West Indies captaincy May 2, 2007

Sarwan faces mental trial



When asked, during the World Cup and before Lara's departure, about the possibility of becoming captain, he said he was ready to seize the chance with both hands © AFP

It is, at one and the same time, the most coveted and the most hazardous job in West Indies cricket. Six optimists have held it over the past dozen years, one three times, another twice. None has lasted more than four years, two as briefly as one.

In a period when the West Indies have plummeted from their unchallenged status as world champions to near rock bottom, its pressures have been so great that they forced Richie Richardson and Brian Lara to take a break from the game, the former to recover from the stress-induced condition "acute fatigue syndrome", the latter to "seek the assistance of appropriate professionals".

It is against this background, and much more besides, that Ramnaresh Sarwan has been appointed captain of the West Indies team for the tour of England that starts in less than two weeks' time. In addition to the troubled history of his recent predecessors, Sarwan takes over in the immediate aftermath of a disastrous World Cup campaign that has led to the retirement of Lara, for 15 years the indisputable centrepiece of the team, and the resignation of Bennett King, the head coach.

He and his team must undertake the tour with an interim coach, a new manager and, hopefully if only temporary, a fitness trainer, a post incredibly missing from the support staff since December. They are issues that, outwardly at least, appear not to faze Sarwan.

When asked, during the World Cup and before Lara's departure, about the possibility of becoming captain, his answer was full of enthusiasm. He was ready, he said, to seize the chance with both hands.

Bruce Aanansen, the West Indies Cricket Board's (WICB) new chief executive, believed that what swayed the selectors towards Sarwan, rather than the other strong candidate, Daren Ganga, was mainly his knowledge of the game, the impression he had made on the few occasions he led the team and the respect the players have for him.

One match may have been enough to clinch it. With Lara nursing a stiff back, Sarwan was in charge when West Indies defended a total of 234 for 6 against Australia in the group stage of the Champions Trophy in India last October. There was rare energy on the field - in the body language, the commitment and the aggression - as the usually unflappable Australians faltered.

But that was over 50 overs. Now Sarwan has a long assignment ahead, featuring four Tests away from home against opponents who have a 7-0 advantage in the previous two series between the teams three years ago. It will be a stern test of his mettle. The challenge, at the age of 26, can either bring the best out of him as a leader in every sense [his Test batting average of 38.8 is one area that needs attention] or, like those before him, crush him.

He was the youngest player in the history of first-class cricket in the West Indies, when he debuted for Guyana at the age of 15. He moved inevitably into the Test team four years later, announcing his arrival with a cultured, unbeaten 84 against a powerful Pakistan attack. Except for one injury or another, he has scarcely missed a Test or ODI since. Based on his grasp of the game's tactical complexities, demonstrated from his days as a successful Guyana captain in the regional under-19 tournament, he was elevated to the vice-captaincy when Lara returned for his second stint in 2003.

The four intervening years have been filled with contradictory messages. No sooner had he become West Indies vice-captain than Guyana chose Shivnarine Chanderpaul as their captain instead, following the retirement of Carl Hooper.

A year later, Sarwan and six others were declared ineligible for selection in the first Test of the home series against South Africa, since they held Cable & Wireless contracts that the board deemed were in conflict with its deal with new team sponsor, Digicel. When Lara, also on C&W's books but qualified because it was a pre-existing arrangement, quit the captaincy in solidarity, the board turned to Chanderpaul to lead the team.

It was a role for which he was clearly unsuited and in which he was, equally clearly, uncomfortable. Sarwan had, by then, been reinstated as vice-captain but he was overlooked in favour of Lara's third term when Chanderpaul stepped down and returned to the ranks.

Sarwan remained the deputy, as he had been in Lara's second stint, but was to endure another public indignity during last year's tour of Pakistan. His form had faltered and his physical condition was questionable. He was hardly the only one in the team with such shortcomings but he was dropped from the second Test and told by Lara to "reflect and come back strong". It was a ringing condemnation.

Then, as soon as he came back, for the next Test, Umar Gul broke his foot with a wicked yorker. He recovered six weeks later only for Fidel Edwards to promptly pin his thumb against the bat handle in a Carib Beer Cup match and fracture it. As a result, he had little cricket leading into the World Cup but he was still the leading West Indies batsman, in aggregate (375) and average (46.87), in a tournament in which their cricket touched new levels of mediocrity.

Such mishaps were not unfamiliar but he has bounced back from each. His courage is not in doubt. In a 2003 World Cup match in Cape Town against Sri Lanka, he was knocked unconscious by a bouncer from Dilhara Fernando, stretchered off the field with blood pouring from the cut and taken to hospital. An hour and a half later, he was back in the middle, batting in a cap rather than a helmet, and taking the West Indies to within six runs of an improbable victory with an unbeaten 47.

The trial he now needs to overcome is not so much physical as mental. It always is for the captain of the West Indies.