Young guns give West Indies hope
Their long history of inconsistency, amply exemplified by their two most recent matches, moderates the immediate temptation to proclaim Tuesday's emphatic victory over Pakistan in the opening match of the World Cup as the preface to the championship itself.
It was, all the same, a performance of considerable significance for it was centred, not around the seasoned campaigners accustomed to such momentous occasions, but on the eager young brigade.
Chris Gayle, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Brian Lara, a quartet now with 769 ODIs and ten World Cups between them, contributed 107 runs to the modest total of 241 for 9. Gayle's usually necessary offspin wasn't required for a single over.
Instead, the decisive runs, wickets, tight overs, brilliance in the field and infectious enthusiasm came from players all with fewer than 100 matches to their names. The packed, noisy stands at the enhanced Sabina caught the vibes and complemented their heroes.
The discipline and concentration was such when defending a moderate total that only four extras were conceded - two leg-byes, two wides and not a single no-ball. It was as revealing a statistic as any for the day.
Captain Lara spelled out their responsibility, and their opportunity, to the new generation prior to the match. The all-out 85 against India in the warm-up four days earlier had clearly not created disgust among the fans alone.
"This is an opportunity for a lot of younger players," Lara told the media, as he had no doubt told the men concerned. "I would love to see them get hold of the World Cup in the very first match and make it their own." The message appeared to get through, helped by the uplifting opening ceremony on Sunday and the trumpeted presence of the surviving World Cup winners of 1975 and 1979.
Marlon Samuels, now aged 26 and starting to make the most of his undoubted talent after six years in international cricket, shook the innings out of its slumber with his calculated assault on Rao Iftikhar Anjum, the little known but impressive quickie, and Danish Kaneria, the dangerous legspinner.
If the ICC's protracted investigation into his contacts with an alleged bookmaker concerns him, it was not evident. But then nothing appears to concern the languid Jamaican except, now perhaps, the realisation that he has previously sold his ability short. His last ten ODI innings have included two hundreds and three scores over 60. He has, at last, secured his place in the middle order.
When he was out, Dwayne Smith came out of a worrying batting slump with his 32 off 15 balls. It was an assault of clean hitting that, like Samuels' earlier, undermined the Pakistanis' fragile self-belief and brought 58 off the last five overs. Inspired, even Corey Collymore smashed the last ball of the innings for six. It was a finish that changed the moods of the teams.
There was a distinct lack of bounce in the Pakistani step as they left the field. The buzz in the West Indies room could be heard almost above that of the expectant crowd. It was all reflected in what followed.
Jerome Taylor and Daren Powell were fiery with the new ball, Collymore miserly in control. Three early wickets forced such care onto Pakistan's two main batsmen, Mohammed Yousaf and Inzamam-ul-Haq, that the required scoring-rate climbed to almost eight an over.
As they attempted to break free, Smith was back to expose their impatience with his controlled medium-pace. His line rarely strayed from around off-stump, his length offered little to cut and pull. Once he had dismissed both Yousaf and Inzamam, the match was as good as won. There have been times, many, when the West Indies have contrived to turn certain victory into defeat but there was never the slightest hint this would happen.
The fielding was predatory, the throwing precise. Samuels sweeping under the Kingston Club Pavilion was superb. Dwayne Bravo seized two stunning catches and went into his usual wild, uninhibited celebration that reflected the attitude on and off the field. Collectively, it was a heartening result for the team and for their expectant public. Individually, it was a timely boost for Smith.
No selection was more questioned and criticised than his, with good reason. Even the convenor of selectors, Gordon Greenidge, publicly expressed his doubts. The whirlwind batting that brought him a run-a-ball debut Test hundred three years ago had become so unreliable, his average over the last year was in single figures. Darren Sammy was a worthy contender to replace him. Only his electric fielding and useful medium-pace bowling saved his place.
No one would have been more pleased at his Man of the Match return than head coach Bennett King, an unswerving believer in Smith's ability. The mission now for Smith, as with the team, is to make it a habit. It is a challenge that has eluded both for too long.