January 10, 2016

Low pace-bowling stocks adding to West Indies' problems

Their most experienced seamers leaked runs and failed to take wickets in Australia, but where are the alternatives?

Jerome Taylor and his new-ball partner Kemar Roach shared a grand total of two wickets in the three Australia Tests © Getty Images

Steven Smith's proposed deal to Jason Holder to enliven the last day of the waterlogged Test in Sydney was strictly fantasy. The West Indies captain's rejoinder was based on reasonable reality.

Smith's plan was for West Indies to declare at their second-day score of 248 for 7. He would then forego an Australian second innings, "bowl lob-ups for seven or eight overs or whatever it was" and offer an equation of 370 off 70 overs to win, at a required rate of 5.28.

It was a flawed idea for a couple of reasons. Ian Chappell, the former Australia captain, cited the suspicion such a contrivance would create at a time when the game is resolute in its crusade against match-fixing. Above all, it would have transformed even such a disrupted match into a laughable fiasco, a glorified equivalent of a Caribbean Sunday fete match, denigrating the image of Test cricket rather than enhancing it as Smith believed it would.

Holder's "no thank you" decision was made in consultation with his team. It was based on the evidence of Australia's carefree scoring against the toothless bowling throughout the series and, more to the point, on "our development and the phase we are at".

Australia rattled along at a run rate of 4.66 for their 1489 runs in their four innings in the series. David Warner blasted the fastest hundred in an SCG Test to deliver the last of the home team's numerous hammer blows.

Sydney was just part of the "phases" mentioned by Holder. It was preceded by six consecutive Test losses, two to Australia in the Caribbean in June, two to a developing Sri Lankan team away in October, and the first two Tests in Australia.

West Indies were dismissed for under 200 four times, never scoring more than 300; they lost twice by an innings, other times by nine wickets, 277 runs and 177 runs. They were plundered for 11 hundreds. The biggest was Adam Voges' 269 not out in Hobart; Darren Bravo's 108 in the same match was West Indies' one and only hundred.

This was a basically young, inexperienced team under a young, inexperienced leader with the needle of confidence touching "empty". Just eight months earlier those stocks had been encouragingly replenished with victory over England at Kensington Oval. It simply could not afford another dip, whatever the circumstances.

Holder admitted to the modest batting targets set before Australia of batting at least 100 overs and totalling 300 in each innings. They began way short but improved progressively, from 223 and 148 in Hobart to 271 (100.3 overs), and 282 (88.3 overs) in Melbourne, to 330 from 112.1 overs in Sydney. They were very small steps towards revival.

Bravo, dominant at No. 3, filled the gap in reliability left by Shivnarine Chanderpaul's exit. A renewed sense of responsibility was allied to the familiar mirror-image strokeplay of cousin Brian Lara; his average of 49.40 maintained his remarkable statistic of 51.18 in 22 overseas Tests, better so far than Lara's 47.80 in 66 overseas Tests.

Carlos Brathwaite's self-belief and aggression have been among the positives for West Indies © Getty Images

Bravo and opener Kraigg Brathwaite, breaking out of his previous ultra-defensive cocoon to reveal a new range of shots, carried the top order; the utter failures of Marlon Samuels and Jermaine Blackwood that followed required recoveries from the late order.

At 35, Samuels' chequered Test career surely ended in Sydney after nine innings in Sri Lanka and Australia for 65 runs and no score above 20. His successors are advancing their claims in the first-class Professional Cricket League (PCL) back home. Blackwood, the standout against England, is 24, with ample time to shake off the diffidence triggered by his twin ducks in Hobart.

The belated introduction of allrounder Carlos Brathwaite at No. 8 brought a refreshing awareness, self-belief and aggression that were transmitted to those around him. In Melbourne, he helped convert 83 for 6 to 271 and 150 for 6 to 282; in Sydney, 159 for 6 became 330.

There were two closing half-centuries from under-pressure wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin. Holder's one notable score and runs from the bowlers were more useful than the wickets they managed.

Brathwaite's attitude was typified by his clean straight six off his second ball in Sydney, where he backed up his 59 in Melbourne with 69 off 71 balls. Built like a present-day Colin Croft, his bowling is well short of Croft's menacing hostility, depending instead on control.

Soon, T20 franchises are likely to entice him with lucrative deals. His mystifying omission from the list of 15 players placed on retainer contracts for 2015-16 is hardly an incentive for him to stick with the West Indies Cricket Board.

Attitude and slackness in the field were West Indies' other problems, yet neither was as pronounced as the inability to take wickets. Jerome Taylor was the only one to top 140kph; buckling under Australia's immediate assault, his two wickets came at an average of 128.50.

The effects of a shoulder operation 15 months earlier were evident in Kemar Roach's reduction in speed and effectiveness; he didn't take a wicket from 41 overs and leaked runs at six an over. In the two Tests in Sri Lanka, his two wickets were at an average of 51.

As if he didn't have enough to deal with, it pressed Holder, ideally a medium-fast, back-up third seamer, into taking the new ball himself, using the raw left-arm spinner Jomel Warrican throughout for more overs than anyone else, and calling on Kraigg Brathwaite's steady, speculative offspin as totals mounted.

As history repeatedly shows, bowling of pace and hostility, in quality and quantity, is the key to successful teams. Except when Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine burst onto the scene in the 1950s, West Indies have always struggled to contain opponents in periods when their fast-bowling cupboard was virtually bare.

In 1955 in the Caribbean, Australia amassed totals over 700 once, 600 twice and 500 once, with one individual double-hundred and 11 singles on their way to a 3-0 series triumph. In 1957 in England, West Indies conceded totals of 619 for 6 declared, 583 for 4 declared, 424 and 412, and lost three Tests by an innings. The Australian Tests of 2015 were déjà vu.

It was a stark contrast to the years when Wes Hall, Roy Gilchrist and Charlie Griffith created havoc, or especially when Clive Lloyd could rustle up a four-pack from Garner, Croft, Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Daniel, Clarke and Davis.

Now such riches are Australia's. Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Marsh all exceeded 140kph. Injury eliminated the left-arm spearhead Mitchell Starc from the one-sided contest; selection chairman Rod Marsh reckoned there were 20 around the country he could call on without fear of failure.

With no prospective Halls, Holdings and Marshalls in view, the situation is unlikely to change for West Indies, no matter whether a host of new batting stars suddenly come along.

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