January 31, 2016

Darren Bravo needs to step into Chanderpaul's big shoes

As the new leader of a very inexperienced batting line-up, Bravo needs to show he can be the anchor and the enforcer

Darren Bravo will need to show some of the consistency Shivnarine Chanderpaul was known to have as a Test batsman © AFP

A lot has happened in Darren Bravo's life in the four years since Steve Waugh proclaimed him as "world cricket's next superstar, no doubt".

His entry into that elusive galaxy has been delayed through injuries and undisclosed personal problems, a combination that caused him to miss two Test series and 19 ODIs following Waugh's prediction. The disruptions created doubt and inconsistency, a setback for the richly talented left-hander whose record in his first 12 Tests identically matched that of his cousin, physical double and exemplar, the inimitable Brian Lara (941 runs, average 47.05).

It clearly informed Waugh's bold opinion, which gained credibility as Bravo's average jumped to over 50. Then suddenly it went into decline as Bravo grappled with his various difficulties, dipping to its present 41.5; the unreasonable tag of the "new Lara" soon vanished.

At this pivotal point in his career, he has been left a formidable challenge by the retirement from international cricket of another left-hander, the diametrically contrasting, seemingly indestructible Shivnarine Chanderpaul. After a remarkable span of 21 years, 164 Tests, 268 ODIs and a combined 41 hundreds habitually shoring up the batting of a progressively weakening West Indies team, Chanderpaul has reluctantly taken his leave, aged 41.

A week away from his 27th birthday, with a comparatively trifling 42 Tests and 84 ODIs behind him, Bravo is the general who must now lead a batting platoon of raw recruits, all younger than him, none with more Tests than opener Kraigg Brathwaite's 27.

The only similarity between Bravo and Chanderpaul is their left-handedness. Bravo is a free-spirited strokemaker, never afraid to curb his instincts; Chanderpaul's instincts never extended to taking risks.

While the veteran kept faltering innings going, repeatedly, for hour upon hour, from No. 5 or 6 in the order, Bravo must direct in his own way from No. 3 or 4.

The effect of Chanderpaul's departure is accentuated by the likelihood that Chris Gayle's dodgy back won't allow him to return at the top of the order in Tests, and by the probable end of the road for Marlon Samuels following his recent sequence of flops.

General concern over Bravo's future initially surfaced after he inexplicably returned home from New Zealand prior to the ODI series there in January 2014. Just two weeks earlier, his top Test score, 218, had steered West Indies to safety in Dunedin. Later in the year, he withdrew from the South African tour of three Tests and five ODIs.

A week away from his 27th birthday, with a comparatively trifling 42 Tests and 84 ODIs behind him, Bravo is the general who must now lead a batting platoon of raw recruits, all younger than him

When he returned for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in February, a muscle torn scampering a single in his second match ended his participation. The possible psychological consequences were not difficult to imagine.

After that latest mishap, there have been encouraging signs, small yet significant, that Bravo is at ease with the game once more. West Indies have had 10 Tests since, against England and Australia in the Caribbean and in Sri Lanka and Australia. He has been in all, gradually reasserting himself at No. 3.

In what was to be Chanderpaul's final Test, Bravo's 82 and partnership of 108 with Jermaine Blackwood, one of the emerging young players, led West Indies to a rare, series-levelling victory over England in Bridgetown in early May last year.

After meagre returns in two home Tests against Australia a month later, Bravo headed the averages in both the subsequent losses in Sri Lanka and in the one-sided debacle in Australia. His 108 in the first Test, in Hobart, and 81 in Melbourne rekindled memories of his three hundreds and six scores between 50 and 80 in his first 13 Tests.

Bravo returned from Australia in mid-January to join the Trinidad and Tobago Red Force for the closing stages of the regional 50-overs Nagico Super50, which included among its eight teams an ICC development Americas combination comprising players from Bermuda, Canada and the US.

In a low-scoring tournament, his authority was complete. He reeled off scores of 82, 95 and 97 in his only innings, as Red Force became champions once again. In contrast, Chanderpaul's last notation in West Indies cricket was for Guyana Jaguars in the semi-final, bowled Narsingh Deonarine 6.

As Red Force's premier batsman, Bravo led the way, as he is now expected to do for West Indies. The relevance of such domination in matches marked by substandard cricket will be initially tested in the triangular ODI series with Australia and South Africa in the Caribbean in June. A different encounter awaits in four Tests against India, scheduled for July and August as compensation for the withdrawal of the ODI team from the tour there in October, 2014.

Bravo was inevitably the Nagico Super50's player of the series. Evin Lewis, a belligerent left-handed opener, batting stylist Kyle Hope, elder brother of Test player Shai, Jonross Jaggesar, a previously unknown offspinner, and the underrated swing bowler Marlon Richards were key players for Red Force prior to Bravo's arrival from Australia. Sulieman Benn, the veteran Barbados left-arm spinner, benefiting from conditions was the top wicket-taker, West Indies opener Kraigg Brathwaite's average of 73.33 in five matches established that tenacity is occasionally required to suit the situation in the shorter format.

Generally, Bravo's brilliance was all that matched the tournament's "super" title. T&T's 270 for 7 in the final against Barbados, highlighted by his 97, was the highest total in the 24 completed matches. There were seven more over 250 (against 14 under 200). There were three individual hundreds. Barbados' bowlers, five with international experience, sprayed 103 wides in their eight matches, 16 in the final.

Throughout, there was condemnation, from coaches, captains and commentators, of the slow, turning pitches at the Queen's Park Oval in Port-of-Spain, the main venue for a competition restricted to Trinidad and Tobago and St Kitts, and of the unreliable umpiring.

In the build-up to Trinidad's carnival, turnouts were sparse, except for Red Force's semi-final, and matches against Barbados, who were thoroughly abject in the final in spite of the introduction of five players from the West Indies team in Australia.

The WICB's chief executive officer, Michael Muirhead, has reiterated the board's policy that only players who participated would be eligible for ODI selection. The stipulation is fair enough, for Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell, Lendl Simmons, Darren Sammy and Samuel Badree chose the Big Bash T20 in Australia instead. But it does limit the selectors' options for the tough forthcoming ODI series.

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