May 10, 2014

Ramdin wears the thorny crown

The new West Indies captain is known to be an astute tactician. But without any standout players at his disposal, his job remains just as hard as it was for his predecessor, Darren Sammy

Denesh Ramdin has been at the core of West Indies cricket long enough to be aware of the complexities he must confront as the new Test captain. History, ancient and modern, reveals that he is inheriting a potential poisoned chalice. He has observed from close proximity the misgivings that were a constant companion to Darren Sammy - whom he now replaces at the helm - through his three and a half years in the job.

Ramdin's own career has been a bemusing roller-coaster ride: first-choice wicketkeeper and vice-captain at its peak, ignored on the downslides whenever his batting, not his keeping, fell away.

He was harshly criticised, by the players' association and his Trinidad & Tobago board among others, for his bizarre gesture of displaying a defiant message from the middle to a critical Sir Viv Richards on completing a hundred at Edgbaston in 2012. In the Champions Trophy last year, he was suspended for two matches for claiming a bump-ball catch against Pakistan, in spite of maintaining that it was an innocent mistake.

For all that, his reputation as an astute tactician has been long recognised. He led the West Indies Under-19s to the World Cup final in Bangladesh in 2004, later captained the A team, is the current T&T skipper, and was Sammy's most recent deputy.

His promotion comes just when he is at the top of his game, a significant advantage.

For two years, between 2010 and 2012, the diminutive Jamaican Carlton Baugh filled the keeper's spot in Tests and ODIs after a Ramdin batting slump. Devon Thomas, a young Antiguan, was brought in for the 2011 World Cup and an ODI series in Australia without fulfilling expectations.

Since Ramdin's return to the Test team in 2012, his forthright approach has earned him an average of 44.29 in 14 matches, with three hundreds and three fifties.They are numbers to stack up against the best of the contemporary keepers: MS Dhoni, Brad Haddin and Matt Prior. His 128 from 109 balls, with six five sixes and 12 fours against England was the highest in ODIs by a West Indian keeper. It confirmed his new self-belief.

While he personally is having the time of his life, West Indies cricket is at its lowest ebb. The refrain from disenchanted fans, and some former players, is to recall the glory days when West Indies dominated the world game under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards. They ring incessantly in the ears of the current generation. The chorus reminds them that their predecessors went 15 consecutive series during the 1990s without losing one, goading them that for the past decade and more they have languished near the bottom of the ICC ratings.

The era when the captaincy went only to well-connected white amateurs has long passed. In the age of meritocracy, even great players like Garry Sobers and Brian Lara have been pilloried for their unconventional leadership. Lara quit twice. The pressures at the top prompted Shivnarine Chanderpaul to step aside, and Courtney Walsh was shunted back into the ranks.

The captaincy tested Sammy and will undoubtedly test Ramdin.

The state of West Indies cricket at the time of Sammy's appointment in October 2010 was no better than it is at his departure.

When Dwayne Bravo, the favourite to succeed Chris Gayle, preferred the life of a free agent rather than to be constrained by a WICB retainer contract, Sammy was the only alternative. In other circumstances, the job would have been Ramdin's. He had then played 42 consecutive Tests. The problem was that while the selectors mulled over Gayle's successor, Ramdin was not in the team, having been replaced by Baugh as his scores tapered off. So Sammy it was.

It is doubtful whether the recent record would have been any better whoever the captain was. Sammy simply led teams that were a match only for New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Sobers and Lara too had earlier discovered that even with their presence in weak teams it was impossible to squeeze blood out of stone.

Ramdin can expect a similar experience as no outstanding new players have come forward, while others have gone backwards. His first two series as leader, at home against New Zealand and Bangladesh, at least offer some relief before other, far more taxing ones, against South Africa, England and Australia, follow.

Sammy won't be involved. Predictably, he has now retired from Test cricket. He remains captain of the T20 team that won the World T20 in 2012, got as far as the semis this year, and can hold its own against any opposition. That is now his niche, as a specialist, six-hitting finisher. That ability is likely to help him maintain his place in the 50-overs format.

Whatever his Test record, Sammy made a universal reputation as what Ramdin described at the handover as "a very humble and hard-working cricketer [who] gave his all to the job". WICB president Dave Cameron described Sammy's leadership as "energetic and resolute". The reality is that he didn't qualify as an authentic allrounder. As such, the misgivings always concerned whether or not he merited a place in the Test XI.

The obvious rejoinder was that Bravo was the only other option and he was committed to T20 franchise teams. Presumably, now that he has accepted the WICB contract, he will return for the first time since 2010 to take Sammy's responsibility of batting at No. 6 and bowling medium-pace swing in Tests.

In the end, Sammy himself recognised that his time was up. After the drubbings in the recent series in India and New Zealand, and a year in which his batting average in seven Tests was 21.9 and his eight wickets cost 49.87 each, he acknowledged that "some careers are on the line; could be mine as well".

While his returns in Tests verified his prediction, Sammy leaves that version with appreciation for his wholehearted commitment to West Indies, even from those who were never persuaded that he was quite good enough as a player.

Now it's Ramdin's turn to come under the microscope.

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