presentation and media conference. He limited himself to: "It was really nice to see Faulkner bowling the last over. A lot of things were said before this match and you never wake up a sleeping lion [Gayle]." And he sensibly placed things in perspective. "We have not won the tournament, it's just a game against Australia but we were pumped up for this," he said, conscious that they still have to overcome the equally unpredictable Pakistan in their last group match, on Tuesday, to secure a semi-final place.

While he enjoys his team's present successes, and his own, Sammy's proven common sense will caution him not to get ahead of himself. He, of all people, understands that the drop from the top of the rollercoaster to the bottom can be rapid and gut-wrenching.

After the overnight revelry - they are West Indians, after all - he will ensure that all his players' focus returns solely on the retention of the World T20 title, and the US$1 million that goes with it.

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

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