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March 29, 2007
This could well have been the match in which West Indies pulled the plug on their own party. The defeat in itself was not insurmountable, but the manner of the meltdown was distressing. It was a sickly surrender in front of another paltry crowd, in a game that will be remembered more for some extraordinary team selections than for the subsequent lethargy of the West Indian performance. By the time Ramnaresh Sarwan's legbreaks had been called upon to bowl the 39th and penultimate over of the innings, the post-construction moonscape on which this stadium has been plonked reflected the bleakness of the host team's prospects.
"These are really desperate times, and the guys have to pick themselves up and know what is in front of them," Brian Lara said afterwards. "We've got to get into the frame of mind of winning everything from now on. We didn't play like it was a crucial World Cup match."
From the moment Lendl Simmons, an opener by trade, was selected at No. 8 in place of the quickest bowler in the squad, Jerome Taylor, Lara's team played like a side sleepwalking to disaster. It was - even by West Indian standards - a staggering piece of selection whimsy. "We haven't scored 250 runs yet in the tournament, so we thought we'd try to strengthen the batting as much as possible," Lara said by way of justification, but it did little to stem the astonishment.
Though Taylor had a rough day against Australia on Tuesday, conceding 67 runs in ten wicketless overs, those were hardly grounds for his axing. As recently as October he took 4 for 49 to bowl West Indies to victory over Australia in the Champions Trophy. Simmons, the reserve wicketkeeper, has delivered just six balls in his entire international career.
All the signs pointed to the sort of selection conflagration that West Indies desperately needed to avoid at the most crucial juncture in their modern-day history. Lara's selection (and the coach, Bennett King, is not believed to have had much say in the matter) has been interpreted as one in the eye for a selection committee that includes the Antiguan legend, Andy Roberts.
Roberts, along with his fellow selectors, Gordon Greenidge and Clyde Butts, picked the 15-man squad for the World Cup on February 2, and the impression that Lara gave today was that he was not best enamoured with the men at his disposal. "I can simply say to Andy Roberts that I did not select this World Cup squad," he said. "I was not there in the meeting. The team was selected without me. But I still go out there and fight my very best with the squad given to me."
Roberts himself was agog at the omission of Taylor. "I can't find the words to describe it," he told local reporters. "If you play an extra batsman at No. 8, he has to be able to bowl. All I can say is that Simmons must have changed roles since I last saw him." The evidence was that he hasn't. The upshot was that Dwayne Smith, a military-medium pacer, was thrust into the new-ball role despite being overlooked for a single over in the Australia match.
Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's captain, was equally non-plussed by the challenge his side was presented. "West Indies lacked a bit of enthusiasm, in terms of generating and taking the game to us," he said. "We certainly didn't scout for the lack of seamer, we had all three seamers playing, and we didn't know a heck of a lot about Simmons.
"It did mean a long batting order and we expected them to come hard at us, but we created pressure, perhaps on the back of a good Australian performance. We were just able to stunt any momentum. They had a difficult period to bat and they got through that, but we were pleased to take wickets at key times. It was a good day for us."
West Indies, as Fleming acknowledged, are a good chasing side, but having lost what transpired to be a crucial toss, they approached their third consecutive day of cricket as if it was the third day of a backs-to-the-wall Test match - 322 for 6 plays 219, plays 177 in the follow-on. "I don't think the difference in the game today was the significance of a bowler," Lara said. "You could have ten bowlers out there, but if you've only got 177 to defend it will be no good."
How on earth West Indies regroup from here is anyone's guess. A manic schedule, designed to give them key exposure in all the hosting islands means they are off to Guyana without a pause for breath, where they take on Sri Lanka in their third game on Sunday. Lara said West Indies were down to the "fighting part of the tournament" and they had to win their remaining four games to qualify for the semi-finals.
"We're just not playing well as a team, especially in the batting department," Lara, who currently tops the West Indian run-charts with 195 at 65, said. "If we are going to win the World Cup it's not just going to be one or two of them, or just me - it has to be the entire team."
The "entire team", however, will have to include the Caribbean public themselves if the morale of this squad is to be raised from its bootstraps. "The guys are pretty disappointed [about the small crowds] and a lot of them have mentioned it," Lara said. "We don't know exactly what the problem is. We've played in normal series with much bigger crowds. Maybe it's not just the cricket - maybe it's something else."
But you can't expect a turnaround unless pitches, umpiring and practice facilities are simultaneously improved