West Indies, while stumbling to a 4-1 defeat in New Zealand, stayed true to their losing formula: perch on the edge of a series whitewash, then avoid taking the leap with a performance that reveals the capacity to win without a miracle.
After losing the first four ODIs, they won the fifth without invoking superlatives. Dwayne Smith took 5 for 45, and pitched the high point, but it was batting to the order of thirties and forties that accumulated the runs. It was a blessing that no madness had to be induced to win the game. The win did nothing for anyone, not even for New Zealand. The previous four defeats had revealed little new, except a glimmer that Runako Morton had powered up to international standards. All else remained the same.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul's captaincy provoked more bitter criticism for his lack of strategies, and even his reaction time was rated unresponsive. In his defence, Chanderpaul tossed the hot balls back to the general area of the dressing-room, telling the media before the team left for New Zealand that, "There is not much I can do really. There are a lot of things coming from inside."
The immediate interpretation was that the insider was coach Bennett King, head of the Australian unit contracted a year ago (for a three-year period) to haul West Indies cricket back to international standards. Coming from the normally taciturn Chanderpaul, it was enough to ignite sparks of discontent. Soon Chetram Singh, the head of the Guyana Cricket Board and one of the directors of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) that had retained King, was calling for a performance review of the coaching staff to see if they were worth the million US dollars they are being paid.
By the end of January, the WICB announced it had set up an evaluation team of Desmond Haynes and three directors, Enoch Lewis and Jackie Hendricks and Deryck Murray. The committee was to report by February 15 on whether the all-Australian support staff were giving value for money. It was the day West Indies kicked off their New Zealand tour. Some questioned the timing, saying it would distract the team from the matters at hand. For most, it seemed natural that the WICB would try to keep the team in familiar circumstances by ensuring that each tour began under a cloud of uncertainty. The contract disputes which had served as grace before play for a couple of years (in 2005 alone, they blessed the VB Series, the tour of Sri Lanka and the return to Australia in October), had receded and there was an obvious need to allow the team to stick to its formula by recreating as much of the familiar environment as possible.
Soon the WICB announced it had signed off on a regional development plan designed by King, one that would provide continuous training for around 114 cricketers thereby improving relations with all of the cricket shareholders. The Brian Lara less side in New Zealand proved to be an unattractive cricket act. Attendance at matches was low, and the local media offered scathing assessments of the expected performances. Stephen Fleming threw in his two cents on their limp performance, and by then, even West Indies team members had to sing the chorus. Ramnaresh Sarwan, the vice-captain, said the team had to be more "game aware", and Fidel Edwards said it wasn't so much that New Zealand won, but that his team was contriving to lose.
King echoed Sarwan's views and felt they had to change their mode of thinking. "I think that we just have to be smarter in some of the things we do," King said, "and really knuckle down and take to heart, take to mind, take to brain some of the tactics that we've got in place and we'll be fine. We can't just keep calling it 'we'll be better with experience', we've got to start turning this around, I think we're getting closer but still not getting to the goal."
Just before the last game of the series, Brian Lara landed. He quickly strode out to bat, knocking the media for not showing respect for his team members, while reminding them of the lineage from which they had descended. He might have emphasised the importance of playing as a team, while brushing aside individual performances, but his presence will probably boost a side that still appears to be adjusting to its current field leader.
The notion that preceded the arrival of King, who was given a much broader scope of authority than his predecessors, was that he would be the architect of an Australian-modelled team, one that would produce Australian results with Caribbean style. The search seemed to be for a model that would provide a structure within which to develop the West Indian character.
Despite the authority supposedly vested in King, several other factors have railed wildly against smooth progress. The WICB has a new president, who is also chairman of its subsidiary, CWC 2007 WI Inc. which is one year away from producing the "best World Cup ever". King assumed office at a time when the WICB had declared it was struggling financially; when the chairman of the CWC had offered a hostile resignation; when contract disputes between the West Indies Players' Association (WIPA) and the board were at such daggers' ends that mediators from Caricom, the ICC and FICA had to be brought in. Lara had lost his captaincy to Chanderpaul, and it was clear it had created further divisions within the team. Sponsorship battles were not just affecting cricket, there was collateral damage throughout the region, as the small nations became the grass under warring elephants.
King couldn't have been expected to provide the lift that foreign coaches had given teams like Pakistan and India because he was thrust into an environment whose culture was one of upheaval. He could hardly have hit the ground running. Added to that is the lack of clarity. It appears that the players still don't know what they want to be. They don't know if they should be black and proud; or a team trying to gain experience; or try and emulate the winning team of 25 to 30 years ago. They don't know if they should see themselves as professionals, especially when every series comes with a stream of incompetence surrounding payments and contracts. They go out on tours and meet facilities and equipment they don't have at home. How do they feel about themselves? They don't know.
It's become a big mystery now to define what it means to be on the West Indies team. So it is for the cricket public that is drifting away in distress. The cricketers are at the heart of it, but until they can figure out what they want to be, how much they are prepared to do to get there, and how much support they will get from the administrators, the losing formula will remain. Because that has been the one constant in their lives.
Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad