Key series for both teams
By Tony Cozier | Sun, July 22, 2012 - 12:00 AM
For a variety of reasons, the two forthcoming Tests between the West Indies and New Zealand rank as little more than an irrelevancy as international sporting – indeed cricketing – contests go.
Yet, for the teams, mainly the West Indies, they hold special significance. They are embarrassingly placed at Nos.7 and 8 on the International Cricket Council (ICC) Test table. Defeat and, with it, self-doubt have become habitual. It is the chance, against like opponents, to change the pattern.
For the West Indies to be beaten, or even draw, at home would be a setback to their clear improvement in successive series against more powerful sides in the past nine months – India in India, Australia in the Caribbean and England in England.
While they set out encouraged by results in the foregoing One Day International series (2-0 in the Twenty20s, 4-1 in the ODIs) and by New Zealand’s struggles in the current three-day preparation match at the same Sir Vivian Richards Ground where the first Test starts Wednesday, they know full well the dangers of complacency.
New Zealand have never been a cricketing power, as they unquestionably are in rugby, but they are fighters seldom easily beaten. Above all others, the West Indies appreciate this; they haven’t won a Test, far less a series, against them since Courtney Walsh’s team did so by ten wickets at Kensington Oval in 1996; they’ve lost five in the interim.
Another factor in the equation is the palpable difference between limited-overs and Test cricket.
For the West Indies, it was most recently evident in their home series against Australia. They shared the ODIs 2-2 only to follow with the 2-0 loss in the Test series when the Australians had the time, not available in the shorter game, to recover from tight situations.
New Zealand captain Ross Taylor has made the observation in relation to Sunil Narine, the high quality each-way spinner who mesmerized his batsmen in the short-format matches in the same way he did the Australians in March and Kolkata Knight Riders rivals in the Indian Premier League in April.
Taylor’s point was that he and his teammates would be able to pay more attention to Narine in the long game, rather than having to look to score off him as they were obliged to do in the Twenty20s and ODIs. He might have been whistling in the dark for they just managed to eek out 2.32 runs an over in the ODIs as Narine snared 13 wickets. Whatever else, Narine’s presence is a telling psychological advantage for the West Indies.
Apart from the Narine dynamic, there are vital personnel changes from the ODIs, three on each side, all with established records. Individually and together, they represent a decided boost in strength and experience.
Kemar Roach, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Chris Gayle are back for the West Indies, Daniel Vettori, Chris Martin and Brendon McCullum for New Zealand. The former have 253 Tests between them, the latter 243.
After the unnecessary, protracted controversy that disqualified him from selection, Gayle (91 Tests, 6 373 runs, 13 hundreds) brings his daunting approach back to the top of the order, for the first time in a Test since December 2010. In his absence, the role has been filled by Adrian Barath, Kraigg Brathwaite and Kieran Powell, fledglings not yet up to the task.
The enduring, dependable Shivnarine Chanderpaul (143 Tests, 10 290 runs, 25 hundreds) also returns to shore up the fragile middle order, potentially even more brittle while Darren Bravo’s groin strain prevents his involvement.
A mere boy by comparison (19 Tests, 70 wickets), Roach has recovered from the shin problem that kept him out of the last Test in England last month. He provides genuine pace and penetration to the bowling and, on the evidence of his four-wicket return in the current first-class match in Antigua, is ready to lead the attack as he did against Australia in April and England in May and June prior to his injury.
New Zealand’s changes are equally significant, none more so than the arrival of Vettori. Confirmation was quick in coming as he dispatched Barath, Powell and Kirk Edwards in Antigua yesterday.
In his 111 Tests, the former captain has become one of Test cricket’s most reliable all-rounders. His forte, subtle left-arm spin, has brought him 359 wickets; his effective, if awkward, left-handed batting 4 486 runs. He is not easily shifted, either with bat or ball.
McCullum, originally chosen only for the Tests, was drafted in as a late replacement in the last couple of ODIs for one of the several Black Caps’ injuries. With 64 Tests behind him, he sacrificed his wicket-keeping over the past two years to concentrate on his role as a belligerent No. 3 batsman whose potential effect is not dissimilar to Gayle’s. Like Gayle, he is dangerous.
As with Chanderpaul, Martin keeps rolling on. He is 36, the age at which fast bowlers are confined to veterans’ matches or walking sticks, but remains New Zealand’s first choice with the new ball that has brought him most of his 236 wickets in 68 Tests.
These six are the nucleus of the teams. Others will surely feature – the most likely for the West Indies Narine, the born again Marlon Samuels, perhaps Powell, once he can appreciate the requirements of Test cricket; for New Zealand, the talented 21-year-old Kane Williamson, the much-hyped, South African-born left-arm swinger Neil Wagner, Doug Bracewell, the strapping quick from a strong cricketing lineage.
Between two evenly matched teams, the contests are likely to be close and competitive, the quality of play, as always, dependent on the quality of the pitches. In that regards, reports from Antigua on the surface for the current match are not hopeful.
It is disappointing that the appeal of the series is compromised, not only by the ICC’s condescension to two matches but by other more high-profile sporting events.
One of the main reasons is unfortunate timing.
While the teams rated on the ICC table at Nos.7 and 8, out of ten, seek rare success against each other in Antigua and Jamaica, Nos.1 and 2, England and South Africa, are simultaneously engaged in a series for supremacy in England.
Far more distracting is sport’s foremost extravaganza, the Olympic Games, that open in London on Friday, second day of the first Test and continue until several days after the New Zealanders leave.
To heighten the effect, the semi-finals and finals of the men’s and women’s 100 metres and the men’s 400 metres are scheduled smack in the middle of the second Test in Kingston. In each, several West Indians, even more globally famous and adored than the region’s great cricketers once were, are among those favoured for gold medals, albeit competing for their individual territories.
While the Jamaicans, Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake are hurtling down the track like human cheetahs in the 100 metres final at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday, August 5, it will be 3:50 p.m. in Jamaica, 50 minutes into the last session of the fourth day at Sabina Park.
It would be an idea, probably too extreme, for the two boards to agree to a break in play and arrange to have the race relayed on the big screen so that anyone at the cricket can watch.
That is, if there is anyone there.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.
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