Wednesday, December 25, 2013

West Indies need Test cricket solutions

Theoretically at least, this piece could have been different. After Sunil Narine’s tremendous efforts in the first innings of the third test against New Zealand in Hamilton, there was a bonafide chance of the West Indies setting the home team an uncomfortable target on a pitch that was spinning like a top. Theoretical indeed, because as far as the West Indian batting in the long form is concerned, batting collapses have unfortunately become the norm. In stead of looking back at a fantastic victory to tie the series, the Kiwis ruthlessly dispatched the visitors to win the series 2-0, with only rain in the first test preventing the abject West Indian team from being humiliated 3-0.

After beating the same opponents 2-0 at home last year, there was genuine belief that the West Indies were finally ready to become credible opposition in the long form after years of underachievement brought about by substandard play on the field aligned with a casual disregard for the purest form of the game off the field. Sadly, that series victory has turned out to be another false dawn, as the Windies reverted to type by losing consecutive series away to India and New Zealand since November. I don’t think any cricket fan in their right mind would have predicted the Windies winning either of the tours, but a lack of application coupled with an absence of fighting spirit led to some embarrassing defeats for their legions of fans in the Caribbean as well as the many neutrals around the cricketing world who still consider West Indies to be their second team.

As the disparity between the top teams and the rest continues to grow in test cricket, the West Indies face a monumental challenge to get back to the pinnacle of the game they dominated with such swagger through the 70’s and 80’s. Nonetheless, the team can at least be competitive with a blend of intelligent policy and sensible selection. Here I outline a few steps that the West Indies need to take to improve their performance in test cricket.

Play more test cricket

Before the back to back tours to India and New Zealand, the only test cricket West Indies played this year was a test series against Zimbabwe at home. The Windies won both tests convincingly. Considering the fact that the only long form cricket the players are exposed to include the Red Stripe Bowl and two matches against one of the few teams ranked below them, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that the West Indies were thoroughly humiliated on the recent tours. A challenging test series against Sri Lanka was sacrificed in favour of a lucrative yet ultimately futile triangular series that included India.

Despite the increasing amount of domestic Twenty20 competitions attracting the best Caribbean cricketers, The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) should ensure that next summer’s scheduled tests at home to New Zealand and Bangladesh are played. These five tests are going to be crucial in the development of the team, which still has many players under the age of 25. With tours to India and South Africa in the latter half of 2014, it would certainly help if the West Indian batsmen accumulate some experience leaving balls outside off stump in stead of throwing away their wickets to rash dismissals.

Get the fast bowlers fit

Tino Best has gained a lot of currency on the back of his heroic 95 batting at number 11 against England last summer. On top of that many fans seem to love his personality, but lost in the sideshow is the fact that his bowling remains as infuriating as it was when he began his career — too much oomph, too little direction.

Kemar Roach is a fast bowler good enough to grace any team in Test cricket right now, and for a team such as the West indies losing him for an entire series is incomprehensible. If Roach is fit and firing, the Windies chances of being competitive increase exponentially. Pairing Roach with either Ravi Rampaul or Fidel Edwards, should at least ensure that the West Indies don’t concede runs at ODI run rates. It might also be worth giving young Jason Holder a go in the team. Holder has already proved himself in limited overs cricket, and will at least bowl with more confidence and control than either Shannon Gabriel or Sheldon Cottrell. If the fast bowlers hold fort, then Sunil Narine can learn to adjust his bowling to test cricket without being under pressure.

Drop the under performers

Kirk Edwards is 29, and averages 35 in 12 test matches. Narsingh Deonarine is 30, and averages 25 in 18 matches. Kraigg Brathwaite is only 21, and still has time on his side, but after 10 tests, he averages only 22. These numbers simply aren’t good enough to sustain a place in an international batting line-up. It’s one thing to be patient and give players a chance, but the worrying thing is that these three keep repeating the same mistakes to put the team in a precarious position. The question then becomes who can replace them? Could it be ....

Get the Twenty20 stars in

It’s not as if the supposed Test specialists are grinding out long innings and eating up valuable time. If West Indies are going to play aggressive cricket, might as well use the stars that are making decisive impacts in the shortest form of the game. All it takes is a session of good aggression to change the direction of a test match, and amongst their sidelined stars, the West Indies possess batsmen who are not afraid of intimidating bowlers with bold stroke play.

He seems to have been pigeonholed as a Twenty20 specialist, but surely with the right attitude, Kieron Pollard can contribute more than Deonarine’s frankly pathetic average of 25? Pollard also brings with him a winning mentality that has been forged by the Calypso King’s successful World T20 triumph as well as repeated success with the Mumbai Indians.

Even more beguiling is the omission of Dwayne Bravo. Here is a man good enough to be considered ODI captain by the WICB, yet completely overlooked from the Test setup for at least three years now. Bravo himself has declared that he is ready to play test cricket. The prevailing argument against his inclusion is that the team can’t accommodate both Bravo and Sammy in the playing eleven. Frankly, this is a red herring, because Bravo can easily slot in at either number five or six in the batting order, and the fact that he has 86 test wickets only serves to provide Sammy with another useful bowling option.

Finally, I hope Sunil Narine’s brilliant performance against New Zealand in Hamilton has sealed his place as the frontline spinner for the West Indies in all forms of the game. I won’t deny his exceptional prowess in the shortest form of the game, but despite an unflattering average of 40, he has two 5-wicket hauls in 11 innings. Surely that sort of wicket-taking potential should be nurtured and given time to flourish in test cricket.

Sammy has to improve with the bat

Despite his many detractors and some valid criticisms, it can’t be denied that Darren Sammy has brought a certain amount of respectability to West Indian cricket, after a period where the men from the Caribbean had become the laughing stock of world cricket. Sammy isn’t a brilliant tactician by any means, but he is really good at encouraging his men, and also plays with whole-hearted commitment himself.

Sammy is an excellent catcher in the slip cordon, and is also probably the best fielder in the Test team. An average of 22 batting at number eight isn’t to be scoffed at, although with his range of strokes it isn’t unfair for Windies fans to ask more from him with the bat. In the first test against the Black Caps at Dunedin, Sammy proved that he has it in him to knuckle down and put a price on his wicket by scoring 80 priceless runs which helped West Indies draw the match in the face of certain defeat. What Sammy now needs to do is knuckle down more often and start to consistently provide 30’s and 40’s at the least. If Sammy doesn’t contribute with the bat, his bowling alone is certainly not upto test standard, and sooner or later the WICB will have to make a decision on his place in the team and by extension his captaincy. Such a scenario can only result in further decline in test cricket for the West Indies. Sammy simply has to stand up and be counted.
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