March 27, 2016

Which domestic players can step up for West Indies next season?

Despite the restructuring of the first-class system, West Indies don't have a large talent pool to pick from. Is the board's optimism for a better future misguided?

Leon Johnson reacted to being unfairly dropped from the Test side by making it to the top of the run-scoring chart in the first-class tournament © Gallo Images

"I have said that 2017 is the year when we will have a Test Team to be proud of," said West Indies board president Dave Cameron in February.

"By 2017 the product on the field will improve," said WICB CEO Michael Muirhead in December.

After poor and embarrassing performances against Sri Lanka and Australia, it's hard to see what the president and the CEO are basing their confident rhetoric on. Going by their logic, victory in upcoming home tri-series against Australia and South Africa, Tests versus India and away against Pakistan in UAE are to be expected, and by January 2017, West Indies will be world-beaters again!

The current board's intransigent policies make a majority of senior players currently in the World T20 squad ineligible for these 2016 fixtures, because they choose to play in the BBL or the PSL instead of the domestic one-day and first-class competitions. So let's look at the players with potential who performed in domestic cricket this season

Leon Johnson
The strangest decision the West Indies selectors made in 2015 was picking Shane Dorwich, who bats at No. 6 as a wicketkeeper-batsman for Barbados, to bat at No. 4 in the home Tests against Australia.

Johnson must have wondered what he did wrong. On the 2014-15 South Africa tour he averaged 33.60 - only Marlon Samuels and Kraigg Brathwaite were better. Before that, in one Test versus Bangladesh, as a makeshift opener, he made 66 and 41. It was shocking that he was not chosen for West Indies in 2015, especially after Shivnarine Chanderpaul's axing.

Johnson has now basically demanded a recall by ending the first-class season as the leading run scorer, averaging 57.64. Other than legspinner Devendra Bishoo, Johnson is the only player from Guyana, the title winners, who looks ready for West Indies duty.

In the 2000-01 final against Jamaica, the Guyana XI read: Azeemul Haniff, Sewnarine Chattergoon, Travis Dowlin, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Carl Hooper, Mahendra Nagamootoo, Neil McGarrell, Vishal Nagamootoo, Colin Stuart and Reon King - arguably the strongest Guyana team seen this millennium in any format. When comparing that team with the one that just won back-to-back the four-day titles, you begin to wonder if Guyana have really improved as a result of the PCL, or is it that their rivals have declined?

Evidence suggests the latter. Jamaica won six of the seven regional titles from 2007 to 2014, achieving success with minimal input from their most high-profile players - Chris Gayle, Samuels, Andre Russell and Jerome Taylor - because they were the best at exploiting the mediocrity of their opponents in the four-day game, rather than being a great team in their own right. Unfortunately Guyana look to be following a similar trend.

Evin Lewis got his first hundreds in all three formats of the game this season, and was called up to the World T20 squad © WICB Media/Ashley Allen

Evin Lewis
Despite having a reputation for being the most stable territorial board, the Trinidad & Tobago Cricket Board seems to have in recent months caught the maladministration bug from the WICB: it controversially took away domestic contracts from Rayad Emrit, Evin Lewis and Kevon Cooper for playing in the Bangladesh Premier League; decided not to change the "outgoing vote" clause in its constitution for this year's local board election; and then there was the Sunil Narine email saga.

Lewis, a talented young opener, coincidentally has been in very good form since losing the contract - scoring his maiden T20, List A and first-class centuries - and was rewarded with a late call-up to the World T20 squad.

With chief selector Clive Lloyd stating in January that Gayle, with 103 Tests under his belt, has to play in the four-day competition before he can play a Test again, West Indies have a big problem now of finding a steady opening partner for Kraigg Brathwaite.

Guyanese opener Rajendra Chandrika has looked totally out of his depth since being given a debut. Yet the WICB still contracted him for 2015-16.

Lewis has shown in the last few months that he is more than just a T20-type hitter, and by default his performances indicate that he is the most qualified opener to partner Brathwaite if the WICB is brave enough to not pick Gayle.

Offspinner Jon-Russ Jaggesar took 14 wickets at 13.5 in six 50-over matches for T&T in 2015-16 © WICB Media/LMA Photography

Jon-Russ Jaggesar
Take a look at the PCL's top wicket-takers this season - once again, disconcertingly, spinners fill up nine spaces in the top ten. Obviously this is a problem that has no clear answers, but it does mean performances of spinners in the PCL need to be taken with a giant grain of salt.

Jaggesar, the 29-year-old offspinner who came out of nowhere to play a key role in T&T winning the domestic 50-overs title, displayed some of the qualities that have made Narine, Bishoo and Shane Shillingford international threats.

His 8 for 58 versus Jamaica were also the best figures in the first-class season.

If the worst-case scenario occurs and Narine's yet-to-be-tested remodelled action doesn't have the same potency as his old one and he falls away like Saeed Ajmal, the late bloomer Jaggesar has shown signs that he is a mystery spinner of fledgling international pedigree.

Alzarri Joseph
"I'd have Alzarri Joseph in my next Test squad. Even if it's not to play but to gain experience," said Ian Bishop on Twitter after Joseph's impressive bowling efforts during West Indies' Under-19 World Cup triumph. Wes Hall and Joel Garner have also suggested the 19-year old be fast-tracked.

Alzarri Joseph showed exciting pace in the Under-19 World Cup and is expected to make his senior debut soon © Getty Images

Regardless of Joseph's obvious exciting talent, in an ideal world one might want him to play a full season before getting an international call-up. However, with senior fast bowler Kemar Roach being down on pace in the last six months and Ravi Rampaul going Kolpak with Surrey, on current form, young Joseph certainly merits selection now.

****

Despite the PCL's good intentions, the lack of evident West Indies-ready players from the competition highlights two things.

Firstly, it's obvious the board doesn't have the financial resources required. The Caribbean Premier League annual cash grant of US$360,000 and the MOU/CBA are two main ways through which the WICB pays domestic players.

It was one of the first boards to back the Big Three takeover in 2014, and Cameron had then claimed that it would mean 100% revenue increases for the board. If all these ICC funds are guaranteed, why are the board and the players' association not willing to go back to the negotiation table with the senior players? In fact, these revenue projections have been questioned and it has been suggested that the board actually stands to lose in the region of $43 million for supporting the Big Three.

Check the first-class averages this season and you see the usual suspects, like Devon Smith and Nikita Miller, on top of the standings. These are domestic journeymen cricketers. Giving them more money isn't going to make them Test standard.

The WICB has essentially taken away money from the few proven elite senior players to give back to a failed generation of first-class cricketers, and to date player performances and results are no different from the pre-PCL era.

Comments