March 29, 2015

Chance for 'mediocre' West Indies to show up England

The incoming ECB chairman's belittling pre-series comments could motivate the hosts to show the resolve lacking in recent months

Can Phil Simmons coax West Indies' seamers to deliver with more venom? © WICB Media

As the cricket world's attention was riveted exclusive on the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and the lead-in to Sunday's fascinating final between the co-hosts, two also-rans from the tournament were preparing for a low-key Test series on the other side of the planet relevant only to the teams themselves and a few individuals on either side.

West Indies depended on net run rate and the result of a match between others to squeeze into the quarter-final of the World Cup where they were promptly dispatched by New Zealand. They returned home to hastily get ready for three Tests against England, who didn't make it into the top eight at the World Cup.

It is an immediate opportunity for a tired West Indies, who carried eight players aged 30 or above to the World Cup, to start rebuilding under new head coach Phil Simmons. A West Indian himself, his international career as power-hitting opening batsman and useful medium-pace bowler spanned 1987 through 1999.

There is also the possibility, sooner or later, of a new Test captain, 23-year-old Jason Holder, who led the ODI team in South Africa and the World Cup.

Simmons was signed on the day before West Indies' heavy World Cup quarter-final loss. He returns to his roots after eight years in charge of Ireland, the strongest of the ICC's Associates, where he forged an enviable reputation.

Under him, they won 11 trophies and qualified for every main ICC tournament, with World Cup wins over England in 2011 and, just five weeks before his move, ironically over West Indies. His appointment on a three-year contract has been widely welcomed, yet the first time he meets most of the players is on April 5, the first day of a preparatory camp for a squad of 20. Only three newcomers are on the list, their selection based on the expanded first-class season, now known as the Professional Cricket League (PCL).

England's attention will centre around Alastair Cook © Getty Images

Shai Hope, 21, is a stylish No. 3 batsman whose 211 for Barbados against Windward Islands was the tournament's only double-hundred; Shane Dowrich, 23, a diminutive wicketkeeper who averaged 51.25 batting at No. 6. That Miguel Cummins, 24, is the only new fast bowler on the list indicates weakness in an area that was traditionally West Indies' strength.

Even the most optimistic West Indian devotee can't expect Simmons to work the miracle of quickly turning around the decline of the once prominent position of West Indies cricket; he can expect patience to grow thin if there are no signs of a gradual improvement.

England's objectives are more instant. The team has been set a stern, specific agenda by Colin Graves, the 62-year-old, straight-talking Yorkshireman who takes over as chairman of the ECB in May.

Condescendingly describing West Indies as "a mediocre team", he warned: "I'd certainly be disappointed if we don't win... if we don't win, I can tell you now there will be some enquiries of why we haven't."

His view is that this short series should be a relaxed prelude to the tougher campaigns in the summer, first against New Zealand, then Australia for the Ashes, England's eternal Holy Grail.

Yet there are those immediately under his microscope. Peter Moores, second-time head coach, was in charge of the failed World Cup campaign; he can't afford his team to slip up against "mediocre" opponents. The return of Jonathan Trott, so soon after his withdrawal from the Ashes series in Australia supposedly through depression, is bound to be closely monitored as much by Graves as by the media. So too the form of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the key new-ball pair.

The series will also bring the attention back on Alastair Cook, who hasn't hidden his annoyance over being replaced as captain by Eoin Morgan for the World Cup. At least he now knows that his incoming boss has "every confidence" in him.

"We have to make sure we protect him, look after him properly and let him concentrate on playing cricket," Graves said.

Unknowingly, Graves might have provided Simmons with just the psychological boost a new coach welcomes.

Like the infamous remark of Tony Greig, an equally straight-talking South African, that he would make Clive Lloyd's team "grovel" in the 1976 series in England, it is enough to provoke retaliation through performances on the field.

The 2015 West Indies bear no comparison to Lloyd's combination of proven players and emerging superstars Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding. They have just returned from their chastening experiences in Tests and ODIs in South Africa and in the World Cup. The last time they faced England, in England three years ago, they lost two of the three Tests, with the other ruined by the weather, and all three completed limited-overs games.

Yet nothing is more infuriating for any sporting team than to be belittled by their rivals before the contest starts. History is replete with examples of upsets triggered by such arrogance.

Barbados' Shai Hope was a bright star from the West Indies first-class season © WICB Media/Randy Brooks of Brooks LaTouche Photo

It has the potential for Simmons to coax to a few extra kph from Jerome Taylor, Kemar Roach and the other pace contenders, and a bit more aggressive intent and steeper bounce from the towering Holder, to heighten the proven resolve of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Kraigg Brathwaite, to influence Marlon Samuels against repeatedly wasting his wicket, to sharpen the slack fielding, to show more intensity than was evident in Australia and New Zealand.

Richards, captain from 1985 to 1991 and himself briefly the team coach in the late 1990s, has noted the need for Simmons to have the backing of the players, the WICB and the selectors.

The reality is that several of his ten predecessors lacked all three.

Rohan Kanhai, the former captain who was the first in the post in 1992, was removed after he complained that some players were abusive to him during the World Cup of that year. Roberts, the first of the fearsome fast bowlers of Lloyd's team, succeeded Kanhai. He was dismissed midway through the 1996 World Cup, the last time West Indies reached the semi-final. He claimed senior players often rejected his advice and that he even had to once coerce the team to take the field during a Test.

Ottis Gibson said after he was sacked last August that the main reason given by WICB president Dave Cameron was that senior players lost confidence in his methods.

These are the sub-plots that add a little intrigue to the upcoming series even if, in the aftermath of the World Cup, they seem trivial.

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

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