It is not often that West Indies selectors go on a hunch, a gut feeling, a perception. Generally a conservative lot, they are guided by record and experience rather than unproven potential. Every now and again, they depart from what is an understandable policy and plump for a player with so much talent, it simply cannot be ignored. One such player is Xavier Marshall.
Bennett King, the former West Indies coach who had vetted a host of young Australians in his time in charge of their academy, was the first to prompt his fellow selectors to take the plunge on Marshall. He was 18 at the time and had only shown his worth at age-group level, mainly in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh in 2004. Later that year, he was sent on the toughest assignment of all, to Australia, for the triangular one-day series.
It was immediately evident that, for all his gifts, Marshall wasn't ready for the leap to the highest level. It was an impression confirmed on the Test tour of Sri Lanka, when he filled the opening position vacated by those who boycotted it because of one of the several sponsorship spats with the board. He hardly managed a run against the pace of Lalith Malinga and Chaminda Vaas, failure that appeared to shake his confidence.
Marshall returned to Jamaica where disciplinary matters kept him out of the regional game for a season, a recurring problem for several young West Indian hopefuls. The fear was that another would be lost.
Even when he did come back it was only spasmodically. After making 274 runs at an average of 34 and a top score of 69 in the first five Carib Beer Cup matches this season, he was dropped for the last two, including the Challenge Final against Trinidad and Tobago.
It was hardly recommendation for another shot at the big time but a couple of innings for Jamaica in the Australians' warm-up match at Trelawney, even as seemingly trifling as 30 and 31, were reportedly enough to convince new head coach John Dyson of what his predecessor, King, had seen.
And so it came to pass that Marshall, without a first-class hundred to his name and an average in the mid-20s, was included in the second Test eleven, to the astonishment of those who don't usually credit selectors with initiative. In three of his four innings, his class has shone through. There is a touch about his strokeplay, especially his driving, and a boldness in his approach that have had hypercritical old-timers nodding in approval. They won't be entirely convinced until he proves he is capable of more than an exciting 50 or even 85, as yesterday.
They have reacted the same way with others over the past few years. Marlon Samuels, Ryan Hinds and Devon Smith come immediately to mind. All began like stars of the future. All have since pitched.
The problem is that, like Samuels, Hinds and Smith, Marshall is confined to the domestic game. Once their assignments with the West Indies are over, they head back to their islands for club cricket in sub-standard conditions against weak opposition. It is not surprising that their game stagnates.
There are now few contracts for day-to-day English county cricket, which helped polish the many diamonds who glittered in the era of excellence under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards. When Richards was selected for the 1975-76 trip to India and Pakistan, he, like Samuels and Marshall, did not have a first-class hundred to his name. A season with Somerset prior to the tour provided the necessary professional experience and grounding.
Marshall's next Test match won't be until December in New Zealand. It is unclear how he will occupy his time between now and then. He, and the many others in similar situations, need the immediate benefit of a more exposure at international level, especially on A tours that once were frequent but have gone into abeyance. They also require coaching in a full-time academy. The West Indies board has promised it for years. Its time has come.