July 6, 2014

Lack of self-belief hampering West Indies' progress

Even though they surprised everyone by bouncing back from defeat to win the second Test, West Indies still remain a mentally frail side, prone to disintegrating when the odds are stacked against them

The pressure of captaincy has begun to badly affect Denesh Ramdin's wicketkeeping © WICB Media/Randy Brooks

After New Zealand's seminal triumph in their hard-fought, wildly fluctuating Test series against West Indies, Kane Williamson described the team as "a positive and a good young group that can win a lot in the coming years and ultimately move higher and higher in the rankings". It was impossible to deny his optimism. The average age of the squad that completed its first overseas triumph against significant opponents in 12 years was 26. Only the assured, assertive captain Brendon McCullum, Peter Fulton and Ross Taylor were over 30.

Williamson is 23 and is already spoken of back home in the same breath as Martin Crowe - by Crowe himself, among others. Player of the Series, his 113 in the first Test at Sabina Park and unbeaten 161 in the third at Kensington Oval was batting of high quality that lifted his tally to seven hundreds; Crowe had scored five at the same age. Williamson's first was in India, on debut, aged 20.

The ICC ranks him 14th among Test batsmen; he is certain to rise quickly. Taylor is ninth, McCullum 19th. Of the trio of swing bowlers who rarely offered West Indies respite, Tim Southee is sixth, Trent Boult ninth and Neil Wagner 22nd.

The only West Indians in ICC's top 20 are Shivnarine Chanderpaul, now a month away from his 40th birthday, fifth on the batting list, and Kemar Roach, impressively recovered from a shoulder operation last October, tenth among bowlers.

A more pertinent guide is the teams' rankings. New Zealand are seventh on the list, West Indies eighth. In other words, their recent meeting was akin to a Wimbledon first-round match between two unseeded players.

Sterner examinations are ahead for New Zealand - three Tests against Pakistan in the Emirates in November, two against Sri Lanka at home in January, two each away to England and Sri Lanka next summer. Williamson's confident prediction can then be properly assessed.

West Indies have the welcome cushion of two home Tests against the hapless Bangladesh in September before the daunting prospect of three against No. 2 South Africa in December and January.

The Bangladesh mini-series is an opportunity to introduce young players.

Kraigg Brathwaite, the 21-year-old opener, immediately responded to his recall for the second Test against New Zealand with 129.

Jermaine Blackwood, a 22-year-old dasher who came to prominence with successive hundreds against the touring Bangladesh A, stroked 63 on debut before he was jettisoned to boost the bowling in the final Test.

At the first signs of resistance, Ramdin dispersed his fielders to the deep. Even when an innings victory beckoned in the second Test, Mark Craig and wicketkeeper BJ Watling were placed under little pressure

Jason Holder's height suggests his preferred sport should be basketball. At 23, he made an encouraging entry into Test cricket at Kensington Oval with calmly compiled scores of 38 and 52 and tight fast-medium bowling.

There are other promising potential recruits from A teams who have done well against their counterparts from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Whatever talent there is and as much as the board plans to boost domestic standards through increased contracts for players, improved pitches and an extended first-class season, West Indies will make no progress until they shed the lack of self-belief ingrained by two decades of disappointment. Their spirit in transforming a hiding in the first Test at Sabina Park, by 186 runs in four days, into categorical victory by ten wickets in the second at the Queen's Park Oval reversed a sequence of five losses in six Tests. It was a thorough team effort; all 11 contributed.

The customary response to adversity used to been further disintegration. Now there was optimism that such frailty was at an end. It took the five days of the decisive match to negate the notion.

For the first three, West Indies held sway, until their familiar inability to seize the moment once more took hold. Replying to New Zealand's modest first-innings 293, they were 153 for a quarter-hour before rain intervened on the second afternoon. A platform was laid for a lead similar to the decisive 239 in the second Test; in the end, it was an insignificant 24.

The balance was still marginally in their favour when New Zealand were four down for 135 early on the fourth morning, ahead by 111.

Crucial chances had already been missed. Their bowling became as flat as the pitch was throughout, the situation compounded by mystifying decisions on the part of Denesh Ramdin, in his first series as captain in place of Darren Sammy.

He appeared ill at ease combining the always tough responsibilities of determining tactics and keeping wicket. His standards with the gloves dipped to such an extent that he allowed 57 byes in the three Tests and missed chances he would usually have gathered without fuss.

It led to an ultra-cautious tactical approach. At the first signs of resistance, he dispersed his fielders to the deep. Even when an innings victory beckoned on the fourth day of the second Test, the New Zealand No. 9, Mark Craig, and wicketkeeper BJ Watling were placed under little pressure in their partnership, which sent the match into the last day.

The selectors had changed the victorious second-Test XI, omitting a batsman to boost the numerically limited attack. Bold as it appeared, the move backfired. By the second innings, Jerome Taylor had shot his bolt after his earlier efforts, Sulieman Benn was feeling the effects of 182 overs in his previous five innings, and Shane Shillingford, denied his doosra on the ICC's direction, never looked like taking a wicket.

Yet they kept going for 60 overs, while Holder was restricted to ten. Taylor's late wicket was the only one to show among the three; Holder collected two. Williamson's unbeaten 161 duly led New Zealand to 331 for 7 by the end of the rain-shortened day. There was a definite momentum shift.

Jason Holder performed creditably on debut in the final Test, but why was he given only ten overs to bowl when he had taken two wickets? © WICB

McCullum's immediate declaration the following morning recognised it. He offered West Indies the challenge of scoring 308 at the plausible rate of 3.14 runs an over to win the match and take the series. He was emboldened by the conviction among his players that they would not be denied. More to the point, he had prior first-hand experience of how West Indies tend to waver in such a situation.

In the final Test of the preceding series between the two in New Zealand last December, West Indies carried a lead of 18 into their second innings. A collapse for 103 ensued and New Zealand took the match and the series 2-0.

At Kensington Oval, the prospect of winning was never a consideration after the first three wickets fell for 31 in the first ten overs; by tea, it was 161 for 7. It required an eighth-wicket partnership between Holder and the No. 9, Shillingford, to show what might have been and delay the New Zealanders their elation until the sun was slowly setting over Kensington Oval.

It was a familiar ending with a familiar cause.

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