West Indies' third most-capped player, and the second in line to the captaincy, has expressed one opinion on the team's final preparations for the World Cup, now only two months away. Last week, the selectors gave another.

Following December's one-day series in Pakistan, for which he was entrusted with the vice-captaincy, Chris Gayle wrote that it was "about time" the West Indies had "a steady World Cup squad". "There is no time to experiment now," was his logical conclusion.

That would have meant choosing the World Cup 14, all to the injured Ramnaresh Sarwan, for the ODI series in India, starting next weekend.

The four matches are the last prior to the World Cup that gets underway with the West Indies meeting Pakistan at Sabina Park on March 13. The one-day games present a timely opportunity for the team to sharpen their edge in some tough contests and for the coach Bennett King and captain Brian Lara to determine the best combinations.

Above all, to have decided on the World Cup lineup at this early stage would have given peace of mind to those unsure of their places.

When the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) finally got around to officially naming the team on January 12, several days after it was disclosed on various media outlets, convenor of selectors Gordon Greenidge outlined a somewhat different scenario.

"This is our last chance to look at a few players and they have been included because you do know what might happen in the next few weeks," he explained. "We have a few injuries, and we want to have a look at a few players at international level to see what they have to offer."

The "few players" Greenidge and his colleagues want to have a final look at are Devon Smith, Darren Sammy and Reyad Emrit who replace Daren Ganga, Dwayne Smith and Corey Collymore from the Pakistan series.

Dwayne Bravo (on compassionate grounds) and Sarwan (injury) both missed the Pakistan ODIs. But while Bravo is back Sarwan has still not recovered from his fractured left foot, crushed by Umar Gul's yorker in the final Test in Pakistan on December 1.

Their absence was a severe setback in Pakistan and Sarwan's long recovery remains a genuine cause for concern. For all his problems last year, culminating in his dropping from the Test team in Pakistan, he remains an essential component in a potentially strong, but inherently inconsistent batting team. His average of 44 in 115 ODIs compares with the best of the day.

Without him in Pakistan, West Indies turned to Lendl Simmons, a talented player but still an apprentice, and have now brought back Devon Smith as cover, two and a half years after he was seen as unsuited to the abbreviated game and dropped.
Such juggling accentuates Sarwan's significance. As it is, he has not had an innings since December 1 and, since he misses the Indian series, he will be short of match practice when the World Cup comes around.

There are also injury doubts over Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Simmons, neither of whom has yet appeared in the current domestic season although both are included in the squad for India. Chanderpaul has found a new lease of life since his reinstatement as Gayle's partner in an opening pairing that is the most prolific on ODI record. His value is enhanced at the top of the order and his fitness, to be assessed before he is passed for India, is as essential as Sarwan's.

Dwayne Smith has been left out of the team for India so that Greenidge's panel can assess Sammy and Emrit, both useful allrounders, at a level higher than the 'A' team to which they have been confined.

They appear to be contesting one place in the final 14, mainly as medium-pace bowlers who can score handy lower-order runs.

Perhaps Dwayne Smith's exclusion is down to the selectors' frustration over his failure to produce more with the bat but it is inconceivable that he won't be the World Cup team.

For all his inconsistency, he remains capable of the kind of match-winning innings Collis King, a similarly explosive hitter, produced in the 1979 World Cup final. He bowls effective medium-pace and, above all, is a fielder on par with any in the contemporary game.

The value of fielding, more especially in the limited-overs game, cannot be overstated. Viv Richards' run outs of the Chappell brothers and Alan Turner were as crucial in the victory in the inaugural World Cup in 1975 as Clive Lloyd's violent hundred.

Lara's three close-in catches and a run out and Bravo's sharp run out of Andrew Strauss were mainly responsible for restricting England's score in the victorious ICC Champions Trophy final in 2004.

Roger Harper and Jonty Rhodes commanded places in their teams as much on the strength of their fielding as on their other, somewhat lesser virtues. Herschelle Gibbs and Andrew Symonds have offset lean patches with the bat by their value in the field.

If the top four in the batting - Gayle, Chanderpaul, Sarwan and Lara - are consistently at their best and build challenging totals and if the fielders support their bowlers and energise the team into limiting, or defending, totals then West Indies has a chance of winning the World Cup. Every one must play his part, one of the many aspects of their cricket that sets Australia apart.

The West Indies carry one or two slow coaches with weak arms but Smith and Bravo are two of the sharpest around in patrolling opposite side of the semi-circles during the early and mid-overs and then protecting the boundaries with their speed and power-throwing in the hectic closing stages.
If Smith has been left at home for no other reason than for the selectors "to have a look at a few players at international level to see what they have to offer", longer term inferences can be made for some who did not make the cut in the initial World Cup squad of 30.

Merv Dillon can certainly take it that his stated ambition to return to international cricket is over, as can Reon King. So, as far as the one-day version is concerned, can Pedro Collins and Tino Best. Apart from Best, they are all cricketers on the wrong side of 30 who have had their moments and are in the twilight of their careers.

Richard Kelly is at the start of his career and has been left to reflect, as so many others before him, what a fickle game it is. A regular in the 'A' team in four successive series as an energetic allrounder and seen as a strong contender for promotion as recently as a few months ago, he suddenly finds himself excluded from the top 30.

He is simply the latest West Indian to follow such an undulating path recently. Remember Donovan Pagon, Dave Bernard, Xavier Marshall? It is better he remember a few Australians who also disappeared from the selectors' radar after early recognition. Their names are Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn.