A study in defiance
Robert Samuels does not occupy a place of much glory in the long and undulating tale of West Indies cricket. The elder brother of Marlon, he played the last of six Tests in 1997, his contribution to the team as an opening batsman defined by the following nondescript digits: 372 runs at 37.20, one century. However Samuels accomplished one thing in that final Test, against Australia at the WACA Ground on a spiteful strip, patchworked by cracks. In an innings of 76 that lingered 332 minutes and 228 balls, he irritated the hosts and their champion bowlers Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne like very little before or since.
Fifteen years later, on the first day of the series between Darren Sammy's West Indians and Michael Clarke's Australians in Bridgetown, another stodgy Caribbean opening batsman scraped and scrapped while his opponents vented their exasperation. Kraigg Brathwaite is playing his seventh Test, and none of the previous six have suggested he is anything other than a man battling above his station. Upon losing the toss and bowling first at Kensington Oval, Australia's bowlers would have reckoned Brathwaite a possible avenue to their first wicket, certainly moreso than the more visibly talented Adrian Barath, who had announced himself with a coruscating debut century against Australia in Brisbane in 2009.
Yet Brathwaite did not allow himself to be intimidated by the stature of the team he opposed, the bowlers who had humbled India or the slips cordon that included batsmen the calibre of Clarke, Ricky Ponting and Shane Watson. From the first ball he faced, Brathwaite shuffled sturdily into line, playing the majority of deliveries from the crease and leaving most directed wide of the stumps. He deflected singles here and there, and flicked a wayward offering from Ryan Harris to the fine-leg rope. If the tourists made a mistake in their new-ball tack it was to not bowl full enough, allowing Brathwaite's crease-bound approach to work for instead of against him. But there was no gap to be found between bat and pad, and no throaty lbw appeals against a batsman who made sure to get his blade down swiftly to cover whatever movement could be found.
Aiding the cause was an assured appearance by Kirk Edwards, the new vice-captain. Taking up a stance once used to good effect by Peter Willey against West Indies, he was as abstemious early on as Brathwaite, before unfurling his greater array of strokes with time. He attacked Nathan Lyon's spin adeptly, and also played the odd handsome drive. Once he had departed, Darren Bravo showed welcome signs that his touch was returning, his elegance and poise at a level far in advance of anything Brathwaite could produce. But still he remained, poking, prodding and persevering.
Brathwaite did offer his pursuers a few chances. On 10 he pushed a Peter Siddle delivery that held up off the pitch, and the bowler failed to gather an awkward chance in his follow through. Thirty-four runs later and Shane Watson procured an edge to one ball that Brathwaite chose not to leave, and Ponting's right hand stretched too far to accept the catch, leaving his wrist to make a doomed interception. At 48 Brathwaite appeared to snick David Warner's leg break to Michael Clarke at slip, but questions about whether a clear chance had been put down were silenced by the umpire Ian Gould's signal of byes. Two balls later Brathwaite raised his half-century, and acknowledged the applause of a crowd that had enjoyed his application - if not always his execution.
Australia's fielders were not quite so enthusiastic in their acclaim, finding themselves in a position loathed by cricketers so long as the game has been played: confronted by a batsman of limited range but tremendous concentration, they have nothing to do but be patient. The dropped chances betrayed wavering focus, and only served to make Brathwaite's stay all the more infuriating. Patience was a quality Clarke's men did not require too often during a summer's waltz past India at home, nor something they necessarily expected to have to employ against a team they have pummeled more often than not over the past 20 years. That state of affairs developed largely because few West Indian batsmen of similar limitations were inclined towards the sort of defiance offered by Samuels at the WACA, when he caused Australian tempers to fray, then tear.
So pronounced was the irritation at Samuels that Australia's diplomatic captain Mark Taylor was at the limits of his conciliatory powers to prevent Warne and McGrath from doing considerably worse than unload on Samuels with a constant stream of verbal barbs. Most of those revolved around the use of the term "loser" with various fruity adjectives thrown in. In their fury that someone as limited in strokeplay as Samuels had managed to survive for so long in enervating Perth heat, Warne and McGrath lost sight of the fact that they had few runs to defend, and that Brian Lara was at the other end. He and Samuels added 208 before they were done, and set the visitors on course to a face-saving victory at the end of an unhappy tour.
Brathwaite is unlikely to have faced the same intensity of abuse that Samuels received, given that the game's standards of on-field conduct are more closely monitored now than ever, by Cricket Australia as much as the ICC. And the Bridgetown pitch was about as friendly as Perth's had been spiteful. But the pressures of the occasion, the first day of the series at the ground graced by so many luminaries of the region, made his contribution decidedly comparable. By the time he finally left the scene, touching Siddle behind for Matthew Wade's first Test catch, Brathwaite had held up the visitors for 273 minutes and 199 balls, smoothing a path for those who followed.
In doing so he provided Australia with a reminder of how much steel West Indies have added since Sammy and Ottis Gibson formed their present captain/coach axis, and his team-mates with an example of exactly what can be achieved with a doughty attitude. How the Caribbean team's troubled progress over the past 15 years might have been different if more had offered the application of Samuels and Brathwaite is open to debate. How much its position in this match would have been weakened without Brathwaite's stern occupation is not.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here