Raw young talent should give West Indies hope
England spent their first day in the West Indies on Friday in their luxury accommodation in St Kitts, an island of 35 square miles in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, populated by 45,000 easy-going inhabitants. There is no more relaxing venue to be found anywhere, ideal perhaps for temporarily blanking the persistent distraction of Kevin Pietersen, if a little too laid-back a place in which to properly get ready for three back-to-back Tests in the space of three weeks.
Captain Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jimmy Anderson would remember it as the location where they started their 2009 tour with matches against a St Kitts Invitational XI and West Indies A. They moved on to Jamaica for the first Test a few days later, where Jerome Taylor's pace sent them spiraling to 51 all out and defeat by an innings and 23.
Jonny Bairstow, Adam Lyth, Adil Rashid and Ben Stokes were there for 12 days at the start of England Lions' tour of seven first-class matches four years ago.
This time, England are restricted to a couple of two-day matches against St Kitts & Nevis, a team without first-class status. Cook and his men can anticipate an effortless workout. They then make the short hop of 65 miles to Antigua for the first Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, starting Monday, April 13. They could find that their ground work would have been better served by tougher opposition first-up.
At a time when chief selector Clive Lloyd speaks of building a West Indies team for the future, a four-day match would also have allowed some of the emerging players exposure to a somewhat higher level than the domestic Caribbean Professional League.
In its inaugural season, the CPL was weakened by the absence of several leading men, who were at the World Cup or in the preceding Tests and ODIs in South Africa. As Lloyd followed the team throughnits difficult campaigns in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, his colleagues who followed proceedings back home had to balance performances against standards in choosing a training squad of 20. They are presently in Antigua in new coach Phil Simmons' first assignment.
The other 16 all have Test experience; new ODI captain Jason Holder and strokemaker Jermaine Blackwood are both 23, and Kraigg Brathwaite, the dogged opener, 22.
Their prospects are for lengthy careers as Chris Gayle, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Marlon Samuels and Sulieman Benn near the end of theirs, and as Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Lendl Simmons, Darren Sammy and Sunil Narine concentrate on global T20 tournaments.
A few wait in the wings for the turn they might have had in a combined team against England in St Kitts. There is no hint when that might be, as nothing has yet been scheduled for the A team.
None of the young contenders is as intriguing as Rahkeem Cornwall, the 22-year-old Leeward Islander from Antigua. He is a massive unit, cricket's most identifiable man mountain since the similarly immense Bermudan Dwayne Leverock, a popular star of the 2007 World Cup. Like Leverock, Cornwall is the butt of inevitable jibes; like Leverock he is not to be discounted because of his size.
Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, Richie Richardson, Ridley Jacobs, Curtly Ambrose, the Benjamins Winston and Kenny, all Antiguans, made the Leewards as powerful as any team in regional cricket through the seventies and eighties. As with West Indies, they suddenly and inexplicably plummeted to the bottom of the pile. They ended the 2014-15 CPL season with their first victories in four seasons, over Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago.
Cornwall was prominent in both - seven Jamaican wickets with his deceptive offspin, delivered after a casual shuffle to delivery, and an explosive unbeaten 101 off 84 balls with 11 fours and six sixes chasing 241 against Trinidad & Tobago. He entered at 100 for 5 and two hours later it was over. His partner, Steve Liburd, scored 44 in the partnership. Earlier in the season, Cornwall returned his best figures, 7 for 96, against Guyana.
His overall numbers from seven matches - a batting average of 27.46 along with 29 wickets at 26.93 - placed him among the season's leading allrounders. Ridley Jacobs, the Leewards' coach, described Cornwall as "very talented, up there with any of the players of his age and limited experience". But he recognised the obvious problem he has with his weight. "We can give him all the help he needs but, in the end, it's up to him to deal with that," Jacobs said.
The setback of the season was the damage to ankle and knee from a car crash that eliminated another exciting young hope, 19-year-old Nicolas Pooran, after the third match. The slim Trinidad and Tobago left-hand batsman and keeper revealed his precocious ability and attitude with 143, with 14 fours and six sixes, out of a total of 208 against Australia in the quarter-final of the Under-19 World Cup in Dubai in February 2014. He had little cricket since; this was to have been his time.
There are others who encourage optimism that coach Simmons will have genuinely gifted material with which to work as he gets into the role in which he thrived with Ireland.
Benn's absence in South Africa and at the World Cup opened up a position for 22-year-old left-arm spinner Jomel Warrican for Barbados. He ended the season with 49 first-class wickets at 14.97 each, among them two returns of eight wickets in an innings.
Lloyd is impressed with Jamaican fast bowler Marquino Mindley, 20. While Shivnarine is near the end of 20 illustrious years propping up the West Indies middle order, another left-handed Chanderpaul, 18-year-old son Tagenarine, showed his worth at the 2014 U-19 World Cup.
Simmons' challenge is to ensure that they and others of a similar vintage and skill are disciplined and committed to a career for West Indies. His adversaries are the lure of T20 fortune and the pressures of international sport that have already accounted for several promising players.
Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years