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Tony Cozier

Where are the promising West Indies batsmen?

The pitches in the first-class competition aren't encouraging batting talent, thereby prolonging the struggle to replace Gayle and Chanderpaul

Tony Cozier
Tony Cozier
Jermaine Blackwood targets the leg side, West Indies v Bangladesh, 2nd Test, St. Lucia, 3rd day, September 15, 2014

Jermaine Blackwood, who made a good impression in his debut Test series, has only averaged 27 so far in the PCL  •  WICB Media Photo/Randy Brooks

For those everywhere who belong to the extended informal West Indies Cricket Admiration Society, the loss to Ireland in the World Cup opener and Friday's trouncing at the hands of AB de Villiers and his merciless South Africans would have been as depressing as it is for West Indians themselves.
The constantly repeated cliché that "world cricket needs a strong West Indies" is based on fond memories of the unique brand of excitement provided by their great teams and players of the past. They filled the stands everywhere they went, once with 90,800 Australians on the Saturday of a Test at the MCG and close to 100,000 Indians whenever they played at Eden Gardens; through the 1980s they were not only widely popular but unbeatable.
Such heady days have long since passed. The game in the Caribbean has plunged into such decline that the results against unheralded Ireland and South Africa were not surprising. They were similarly thrashed by de Villiers and his accomplices in South Africa in the ODIs immediately preceding the World Cup; they haven't won a Test series over a team higher in the ICC rankings since 2009.
They won the first two World Cups and were denied by a combination of plucky Indian opponents and their own complacency in the third; they have made it to the semi-finals only once since, in 1996.
They must now prepare to replace their two most experienced and valuable batsmen. On the evidence of domestic cricket, the cupboard is all but bare.
Chris Gayle, the strapping left-handed opener, has created global star status with his extrovert personality and intimidating power-hitting; Shivnarine Chanderpaul is his antithesis, a steadfast, understated accumulator of runs whose average in a Test career now in its 21st year is an imposing 52.33.
After 103 Tests, 267 ODIs and 45 Twenty20 Internationals since his debut 15 years ago, Gayle is battling a chronic, recurring back injury and a board never capable of dealing with his ego; his 215 against Zimbabwe in the West Indies' third match was a World Cup record. It provided a reminder of his finest days when he compiled two Test triple-hundreds and a total of 38 hundreds in the game's three formats.
Given the circumstances, he is likely to retire from international cricket after the World Cup and concentrate on franchise T20 tournaments for which he is in constant demand. He declined a West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) retainer contract in January, a sure hint of his intentions. Chanderpaul is contracted. He is such a determined competitor and so vital to West Indies' middle order that to lose him in close proximity to Gayle would utterly undermine the fragile batting.
He is now 40. In the current first-class season, there have been signs that the physical demands of international cricket across the planet are finally taking their toll. His highest score in eight innings for Guyana is 77, his average 41.50.
Belatedly moving to stop the rot, the WICB initiated the Professional Cricket League (PCL) last year. For the first time, it made 90 players from the six territorial teams, not already under international contract, full-time professionals and extended the annual season from one - clearly inadequate - round to two.
It was an opportunity for the young generation to press their claims for promotion into the Test and ODI teams. The problem was that the professionalism did not extend to the improved preparation of pitches that have remained slow turners, top-heavy in favour of spinners, stifling the natural flair of batsmen.
The absence of 17 leading players - those in South Africa and the World Cup along with five from the IPL who made themselves unavailable for their Trinidad and Tobago team - has further diminished the standard.
After seven rounds, seven of the ten leading wicket-takers are spinners. Veerasammy Permaul, the left-armer, is on top with 46, his Guyana team-mate Devendra Bishoo has 36. Both are discarded Test men.
Kraigg Brathwaite, the 22-year-old Barbados opening batsman with Chanderpaul's characteristic of substance above style, has been the only one of those in their early and mid-20s to assert himself as a Test player should.
On his return from the Tests in South Africa, he gathered hundreds in each innings against Guyana to follow a first round 182 against Trinidad and Tobago, increasing his average from five matches to 86.
Second and third on the list are the 30-plus left-handers Devon Smith and Narsingh Deonarine who were both recalled for the South Africa Tests when Gayle and Darren Bravo withdrew. Chief selector Clive Lloyd and his panel had nowhere else to turn.
Jermaine Blackwood, an aggressive Jamaican right-hander, and Leon Johnson, a stylish left-hander from Guyana, created favourable impressions in the home Tests against New Zealand and Bangladesh last June and August and in South Africa in December and January without managing a sizeable score.
They faltered on return to the PCL, each averaging 27 after seven rounds, so the selectors' options when Darren Bravo's hamstring strain eliminated him from the World Cup were between Deonarine and Johnson Charles, 26, a poor man's Gayle as stand-and-deliver opener with two hundreds in 30 ODIs.
On the strength of his record on the A team's tour of Sri Lanka last October, left-hander Jonathan Carter was introduced for the first time, at 27, for the ODIs in South Africa and the World Cup. Nothing suggested he is an answer to the pressing batting conundrum.
The quality of the PCL, as well as the 50-overs tournament in January, is best judged through the team totals. In the former, there have been 24 under 200 and five under 100, against nine over 300, including three over 400; in the latter there were 11 under 200 in 13 completed matches, among them Guyana's 65 all out in the final against Trinidad and Tobago created by Sunil Narine's 8-3-9-6 spell.
All the while, divisions within the WICB and its constant conflict and controversy in dealings with the leading players rumble in the background. It is still to deal with a US$42 million compensation claim from the BCCI following the team's abandonment of the scheduled tour in October.
It is not a pretty picture.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years