Future at stake in battle of the benches
"Life is jokey but it's bloody serious. You got to plan. West Indies didn't do it." Ralph, an old caretaker of an inn, drawls as he lights up a cigarette. It's 11 pm and the small neighbourhood in Port of Spain is quiet. The glow from his cigarette lights up his grizzly beard. "We were too arrogant when we were winning and didn't plan for the future. Talent is all dried up now and we are watching the ego fights between the board and the players. It's all downhill. It's good to see India planning for the future by bringing in the younger players."
It's a puzzling series in many ways. The weaker team is ignoring its stars and testing its bench strength. The stronger team is being forced to test its bench strength while its stars choose to rest, some in fatigue, some following injury. The agenda is still pretty simple and straightforward: It's India's series to lose. They are the new world champions and will have to win this ODI series. Never mind that they are missing a couple of big players - a champion team can't have any excuses.
West Indies ran out of excuses for their decline a long time ago and are now scraping the bottom of the barrel of hope. It's a grim scenario. The evidence screamed out when the flight from London descended on Barbados. It was a breathtaking visual - a sparkling sea framing the houses like a jewel - but the question that immediately came to mind was, how on earth did such a tiny island produce a battery of world-class players? Now that same smallness offered another scary thought. How on earth will they find world-class players from such a small area? Trinidad is a much bigger place but big, of course, is relative.
Sometimes a win can just prove to be a setback. Is West Indies' recent Test win over Pakistan a boon or a bane? Will it make the hardliners in the WICB turn more adamant in their vision for a future that doesn't involve the bigger stars like Chris Gayle? Or does that win offer concrete proof of their new vision? This series against India can help decide it.
It was a series against India in 1976 that turned the corner for West Indies in many ways. That bloodbath in Sabina Park when Clive Lloyd, hurt after India chased down 403 in the previous Test, unleashed his fast men against the hapless visitors is a landmark event in West Indian cricket history. That victory made Lloyd, and by extension West Indies, realise that pace was the way to go and his gang of fast men went on to unleash such joyous violence - that still stirs the heart of cricket fans - around the world. Fire was raging in Babylon and Lloyd wasn't fiddling. Nostalgia is fun but not when the present is bleak.
If West Indies are to do well in this series, they can't reproduce tracks that were on offer in the series against Pakistan. If India has a weakness, it's against pace and bounce and West Indies, despite having a legspinner as their strike bowler, need to exploit it - like they did so successfully in the World Twenty20 held in the Caribbean region. Will they go for it?
For India, the absence of the seniors is the best thing that could have happened. This squad is perfect to test the bench strength. It's also the perfect setting for the new India coach, Duncan Fletcher, to ease himself in. He has been ostensibly roped in to help India prepare for a future sans the big names. Now he doesn't have to wait for the end of India's tour of Australia early next year to prepare for that eventuality. This series gives him a taste of things to come.
In the Tests, India are going with a new set of openers and in the ODIs, they will also be infusing fresh blood into the middle order. If West Indies are able to produce tracks that aid bounce, this Indian team can be tested by the likes of Kemar Roach, Ravi Rampaul and Andre Russell. It still won't be easy, but at least it will give them a chance.
If the tracks are flat, this could well turn out to be like the 1971 series between the two teams, when a debutant named Sunil Gavaskar gorged on a second-string attack to pile up the runs and launch himself into a calypso. This Indian team might not have anyone in the calibre of a Gavaskar but it's a team filled with ambitious young men, desperately seeking success and fighting for the few available spots when the bigger stars return for sterner tests. It's almost a fight for survival for many. Life is jokey but it's bloody serious.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo