Cricket's Bash Brothers leave New Zealand scarred
Baseball's Oakland Athletics gained a bit more recognition around the world last year with the Hollywood release of Moneyball. A generation before heavy statistical analysis became en vogue, the Athletics of the late 1980s had a simpler philosophy: get Rickey Henderson on base so that Mark McGwire or Jose Canseco could hit a monster home run to bring Rickey home. The intimidating power-hitting duo that led the Athletics to a World Series title in 1989 became known as the 'Bash Brothers'.
Now cricket has its own version of the Bash Brothers and they belong to the West Indies: Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard. Cricket purists have a special place in their hearts for players who possess the grace and finesse of the likes of Kumar Sangakkara or Ian Bell. But Twenty20 cricket is causing a shift towards brute force and Popeye muscles. For those in south Florida who saw Gayle and Pollard in person for the first time at training throughout the past week, there was no doubt which two players ate the most spinach in the West Indies squad. Each man blasted five sixes on Saturday just to confirm it.
On Saturday, their unbeaten third-wicket stand of 108 runs took a big bite out of New Zealand. Pollard dominated the partnership, accounting for 63 in just 29 balls, but it was Gayle who took home Man-of-the-Match honours after top-scoring with 85 not out. It's that appetite for runs that makes the return of Gayle to the West Indies set-up vital in the lead-up to September's ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka.
West Indies coach Ottis Gibson said his lineup had been starved of a consistent run-getter and having Gayle back in the squad shored up what was previously a weak link.
"We've been struggling for runs, we know that," Gibson told the assembled media after Saturday's 56-run win over New Zealand. "Chris [Gayle] especially in this format has been a world leader. It's great to have him back in the team. He did exactly what we know he can do today. We hope that he comes out and does the same tomorrow. Obviously tomorrow is our last Twenty20 before the World Twenty20. That's a big thing for us. [We've] got to make sure we get all our plans sorted so that by the time we get to Sri Lanka for the World Twenty20 everybody's very clear what their role is and how we're going to approach trying to win that tournament."
"[Johnson] Charles played a good innings but credit must go to Kieron [Pollard] for taking the pressure off me," Gayle said after play. "I think power's a key factor. You don't want to do a lot of running. You can accelerate in the end."
Gibson was especially pleased with how Gayle took his time to get in while assessing a pitch that they weren't sure about before play began.
"Because the pitch was new, we had to be tentative at the start," Gibson said. "You saw Chris start very slow and tentative and we had to be because we don't know what the surface is going to offer. As we got past the first six overs, the message came back that it was a good batting track so we knew that with the power we have in the back end of our team that we can catch up."
Did they ever. West Indies were 67 for one after 10 overs, but the final 10 saw them more than triple their output with another 142 runs. Only one over out of the final 10 went for less than double-digits and that just missed out with nine runs coming in the 18th. There was a slight delay in figuring out who to send out when Charles departed on the first ball of the 14th over with the score at 101. Marlon Samuels had been padded up, but Gibson decided to pull the trigger on Pollard and the move paid off.
"We've got a lot of options in our team, a lot of power hitters," Gibson said. "One of the things that we've done recently is try to get the right sort of person in at the right time. We know that Pollard is a dangerous hitter. We had a lot of wickets in hand. Pollard is in good form as well so we utilised his power in that situation and it worked for us. He just came off a very good Twenty20 innings in England as well so he's very confident and we know that once he gets in and gives himself some time that he can be very dangerous which he was today."
"When I went in, it [was] just a matter of supporting Chris as we looked to build a partnership," Pollard said. "It was a very good pitch for batting and when I hit my first ball I realised things could go our way. We all know the kind of player Chris is so once we both got in we were able to target the bowlers close to the end of the innings."
Not only did the two men leave New Zealand bruised and battered psychologically, but the New Zealand squad resembled something closer to an MASH unit than a cricket team by the end of the match. Jacob Oram was the first man to go down, injuring his knee after getting his foot stuck in the turf, while making a sliding attempt along the long on boundary to stop a ball hit by Gayle off Ronnie Hira. It looked fairly gruesome live, but Oram, who went off for a while at the end of the 18th over, soldiered on and finished the rest of the match. He will have a fitness test in the morning to see if he can play any part on Sunday. The outfield was a bit uneven in spots and Gibson said he had warned his own players about it ahead of play.
"In some spots close to the square it's okay and as you get further away from the square it becomes a little bit softer," Gibson said. "We practiced on it for three or four days and we told our players to be careful, be careful diving especially on the boundary and stuff because the boundary edges tend not to get as much service. You have to be very careful. When I saw Jacob Oram, the first thing that came to my mind was Simon Jones in Australia in a sandy sort of soft-ish outfield, and we don't want to see that sort of stuff happen anymore. Our guys have been told to be careful how to dive out on the boundary edges."
Ronnie Hira was New Zealand's next casualty after his hand got in the way of a howitzer from Gayle on the second ball of the 11th over. Hira dislocated the middle finger on his left hand and has been ruled out of Sunday's second Twenty20 contest.
Third and most devastating to New Zealand was the shoulder injury sustained by captain Ross Taylor. Pollard top edged an Oram delivery on the last ball of the 17th towards Taylor, who was stationed at fine leg right on the circle. Off the bat it looked like a straightforward chance but the ball swirled in the wind and Taylor landed awkwardly on his left side after making a late dive which failed to corral the ball. It was one of multiple drops on the day by New Zealand to go along with a missed stumping and a missed run out chance for Gayle on 8. Taylor has been ruled out of the second Twenty20 and most likely the first few ODIs that begin next week in Jamaica.
As for West Indies, they'll be happy to have the 'Bash Brothers' continue to entertain the Florida crowd by wreaking more havoc on New Zealand, regardless of whether they're full strength or injury-depleted.
"There's a hell of a lot of people here today and I believe it's [going to] be the same tomorrow," Gibson said. "They've come out to see us play in the US. It was good that we could put on a good display for them today and hopefully we'll do the same again tomorrow."
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey