July 1, 2014

No backbone in West Indies' batting

Apart from the 21-year-old Kraigg Brathwaite, no other batsman showed much promise in the series against New Zealand

Kraigg Brathwaite, who looks more productive and able since his recall, lends stability to West Indies' line-up © WICB

Rain, rather than their batsmen, became West Indies' best hope of not losing the Test series once Brendon McCullum declared overnight and asked them to chase 308 on the last day at Kensington Oval.

Rain did not fall long enough to save them.

So for the second Test rubber in succession against New Zealand, and third overall, West Indies were losers. It was an accurate reflection of the way they played. But the tale of this series for West Indies was not so much what happened, but what did not occur in the three matches.

Kirk Edwards, batting at No. 3 averaged 27.40. At No. 4 Darren Bravo managed 37.00. Among the batsmen, only opener Kraigg Brathwaite, Chris Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul averaged 40 or better.

In contrast, New Zealand's one-down man, Kane Williamson, was the series top scorer with two centuries, 413 runs and an average over 82. Jimmy Neesham at No. 6 averaged 46.33. He was one of five tourists who managed better than 46.

West Indies' top batsmen, however, were yet again unsteady in their contributions. The result was a first-innings total of 262 in the first Test at Sabina Park that saw them concede a lead of 246, which ultimately condemned them to a 186-run defeat.

In that effort, Edwards and Bravo between them contributed zero. In the second innings, they combined for 26, while last man Shane Shillingford made a Test-best 53 not out in what was by then a lost cause.

Much better would come from both the top-order batsmen later on, with significantly better results for their side.

In the second Test in Trinidad, Bravo shrugged off the mental shackles that had produced a season of indifferent batting following his premature departure from New Zealand last December. He made a highly disciplined 109, highlighted by his studious judgement of the balls to leave. In combination with Brathwaite, who fashioned a refreshingly positive first Test hundred, Bravo set up West Indies' first innings that allowed the bowlers to put the side back in the series.

Edwards was also pivotal. His confident-but-not-chancy 55 in tandem with Brathwaite steadied a shaky innings at 16 for 2. For once Gayle and Chanderpaul were not key figures in a batting revival, although a typical Gayle onslaught finished off the match.

But even in losing that game because of a poor first-innings effort, the dogged New Zealand lower-order resistance from BJ Watling and Mark Craig, playing just his second Test, was instructive. It was the kind of approach that the visitors employed more often than the home team; the reason why they always seemed more likely to have the better of the series.

Edwards made 58 and 10 and Bravo 24 and 40 in the third Test. For the positions in the order they occupy and the time and hope invested in them as the backbone of the batting in the coming years, the series did not represent a genuine step forward for either player. Both still do not force the bowlers to come up with different plans to dismiss them, hence their patchy records.

While he was relatively steady with the bat, Ramdin's wicketkeeping suffered from lapses in concentration and his decisions about when to go on the defensive and when to attack

More encouraging was the way 21-year-old Brathwaite came back to Test cricket. An accumulator by nature, he suffered from not being able to score regularly while at the crease. But in recent months, Brathwaite, always the calm, patient type, has been working on getting the ball away more often, especially against the spinners, and his 129 upon his recall at the Queen's Park Oval suggested that a more able, productive player was now in position to give stability to the West Indies top order. So did his average of 72.33. Such a presence is needed more than ever now since Gayle, 34, and never fully fit during this series, looked to be getting closer to the end of his Test career at least.

West Indies at this point are not a team with a well-developed spine in their batting. They are like a man with brittle bones creaking under the weight of his body. The side needs spinal surgery. The repeated failures of Kieran Powell, dropped for Brathwaite after the first Test, must be an ongoing cause for concern for team management and the selectors.

The problems seem not so pressing when it comes to bowling. The new-ball pair Kemar Roach and Jerome Taylor came back from long absences from the game to have satisfactory series. Roach, sidelined for close to a year with a shoulder problem, got better and better from first Test to third to end with 15 wickets after having not played a competitive match until the opening game at Sabina.

Taylor, whose rehabilitation was confirmed after he played a full season for Jamaica in the regional four-day tournament, started strong but did not finish as well as Roach. But he stayed healthy and his three-wicket spell on the second afternoon in the second Test created the first crucial swing in the match.

Like Taylor and Roach, the 6ft 7in Sulieman Benn was on the comeback trail against New Zealand. And he used his height and arm ball to great effect for 14 wickets with his left-arm spin.

In a perfect world however, Roach should not have been a starter at Sabina Park, nor been needed in this series at all. But he took the new ball ahead of Shannon Gabriel, who had played all season for Trinidad and Tobago. But given his chance in the second Test on his home ground, Gabriel bowled with the same lack of incisiveness that has marked his international career to date. It meant that the selectors felt compelled to turn to Jason Holder for his first Test in the final game in Barbados. He did his cause no harm with a creditable showing with the ball, but especially with the bat, getting his first 50 as the lower order delayed victory for New Zealand.

The decision to include a fifth bowler, Shane Shillingford, did not have the hoped-for impact. New Zealand even had the luxury of declaring in their second innings on the fourth day. Shillingford, back for a second time after problems with his action, and unable to bowl his doosra, was not the same bowler in the two games he played. And in this series, West Indies could not call on Sunil Narine once the West Indies board stuck to policy and did not consider him after he missed the pre-series training camp.

That said, when able to call on their best bowlers, West Indies have a unit that can cause the opposition problems. The difficulty however, as with the batting, is the reserves. There are not any of proven quality, save, arguably, for injury-prone Ravi Rampaul. It is an uncomfortable situation to be in, given the fitness history of 30-year-old Taylor and Roach, 26, and the scheduling of international cricket, which, as this series showed, can make T20 standout Narine a non-starter.

The selection panel, coach Ottis Gibson and new skipper Denesh Ramdin face challenges aplenty.

While he was relatively steady with the bat, Ramdin's wicketkeeping suffered from lapses in concentration and his decisions about when to go on the defensive and when to attack - especially when pressing for victory in Trinidad - were sometimes questionable. He was the antithesis of his counterpart, McCullum, in this regard.

Ramdin must learn fast from this series. But his players need to do so even more quickly. The signs though, like some of the weather in this last Test, are not too bright.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express