Samuels' redemption song
It was as though Marlon Samuels was not challenged enough by the conditions and the opposition bowlers in Antigua, as though it was not the right stage to showcase his class and sublime skill. While almost everybody helped themselves to runs there in the first Test, padding their numbers on a flat deck at the Sir Vivian Richards stadium, Samuels showed why he was always considered a special talent in the second in Jamaica, with 123 on a pitch that had bounce and pace, against a youthful yet disciplined four-pronged New Zealand pace attack.
Led by Trent Boult and Tim Southee, New Zealand, with a one-side-of-the-wicket line and some short-pitched aggression, nipped off early wickets and kept even Chris Gayle quiet. The early moisture of the track helped their quicks move the ball off the pitch, and also attain a certain amount of swing in the air. Samuels walked in at 17 for 2, with Gayle plodding along.
There were few early jitters for Samuels, with the New Zealand bowlers on the ascendancy, but this pitch at Sabina Park is one he knows quite well. "It is never easy to go in and start flowing [on this pitch]. You have to spend a bit of time. It isn't the easiest pitch to bat on," Samuels said after Friday's play. "It seems flat but isn't. [A] ball here and there does something, and I had to apply myself, and concentrate a little bit harder."
There were some inside edges, a couple of glides through the slip region when he was not totally in control, but once he was set, it was going to be hard to remove Samuels. Even a sightscreen that got stuck, not switching from the red sponsor ad to a white background, could not distract him today. Once settled, he got boundaries at will, making pretty decent deliveries look very ordinary. It was only when he was saddled with the desperation of being stuck alone, that he eventually succumbed.
Drives straight down the ground scorching his home turf, dismissive slaps through cover, delicate nudges, powerful pulls and expert scythes through the slip cordon, they were all there. He continued his fine form from the Test series in England and attributed this knock to the technique that is required to perform well in England. "This was the kind of pitch you have to play late on, like in England, because of the bounce."
The New Zealand bowlers stuck to their task, constantly questioning the West Indies batsmen. Only those that were ready to bide their time, giving themselves a chance to get set, were going to succeed and the only one who did today for West Indies was Samuels. "Patience is definitely the key, especially on a wicket like today's. All the New Zealand bowlers bowled well, their lengths and their lines were proper. It was tough for us to score runs. It's a wicket you can't just come up and play shots and dominate. You have to spend some time."
There was a brief but brisk partnership of 49 with Darren Sammy but soon, Samuels was running out of partners as he neared his personal landmark - something that he has never done, score a 100 in front of his home crowd, with family and friends in attendance. Southee - as well as he had bowled throughout - bore the brunt of that final surge from Samuels. Three back-to-back-to-back sixes took Samuels from 98 to 116 with only No. 11 Tino Best for company. A tennis forehand sort of slap over cover brought up his first Test century in West Indies. One that was deposited over the sightscreen followed and another was flayed over long off, not too violently.
This week marks the 50th year of independence from the British rule in Jamaica. Kingston has been painted in black, green and gold. And the local boy chose the perfect time to put on a show for his people. "It's a special time for Jamaica, the 50th," Samuels said. "To come out here and put in my piece of celebration with my people [is special]".
Samuels has been to hell and back, for reasons well known, but no one could have predicted the kind of second coming to cricket that he is scripting. Even though he made his Test debut in 2000, two of his highest scores in Tests have come in the last two series, 117 against England at Nottingham and the cool, almost nonchalant century today. Another famous former resident of Jamaica would have been proud of this "redemption song".
Samuels recalled the hard times: "There were so many problems, I played [and] I quit. It is just now I am over these hurdles. I've been through some tough times. I'm here still playing cricket.
"It's my time to enjoy my cricket. Waking up in the morning, I don't worry about getting a game. I know I'm going to get a game. I worry about how I'm going to start my innings. It's a different mindset [now]. I am definitely at peace with myself."