Is there hope for West Indies?
You have to walk past the Brazilian embassy to reach the Queen's Park Oval in Port of Spain. It feels appropriate. What Brazil are to football, West Indies were to cricket. When a footballer dies, it is said, he goes to Rio. Not long ago, a cricketer would have gone to the Caribbean. Then the GPS malfunctioned and the map got lost. Paradise is hell these days.
"We steups. We start the cricketing day saying, 'But all you know they getting licks again' … we say, 'If West Indies play against West Indies they go still lose.'" Sheila Rampersad's words stare out from this morning's Trinidad Express. It was felt in Trinidad. You can feel it in Antigua too - a despairing gloom in West Indies cricket.
The locals, both in Trinidad and Antigua, have a resigned look when talking about cricket. It's sad, and to say as much is almost condescending. It feels wrong, especially when one is from a generation that grew up in awe of them, to write about West Indies cricket in words of pity. Reality can be cruel. More proof came through the mail this morning: Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth skipping the Test series to be ready for sterner trials in England. Wise decision, of course, but it reflects the state of West Indies cricket in some ways.
Is there any hope left in hoping? Darren Sammy, a quiet figure who has been facing the heat, offered some. "Antigua has more pace, bounce and there was not much spin when we played last there. Hopefully they will prepare something that will suit us and it will feel like home series for us."
A bouncy and fast pitch does not mean India will definitely lose but it's the only way West Indies can win. The Indian juniors can be a bit iffy against short-pitched stuff and West Indies have Kemar Roach. Inexplicably, they have rested Ravi Rampaul for the Antigua leg of the series. Much will depend on Roach. He can bowl yorkers with the new ball and lifters from short of a length. If the pitch has some juice, he is more than likely to exploit it.
Yet, it's not just the bowling, the batting has been a real worry for West Indies. Their batsmen showed promise in the second ODI but they rarely carry that kind of spirit through the entire game. If Lendl Simmons hits, Ramnaresh Sarwan dawdles. If Marlon Samuels hits, Simmons falls cheaply. And the lower middle order has rarely contributed anything worthwhile.
Kieron Pollard is suspect against quality spin. For a batsman who drives so imperiously down the ground, he plays limp swipes across the line and defends the ball as though he is trying to stab it to death. Hard hands and a tentative mind don't feature in the recipe to play spin. If he can clear his mind and play more freely … but go ask Navjot Sidhu about ifs and buts, he will tell you a good line, and give pertinent advice on how to play spin. If the Antigua track doesn't take much turn, then hopefully Pollard can come through with a valuable knock.
Dwayne Bravo has looked a ghost of himself recently - his bowling didn't have the energy of the past and his batting continues to be pretty but ineffective - and won't play in this ODI. That leaves the wicketkeeper Carlton Baugh, who didn't inspire any confidence after the way he attempted to play a googly from Amit Mishra. Sammy's eye-hand coordination is keen and he can wallop a few but he doesn't, and his game can't, promise consistency. All this puts the pressure back on a top order struggling for confidence. It's a vicious cycle.
The two men who can change West Indies' fortunes are Samuels and Simmons. With Sarwan still a few games away from regaining his touch, the onus is on the in-form Simmons and Samuels, who looks to be inching towards his apogee. The criticism of Simmons is that he seems to get content too early. That he should not be satisfied with a 40 or a 50.
The criticism of Samuels was that he seemed rusty in his comeback. He struggled through the Pakistan series and, after a couple of games against India, is getting better. There was a shot against Mishra in the previous game that hinted at good, old times. Samuels leaned forward to lash a flighted legbreak inside out through extra cover. He had the timing, feet movement, confidence and skill to play that kind of a shot. West Indies needs Samuels. Some would say that Samuels needs West Indies cricket more. He is just back from a two-year ban, having lost some of his prime-time cricketing life. He should be really hungry to get out and show what he is capable of.
If the pitch is quick and these two batsmen play to potential, then we could have a game of competitive cricket. Else, we slip back into the abyss of low quality. We are not even asking for calypso, just clear your throats and hum. Please.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo