An important win for the West Indies hierarchy
The Sunday morning breeze in Kingston must have smelled extra fresh to the West Indies team management, especially after Shivnarine Chanderpaul had collected the final couple of runs to complete the team's 2-0 series victory over New Zealand. A West Indies side would have to go back ten years to 2002 in Bangladesh to find the last time they won back-to-back Tests in a series. The result this time was perhaps even more important for different people.
Chief selector Clyde Butts had put the series in perspective back in June, when he called it "our first test in terms of how we are moving forward". Currently Butts and fellow selectors Robert Haynes and Courtney Browne are on a curious three-month extension of their terms - since, according to the West Indies Cricket Board, their performance had not yet been fully appraised when their tenures ended last month.
Coach Ottis Gibson will also see his three-year contract come to an end early next year. For captain Darren Sammy, another series loss against the team just above the West Indies in the Test rankings would have made talk of genuine improvement of the team even harder to justify.
This series win has earned the selectors, coach and captain some respite. Beating New Zealand convincingly is at least statistical proof that West Indies are moving forward. The Test rubber triumph, put together with the 2-0 T20 series win in Florida and the 4-1 ODI victory would seem to indicate that, like the weather systems currently earning attention in the Caribbean region, the team is gaining in strength.
Sammy would not accept that New Zealand, who went to Australia earlier this year and drew 1-1 were a weak side. "I think they were quite tough," he said. "In all the games they had chances but we capitalised on these key moments in most of the games and that's why we were victorious."
What Sammy did not say was that with the exception of the steady opener Martin Guptill, below-par batting throughout did not allow New Zealand to win the key moments. Also, in both Tests the tourists gave chances to the most dangerous West Indian batsmen. In Antigua, Chris Gayle had two let-offs in making 150, while in this last game in Jamaica, Marlon Samuels was put down both in his match-defining first-innings 123 and equally important second-innings 52.
It would be harsh, however, to say West Indies did not earn their victories. Sammy noted that at various times in the Tests, "performances came out from different players at different times". "When the team needed somebody to step up, someone always put their hand up," he said. "It contributed to us winning the series. The result here is the product of hard work."
Sunil Narine, with his many variations, Narsingh Deonarine, sometimes with the bat, sometimes with his underrated offspin, fast bowler Tino Best in his one Test and opening batsman Kieran Powell all had their moments against New Zealand. What is still missing is for more of the same players to put their hands up more often. At this stage West Indies in Tests still do not have the settled look that teams at the top end of the Test table usually have. Four different openers and three different combinations have been used in eight Tests so far this year. Injury and poor form has also meant that the bowling unit has changed almost from game to game.
Out of this muddle, however, a few have stood out. In the absence of a regular new-ball partner, Kemar Roach has carried the mantle of pace spearhead impressively.
"To be honest," Roach said, "it was quite tough but there was a job to be done for the West Indies and I am one of the leading bowlers, so obviously I have to lead from the front... I've been trying to bowl much straighter, obviously keeping the batsmen playing as much as possible."
His consistency of line and length has been so good that Roach is averaging 22.25 for his world-leading 39 wickets this year, most of them taken on slow West Indian pitches. The figures would have been even better if he did not overstep so often. Roach's front foot gets so close to the line that it is now standard for each of his dismissals to be checked by the TV umpire. It is a problem he has been working at correcting, but is clearly not solved yet.
Samuels' game, though, is about at its peak. Now 31, he is a man on a stated mission to make up for the two lost years that suspension from the game cost him. Finally he has learned to pace his innings, much in the way Gayle now does at the top of the order and Chanderpaul always has.
Always possessed of good technique and the ability to play the most exquisite strokes, Samuels is now a complete player, who is beginning to get the runs to prove it. So far in 2012 he has 589 at 84.14. His century at Sabina Park against a New Zealand attack that worried all his team-mates, was a masterclass in itself.
Maturity seems to come later for West Indians in this era. The trouble is, captains and coaches don't get such a long grace period. For now, though, Sammy and Gibson have earned some more time.
Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express