August 31, 2014

Question marks over West Indies' ODI batting

The sequence of recent stuttering starts in ODIs, with the middle and lower orders picking up the pieces, does not bode well

Is it a problem that the World Cup is less than six months away and West Indies still have no head coach?

It depends on who is answering the question.

Michael Muirhead, chief executive of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), as a typically cagey administrator, is relaxed about it. "That would be considered a nice cut-off time to have a coach but we don't plan to rush and get a new one just to say we have a coach for the World Cup," he told the Barbados Nation, stressing that the sole objective would be to get the best man.

Daren Ganga, the former Test batsman, now television analyst, has the totally opposite view. "This, to me, is a prime time for us to be focused on what we're trying to achieve next February," he said on a weekly cricket television show. "The longer we wait to approve someone that has the responsibility to take us into the World Cup, it's only going to be detrimental to our team."

The issue shot to prominence once the long-serving Ottis Gibson parted company with the WICB "by mutual agreement", astonishingly on the eve of the current home series against Bangladesh. Team manager Sir Richie Richardson was hurriedly elevated to interim coach; given Muirhead's comments he could still be there come February 16 for West Indies' opening match against Ireland in Nelson, New Zealand.

Whoever is in charge between now and then - five ODIs in India and five in South Africa in November and January lead into the World Cup - the recent failures of the critical top-order batting and, as always, inconsistency are major concerns.

In the last 27 games, the 115 between Chris Gayle and Johnson Charles against Sri Lanka in last year's triangular Celkon Mobile Cup, the even 100 between Dwayne Smith and Kieran Powell in the one-off match against Ireland at Sabina Park in February 2013, and 95 between Powell and Charles against New Zealand in Hamilton last January are the only opening partnerships better than 50.

There was an all-out 98 against Pakistan and starts of 91 for 6 against India, 80 for 5 against England and, most recently and shockingly, 34 for 5 against Bangladesh. In four other matches, four or more wickets were down before 100.

The lingering back injury that eliminated Gayle's intimidating power and experience for ten consecutive ODIs, and Marlon Samuels' sudden decline were clearly factors.

As it is, Powell and Charles are no longer serious contenders. Dwayne Smith's signing for Sydney Sixers in Australia's 2014-15 Big Bash all but disqualifies him from World Cup selection. Devon Smith, Lendl Simmons, Chadwick Walton and Kirk Edwards have all been used as openers over the past year or so; none has been permanent.

Gayle's mere presence at No. 1 remains essential. At his best, Samuels was a quality batsman at No. 4. Gayle's fitness will be nervously monitored over the coming months. Samuels, dropped during the series against New Zealand in July, remains on the outside; in desperation, he may yet be recalled.

The upshot has been a succession of stuttering starts in the latest ODIs at home, repeatedly leaving the middle and lower orders to pick up the pieces. Wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin, who lost his Test place for two years specifically because of a batting slump, and whose ODI average hovered around 20 for some time, has been to the fore.

Simmons, Dwayne Bravo and Darren Sammy turned the early wreckage of 45 for 4 in the first match against England in late February into a match-winning 269 for 6. There was no coming back from 81 for 4 in the second or 80 for 5 in the third; complete embarrassment, if not the match, was saved in that last game by Ramdin's robust 128 off 109 balls with five sixes and 11 fours, a precursor of what has followed.

In the first match against Bangladesh on August 20, the innings was in ruins at 34 for 5 in the 14th over before Ramdin, once more, with 74, and Kieron Pollard, 89, put the pieces back together with a match-winning partnership of 145.

Ramdin was at it once again in the third match, in St Kitts. Entering at 12 for 2, with Gayle and Simmons out by the fifth over, he compiled an innings of 169 from 121 balls that was described by interim coach Richardson, without exaggeration, as "exceptional, one of the best ODI knocks we've seen". It featured 11 sixes and eight fours. Even on undersized Warner Park, these were Gayle-like stats. No West Indian had hoisted as many sixes in an ODI against a Full Member. It was the highest ODI score by a West Indian at home.

Ramdin lacks the physical strength of hitters like the giants Gayle and Pollard. Richardson noted that he doesn't swipe, plays "proper cricket shots", and "is able to rotate the strike". In the form he has been in, he added, Ramdin scores as quickly as anyone else.

In the circumstances, the captain, Dwayne Bravo, would do worse than to assume the responsibility of batting higher than Nos. 6 and 7, where he has mostly placed himself since taking over the ODI captaincy

His value in St Kitts was enhanced by his influence in steering Darren Bravo through early difficulties (including an outlandish stumping chance at 10). Their partnership was finally worth 258 when the younger Bravo was out for 124 (127 balls, eight sixes, seven fours); it was an overall ODI third-wicket record.

On the basis that necessity is the mother of invention, Richardson decided to move Ramdin up to No. 4, given his form and the struggles of others. India and South Africa present appreciably more intricate problems than Bangladesh. Spin and swing will test the batsmen in India, the pace of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in South Africa.

Several permutations are available, if none particularly strong. Simmons' adaptability makes him a possibility as either Gayle's partner or at No. 4, allowing Ramdin to slip back into his more accustomed spot of No. 6. Powell would be another option as opener but he has seemingly slipped off the selectors' radar since withdrawing from the recent Caribbean Premier League (CPL).

In the circumstances, the captain, Dwayne Bravo, would do worse than to assume the responsibility of batting higher than Nos. 6 and 7, where he has mostly placed himself since taking over the ODI captaincy. He was at No. 6 for his 106 against New Zealand in Hamilton last February.

The bowling seems settled, especially if Sunil Narine chooses to make himself available. It is the batting that presents more questions than answers for Clive Lloyd and his new selection panel. The portents are not encouraging for the way ahead.

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