Of sagas and silver linings
The West Indies cricket team was, at the end of 2011, still an edifice in disrepair, 16 years after the severe structural damage inflicted by Mark Taylor's* Australian side in 1995. However, there was also evidence of material being gathered for the solid and significant rebuilding work that remains to be done.
Much of that must happen at boardroom level. The acrimonious relationship between the West Indies Cricket Board and the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) continues to cloud everything else in Caribbean cricket. That relationship worsened in 2011, to the point where at one stage the WICB and its CEO, Ernest Hilaire, were refusing to deal directly with WIPA president Dinanath Ramnarine.
The board's efforts to develop players through the Sagicor High Performance Centre, and the progress of the women's team, have been commendable. But real and sustained development, and the smooth running of the game in the Caribbean, will not be achieved as long as the players' body is seen as an object to be circumvented and undermined. Any talk of a turnaround in West Indies cricket as a whole will be aimless until attitudes at the top change. Restructuring is essential.
Given that background, the overall record on the field remained modest. West Indies again lost more than they won in all three forms of the game in 2011.
In Test cricket, a busier programme than in 2010 saw them play four series and ten matches, all against Asian countries. They won just two of those games, one against Pakistan at home on a difficult pitch in Guyana, in a drawn two-match series, and one in Bangladesh to clinch that two-Test rubber. In home and away fixtures against India, however, Darren Sammy's side lost three of six matches.
In the World Cup they, not unexpectedly, went out in the quarter-finals**, winning games only against lower-ranked sides, Netherlands, Ireland and Bangladesh. The Bangladeshis also provided West Indies with their one ODI series win (2-1), while Pakistan won 3-2 in the Caribbean (West Indies' two wins coming after the rubber had been lost), and India also won 3-2 away and 4-1 at home.
They ended the year stuck at seven and eight in the ICC's Test and ODI rankings respectively, just as in 2010. What the figures do not reveal, however, are the number of times they got themselves into winning positions and squandered them. The defeat by 18 runs to England at the World Cup was a case in point, where West Indies lost four wickets for three runs. That match, though, introduced Devendra Bishoo to international cricket, and Andre Russell announced himself as a player of exciting all-round potential with his 49 off 46 balls.
In fact, 2011 was a good year for new recruits. Teenaged opener Kraigg Brathwaite and left-hander Kieran Powell acquitted themselves reasonably well in Tests, while Kirk Edwards quickly established himself in the side.
However, the dramatic collapses, such as the one in that England ODI, repeated also in Tests, had much to do with an inability to cope well under pressure. It is a team largely of youth and inexperience that coach Ottis Gibson has chosen to groom. West Indies now have good batting talent and an effective bowling unit, in which legspinner Bishoo, with 39 Test wickets in 2011, the fit-again Fidel Edwards (32), resurgent Ravi Rampaul (31) and captain Sammy (30) shared the workload.
Sammy, limited as he might be with the bat and still learning as a captain, is a trier who has brought stability to the captaincy. But in the absence of true leadership off the field, West Indies cricket needs a dynamic leader and performer on it to push the team forward. The search is still on for such a one.
For better or worse, Gibson and the selectors are not prepared to rely on the older guard. Shivnarine Chanderpaul has now been confined to Tests, while the single-minded Chris Gayle's standoff with the coach and the board, Ramnaresh Sarwan's injury-prone year, and Dwayne Bravo's loss of form have made them peripheral figures, at least two of whom, Gayle and Sarwan, are fast becoming non-entities in the team's scheme of things. It is a brave position for Gibson to take, given the insular nature of Caribbean cricket politics, but the WICB must continue to support him if the building work done in 2011 is to continue without further setback.
In a year of few team successes, Sammy's first Test win was probably the standout. That victory in Providence against Pakistan in the first Test of that series saw the captain bowl his side to victory with a second-innings five-wicket haul. But the four wickets on Test debut and resolute lower-order batting of Bishoo in both innings and the whole-hearted bowling of Rampaul, which brought him seven wickets in the match, was an indication of the overall conscientious attitude West Indies would show throughout the year.
Gayle, the WICB, players association boss Dinanath Ramnarine, and a chair. The soap opera involving these principals took place in June when the player, his representative and the board met in an attempt to deal with Gayle's statements in a radio interview following the World Cup, in which he alleged the board had mismanaged his injury, that Gibson had damaged Sarwan's confidence, and the board had mishandled his contract talks in October 2010. It ended with claims and denials that Ramnarine used a chair in a threatening manner. As the year closed, the Gayle matter was still unresolved and he remained off the team. The episode marked a new nadir in the relationship between the board and WIPA, but worse would follow, when WIPA sued the WICB for $20 million over the way it handed out no-objection certificates to non-contracted players.
New kids on the block
Bishoo's impressive debut season made him the ICC's Emerging Player of the Year, but Darren Bravo's 949 Test runs in 2011, his three big centuries, against India and Bangladesh in the latter part of the year, following struggles earlier in the year against the Indian and Pakistani spinners, marked him as a rising star who is continuing to rise. Bravo showed the patience and self belief that all successful sportsmen need and a hunger for success that will make him difficult to bowl to in years to come. Despite his wishes, the Brian Lara comparisons will not let up now.
At 27, Kirk Edwards is a latecomer to international cricket. But he made the most of his chance in Tests in 2011. A century on debut against India in Dominica was followed by another in Bangladesh. Physically well set-up, and less flamboyant than some of his colleagues, Edwards has so far proved to be what the team needs at No. 3, a determined, regular maker of runs.
Sarwan's regular run of injuries is putting his career in danger. Not fit long enough to find his best form, he played only four Tests in 2011, and was ruled out of the tours to India and Bangladesh by more injury. As the year ended, Sarwan found himself engaged in a war of words with the Guyana cricket board over his fitness, following which the Guyanese selectors left him out of their Caribbean T20 squad for 2012. Now 31, the way back into the West Indies team for him seems uncertain.
What 2012 holds
West Indies face Australia and England in Test and limited-overs series, and travel to Sri Lanka for the ICC World Twenty20 in 2012. The cricket will likely be harder than it was this past year, and the results are unlikely to change dramatically. The core group is still too green and too thin for a big turnaround. The task facing Sammy and his players will therefore remain the same: to become consistent, to be mentally tough, and to win.
* 05.03GMT, Jan 3: The Australian side touring West Indies in 1995 was led by Mark Taylor and not Steve Waugh as it was previously mentioned. This has been corrected
** 05.03GMT, Jan 3: West Indies were eliminated from the 2011 World Cup after the quarter-final and not the group stage. This has been corrected
Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express