U-19 success heart-warming in desolate West Indian landscape
Their teenaged team has brought a welcome, long overdue whiff of optimism to West Indies cricket. In advancing to today's final of the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, they have demonstrated a resilience that, for multiple reasons, has been repeatedly beyond their seniors. It will be severely tested in the showpiece climax by India, the one remaining unbeaten team in a tournament otherwise marked by its unpredictability.
It doesn't necessarily follow that success at a global age-group competition leads to success at the higher level. Today is only the second time West Indies have contested the final. They were beaten by Pakistan, also in Bangladesh, in 2004. No one in either of those sides has even half the 74 Tests and 129 ODIs of Denesh Ramdin, the West Indies captain in that tournament, who is still going after an international career of a dozen years.
Once they outlive the age limit, some top teens drift away from the game into other pursuits; others won't develop sufficiently to qualify for Test or limited-overs selection.
The enthusiasm of TV commentators Ian Bishop, Paul Allott and Daryl Cullinan, all Test players, might reflect the widespread desire for a West Indies revival. They sounded genuine enough. Bishop recommended the immediate inclusion into the senior squad of Alzarri Joseph, the strapping Antiguan, who was the most exciting find of the tournament.
After West Indies' victory over Pakistan in the quarter-final, Allott said the pace from Joseph and late replacement Chemar Holder, and the aggression of the batting, took him back to the West Indies heyday. Cullinan was excited to see a West Indies team with such talent play with such conviction.
The side arrived in Bangladesh with captain Shimron Hetmyer of Guyana and Joseph the only two players among the 15 with first-class experience. Bangladesh was uncharted territory. Conditions, they were advised, would test their batting weakness against spin and the balance of their bowling.
Such dire expectations were verified by defeats in all three one-dayers against the host team that preceded the World Cup and another, by 61 runs, to England in their tournament opener. They duly brushed aside newcomers Fiji but required Keemo Paul's controversial mankading of Zimbabwe's last man to seal victory by two runs, which sent them into the quarter-final with an audible sigh of relief.
They were seemingly energised by their great escape, and the nervous uncertainty of their previous matches was transformed into unified and assertive confidence. They prevailed over previously unbeaten Pakistan in the quarter-final and over Bangladesh in the semi to the anguish of 10,000 dumbfounded home supporters at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur.
The obvious questions now are whether the players can carry the benefits of such experiences forward to first-class and eventually international level, and whether their best can somehow be kept away from the financially enticing clutches of mushrooming T20 franchise tournaments.
Lack of opportunity, the slow, turning pitches in the Caribbean, and most of all, the prolonged strained relationships between the West Indies Cricket Board and players remain hindrances.
Details of the first match of the second round of the Professional Cricket League typify the seemingly unsolvable issue of conditions. The leggie Damion Jacobs claimed five wickets and left-arm spinner Nikita Miller four as Leeward Islands Hurricanes struggled to 155 all out against Jamaica Scorpions. Leewards responded by using the offspin of Rakheem Cornwall, the massive Antiguan, with the new ball; he had five wickets as Jamaica eked out a lead of three.
For two decades, the next step for the emerging young players has been the West Indies A team. The last time it was engaged was in Sri Lanka a year and a half ago; it has never ventured into Australia or New Zealand.
As Clive Lloyd, now chairman of selectors, observed, the players his panel introduced against Australia last June as part of a new youth policy had to learn the tough lessons of international cricket on the field. The effect was six heavy defeats in the first seven Tests, four to Australia, two to Sri Lanka. The remaining match was a rain-soaked draw.
The continuing confrontation between the WICB and senior players over contracts has limited options for Lloyd and head coach Phil Simmons. They led to player strikes prior to the 2005 tour of Sri Lanka and the 2009 home series against Bangladesh, when the WICB was left to hurriedly assemble replacements. West Indies cricket was destabilised to such an extent that concerned CARICOM leaders were needed to resolve the issues.
Another impasse over contracts led to the team's premature withdrawal from its tour of India in October 2014, and the seismic repercussions included the sacking of Dwayne Bravo as ODI captain. It was the precursor to the present doubt over whether those chosen will accept terms for next month's World T20 in India, given their strong objections to a pay cut of what they claim is up to 80% of previous payments for ICC World Cups.
Bravo was the first to quit Test cricket, although he has stayed on to represent West Indies in the white-ball formats. His preference was not just for the pay packets, lucrative as they were, but also the challenge of testing himself against the game's strongest cricketers before large, appreciative crowds in the IPL. Others would take the same route - Andre Russell, Lendl Simmons, and most recently West Indies' T20 captain, Darren Sammy.
Chris Gayle, now 35, insists his Test career is not over, although he hasn't added to his 103 matches since August 2014. He still manages to turn out for whichever T20 franchise comes calling.
The committee appointed by CARICOM last April to review the WICB's governance structure concluded that its "fractious and problematic" dealings with players were due to "a breakdown in key relationships necessary for the good management and performance of the team".
It is pertinent that the boys in Bangladesh don't yet have to concern themselves with contracts, T20 leagues and their relationships with the WICB. Such potential problems lie ahead.
Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for over 50 years