Many had written St Lucia Zouks off after Chris Gayle had pulled out of CPL 2020 owing to personal reasons. Visa and travel restrictions meant that South Africans Colin Ingram, Anrich Nortje and Rilee Rossouw along with Afghanistan teenage sensation Noor Ahmad were also not available for the tournament. However, coach Andy Flower and captain Daren Sammy have all but rallied Zouks to the CPL playoffs.
Zouks' bouncebackability particularly came to the fore against the defending champions Barbados Tridents on Saturday. After being rolled over for 92 in 18 overs, they struck back through their spinners and slower bowlers to pull off a coup, defending the lowest-ever total in the CPL. Central to the victory were T20 veteran Mohammad Nabi and T20 newbie Roston Chase.
With Tridents needing 15 off 17 balls, Nabi held an offbreak back, drew Corey Anderson out of his crease and had him bowled for 11. Chase then dismissed Ashley Nurse for 12 and defended eight off the final over to complete an improbable heist.
Flower delivered a glowing appraisal of both Nabi and Chase, who have stepped up to plug the Gayle-sized hole. Nabi, the first pick in this season's CPL draft, has done nearly everything for Zouks: He bowls the tough overs in the Powerplay and in the slog, and has also delivered huge blows with the bat at the back end of the innings. The Afghan has been the Man of the Match in three of the five wins that Zouks have notched up so far. Chase, who has bagged one Match of the Match award of his own this season, has thrived with his steady accumulation with the bat and offspin on the slow, low tracks.
"Well, it was a blow - Gayle pulling out," Flower said. "He had his reasons and everyone respected those reasons and [with] five wins in seven [matches], it has been a really great start to the tournament for us and I don't think many people would have given us much of a chance. So the key to our success so far in the tournament, I think, have been a couple of our senior players really standing up consistently. Nabi has done that with the ball and the bat. He has opened the bowling and is only going at six an over in the tournament while bowling in the Powerplay and also picking up wickets.
"And the other standout performer for us has been Roston Chase, who only came in as a late replacement for an overseas batsman that we didn't get because of visa problems. We thought we can do with that type of player who probably isn't recognised as an outstanding T20 cricketer, but has really stood up like the smart cricketer he is with his very good all-round game. I think those two offspinning allrounders have been the keys for us."
While Nabi has been there and done that in other premier T20 leagues, including the BBL and IPL, Chase has been learning on the job. After being perceived as a red-ball player and not getting a CPL gig last year, he showed that he can succeed in white-ball cricket as well. Flower said that he was particularly impressed with how Chase has nailed his yorkers. Under immense pressure against Tridents, Chase got away with a brace of full-tosses but he did deliver an excellent wide yorker off the penultimate ball to set up victory.
"I think he has worked well with our captain Daren Sammy in the middle just formulating tactics through the 20 overs," Flower said. "What he has showed is that he has a good technique and he has used those foundation and basics really well out there to establish the innings for us. And then with the ball, he has been outstanding for us. He has taken wickets and bowled in pressure situations towards the end of games. He has shown real skills in getting yorkers in, especially wide yorkers, and therefore restricting one side of the field."
Sammy, however, is yet to hit form with the bat, but Flower downplayed it and backed the captain to contribute as Zouks go deeper into the tournament. So far, Sammy has managed a mere 12 runs in six innings at a strike rate of 52.17 and is yet to bowl as well.
"He's an inspirational figure - coming from a small island and being the first St Lucian for play for West Indies and then captain West Indies, got two T20 World Cups, and he's done some outstanding things as a leader for West Indies and as a role model for young St Lucian cricketers," Flower said. "Yes, he'd have liked to bash a few more balls down there at No. 7 or 8, but that hasn't happened yet. He's bowling in training and we used young Javelle Glen for three overs. Who knows Sammy could yet bowl a couple of overs that could turn a match for us this tournament."
'Batsmen haven't dealt with spin skillfully'
The pitches at the Brain Lara Cricket Academy have offered some tennis-ball bounce to seamers, while the ones at Queen's Park Oval have been slow and low, messing with the timing of batsmen. Flower, who was a fine batsman against spin during his own playing career, reckoned the lengthy downtime for players in the lead-up to resumption and injudicious shot selection from batsmen were responsible for low scores this season.
"The pitches have been quite tricky, but from what I understand the pitches at the Queen's Park Oval are usually quite tricky and useful to bowl spin on," he said. "So, I don't think that has been any great surprise for anyone. I don't think people have batted as well as they could've to be honest. The spinners have dominated, which is usually what happens in the Caribbean. But, the batsmen haven't been able to deal with that spin particularly skillfully."
However, in isolation, Kieron Pollard and Nicholas Pooran have got the better of spinners, showing that these tracks aren't unplayable. Flower felt that the batsmen could benefit if they rotate the strike better and punish the bad balls.
"We saw an innings from Pooran [against St Kitts & Nevis Patriots] who showed what can be done if you make the right decisions, have a solid technique and you are willing to use your brain as a batsman," Flower said.
"I think if you can alternate strike of spin bowlers' better balls, that's a good place to start. We've seen Nabi do that and that allows him to get in and get used to the pace of the wicket. And better players have cashed in when the spinners have overpitched. It hasn't been that easy to pull the ball on these pitches - over at the Queen's Park Oval it has been low - but when spin bowlers have overpitched, the more powerful players have cashed in over extra-cover or back over his head and then obviously using the leg side as well."
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo