November 15, 2015

Long, hard road ahead for West Indies

They head to Australia with key players out of sorts and the rest raw

Marlon Samuels is West Indies' second most experienced batsman going to Australia, but his performances in Sri Lanka inspire little confidence © AFP

One conclusion is clear from the West Indies squad chosen for its forthcoming tour of Australia.

To have decided to send the same 15 players just beaten in both Tests and three ODIs in Sri Lanka to Australia, where the climate, the environment, and above all the opposition present altogether different, tougher challenges for the three Tests is an admission of a dearth of credible, available alternatives.

Chief selector Clive Lloyd and his colleagues simply have no way of assessing the competence of prospective Test players from a substandard regional first-class Professional Cricket League (PCL), devalued by the absence of several experienced players now committed to the numerous global domestic T20 franchise teams.

Nine West Indians have signed contracts for the Bangladesh Premier League, the closing stages of which coincide with the Hobart Test in Australia. Three are in Australia's Big Bash, December 10 through January 7. Sunil Narine and Dwayne Bravo headed directly from the limited-overs matches in Sri Lanka to South Africa for the closing stages of the T20 Ram Slam.

All have abandoned Test cricket yet are hardened cricketers whose involvement in the ongoing PCL would appreciably lift levels. As it is, the majority have appeared in little or no first-class cricket for their territories of late.

Seven of those who were in the Tests in Sri Lanka will have managed to squeeze in the first two PCL matches before heading off to Australia; they won't be available again until the second round, in February.

The only change to the squad for Australia is the reinstatement of head coach Phil Simmons, suspended on the eve of the Sri Lanka tour for heated public comments about his fellow selectors' rejection of his plea that Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard return for the ODIs in Sri Lanka.

The Tests against the Australians, whose ruthless power has been demonstrated over the past fortnight against New Zealand, will inevitably break some of Lloyd's young brigade and make others stronger

It would normally be a significant return. Simmons, who joined West Indies in March after eight highly acclaimed years as coach of Ireland, had clearly developed a close relationship with the players. In his third Test he oversaw victory over England to level the home series last May. After his suspension, the captain, Jason Holder, pleaded for his quick return.

He is now back after issuing a humbling apology, as demanded by the WICB, having been told the board will "immediately investigate" his allegations of outside interference in the selection process and subsequently "take the necessary and appropriate action". In other words, he is still on notice.

He missed an important series in Sri Lanka, where Eldine Baptiste, one of the selectors with whom he disagreed, took his place on an interim basis. Events in Australia should reveal whether Simmons' authority has been compromised.

When installed as chief selector a year ago, Lloyd declared a youth policy aimed at rebuilding an anaemic team with promising young players. He immediately made Holder, 23, the ODI captain, and later elevated him to the same position in Tests. He and his panel ended the career of the enduring, ever dependable Shivnarine Chanderpaul at 41, to widespread criticism, not least from the player himself.

Lloyd remains committed to the policy. Eleven of the 15 in Sri Lanka and heading for Australia are under 30, seven under 25. Ten are on their first Test tour of Australia. Only Marlon Samuels and Denesh Ramdin have played more than 50 Tests. The two have 11 hundreds between them, and all the others together the same number. Darren Bravo is the only batsman with an average over 40, Jerome Taylor and Kemar Roach the only bowlers with more than 100 Test wickets.

The Tests against the Australians, whose ruthless power has been demonstrated over the past fortnight against New Zealand, will inevitably break some of Lloyd's young brigade and make others stronger.

The recent performances of Samuels and Roach, whose experience is critical in such an inexperienced team, are cause for concern. Samuels has apparently surrendered his BPL contract to be available for all three Tests. After scores of 11, 0, 13 and 6 in his four Test innings in Sri Lanka, his career of a dozen years in international cricket might well have ended had there been a capable option to replace him. His revival in the white-ball matches was evidence of both his class and his inconsistency, which has resulted in an unsatisfactory Test average of 34.52.

His returns in Australia, where he impressively started at a raw 19-year-old in 2000-01, are likely to determine his future at the age of 34.

Roach is 27. Whether he can regain his form and, more critically his confidence, could also be an indicator of his long-term prospects. West Indies can ill afford to lose a bowler of his record and potential at this stage. Since his Man-of-the-Series performance, 13 wickets on debut against Bangladesh in the Caribbean in 2009, he has been consistently the spearhead of the attack. A strong action generating speeds in excess 140kph has compensated for his lack of height at 5ft 8in. In 2014 he was the only West Indian in the top ten bowlers in the ICC rankings. His previous tour of Australia, in 2009-10, enhanced his status; he was at his peak with five wickets in each innings against the Aussies in Port-of-Spain in 2012.

Repeated injuries have dulled Kemar Roach's potency as a fast bowler © Getty Images

The drawback is that, thanks to injuries, he and Taylor have been rarely at their best together. When physically healthy, they are an effective combination, each with over 100 Test wickets.

Michael Holding has stressed that management needs to ensure that they and the other quick bowlers (the pacy Shannon Gabriel and the fast-medium seamers Holder and Carlos Brathwaite) remain fit.

"Fast bowlers will win Test matches in Australia," Holding maintained - and he should know as a member of the fearsome West Indies quartets in the '80s. "I'm not saying the fast bowling squad we have is the best ever but there are some guys that can do well."

Roach's injuries have had a profound effect. They have sapped his pace and his confidence. After an outstanding home season in 2014 with 26 wickets in five Tests against New Zealand and Bangladesh, a fractured shoulder sidelined him until the first Test in South Africa last December. After two wickets in his opening spell, a twisted ankle ended his tour.

In his subsequent five Tests, against England last April and May and Australia in June in the Caribbean, and the two in Sri Lanka last month, he has managed nine wickets at an average of 56.22 (against an overall average of 28.21). His return in his three of West Indies' seven matches in the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand was a solitary wicket.

The latest committee's review of West Indies cricket states that "the time is long past" for the governance of the game to be reformed, and it calls for the immediate dissolution of an "antiquated" WICB.

That alone won't turn around the fortunes of the team. It needs everyone fit and performing, the development of the young batsmen, and Simmons' beneficial influence. A long, hard struggle lies ahead and they don't come harder than confronting Australia in Australia.

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

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