New Zealand v West Indies, 1st Test, Auckland March 7, 2006

West Indies mull over the Bravo puzzle

Tony Cozier

Dwayne Bravo may not be able to bowl but West Indies may consider playing him as a specialist batsman © Getty Images

He has been an international player for less than two years and has only nine Tests to his name. But Dwayne Bravo has become such a vital component in the West Indies team that the strained left side that precludes him bowling presents the selectors with a predicament prior to the first Test against New Zealand, starting on Thursday.

Bennett King, the head coach, acknowledged yesterday that the injury, sustained during the Twenty20 International on February 16, was "an issue" but said that Bravo's record in the Tests in Australia last November was enough for him to be "seriously considered" solely as a No.6 batsman. Bravo scored 113 in the second Test at Hobart, his second Test hundred, and 34 and 64 in the third in Adelaide to finish the Australian series with an average of 52.92. His nippy medium-pace that claimed eight wickets at 25.12 runs apiece made him the leading bowler but that will be missed here.

Even though King mentioned his brilliance in the field as a factor that lifts the team, he conceded that "not having his bowling does throw the balance out. We're very aware of that and we're looking at all our options," he said. Those options are several and complex. If Bravo is chosen, it reduces the bowling staff to four specialists - presumably the diverse pace of Fidel Edwards, left-armer Ian Bradshaw and either Jerome Taylor or the recently arrived Daren Powell and the legspin of Rawl Lewis. Chris Gayle's steady offspin would provide back-up.

Dwayne Smith for Bravo would be the straight allrounder for allrounder swap should King, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan feel more comfortable with additional bowling cover. But Smith presently compares with Bravo only in the quality of his fielding. While potentially devastating, Smith's batting lacks reliability and his medium-pace bowling is containing rather than wicket-taking. His eight Tests have brought him four wickets; Bravo has 28 in his nine.

King hinted that he was leaning towards Bravo as the choice. "Dwayne has qualities that need to be controlled," he said. "If he can make the side purely as a batsman, it's going to strengthen the West Indies side. If he can make it purely as a bowler in the future, he's certainly going to enhance his playing power. At this stage, we're looking at him being a batter and improving that as much as he can."

Can Dwayne Smith's heroics in the final ODI win him a Test berth? © Getty Images

Whatever else, Runako Morton's performance in the preceding ODI series merits selection. He batted at No.3 with much assurance with his unbeaten 110 in Napier being the only West Indian hundred. His fielding, at slip or in the deep, is also an asset. But if Bravo is chosen at No.6, with Chris Gayle, Sarwan, Brian Lara and Chanderpaul as the established top-order batsmen, Morton could only be accommodated as opener.

It is a spot he virtually filled in the ODI series, coming in first down after opening partnerships between Gayle and Daren Ganga of 10, 5, 2, 8 and 6. But he is short of Test experience - he has only the two matches, in Sri Lanka last July - and is not an accredited opener. In other words, it would be a gamble and not likely to be taken by selectors at the start of a series.

If Morton is chosen, it would only be if Bravo, or Smith, is not at No.6. Gayle, for all his troubles in the ODI series, is the established opener after 54 Tests with 3568 runs and an average of 38.79, enhanced by his supporting role as a bowler. King indicated that Ganga would continue as Gayle's partner, rather than Devon Smith. Smith and fast bowler Powell, like Lara, were selected only for the Tests and arrived here Friday.

They have had no serious cricket since the end of the Carib Beer Cup in late January, a situation described by King as "a disadvantage for them. Stepping up is a bit difficult," he said. "Devon comes from Grenada and obviously it's been a bit difficult for him to play matches. Daren's actually played minor cricket and did quite well, albeit at grade [club] level."

Smith has put in a lot of work in the nets since his arrival, joining eight others for three hours' practice on Sunday, a scheduled day off for the players. "One of the pleasing aspects for me now is that the players come up to us now and say they want to go down to the ground and do some work," King said. "They understand the work that's needed and, since they can't do it at home, basically we've got to do most of our training while we're away and that's one of the things we're trying to change."