COZIER ON CRICKET: Yes, WI can!
COLOMBO – On all available evidence, it was bound to be an embarrassing mismatch.
Had it been boxing, the tale of the tape was so conclusively one-sided that even Don King would have been hard-pressed to sell it as a genuine contest. Yet upsets, save those involving shifty bookmakers, are what make all sport so fascinating and the West Indies were close to creating one last week.
If they couldn’t seal the deal, they were clearly ahead on points when the rain brought an end to the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle on Friday. They achieved such a position because they ignored the gloomy pre-match predictions and simply set about giving of their best.
They were woefully short of match practice but they had prepared diligently, both physically and mentally, at their preparation camp in Barbados and in the few days they had in Sri Lanka.
There were a host of young players all eager to establish themselves – Darren Bravo and Andre Russell on debut, Adrian Barath on his return, Kemar Roach as spearhead of the attack in the infancy of his career, Shane Shillingford as, for the time being at least, the lone spinner.
Carlton Baugh was back as Test keeper after six years waiting, a chance he must have thought had pass him by. There was a new captain, Darren Sammy, keen as mustard, perhaps overly keen, to bring his promised “energy, fighting spirit and passion” to the post.
Perennial rock Shivnarine Chanderpaul remained as the perennial rock in the middle along with his soulmate, Brandan Nash, now with the added responsibility of the vice-captaincy.
Then there was Chris Gayle. Aware of general doubts over his commitment that predictably followed his rejection of the board’s offer of a retainer contract and his replacement as captain but, above all, the value of his decade as the one settled opening batsman, he created an innings of 333 that was monumental in every sense.
It was deliberate confirmation of his assertion that West Indies cricket remains at the heart of his being, however his sometimes ill-chosen comments and his reputation as Mr Cool are interpreted.
He spoke pointedly when presented with the Player of the Match award of the support he received from Barath and Bravo junior in century partnerships. It was, of course, the other way round.
In recent times, Gayle’s opening partners have been the aging Travis Dowlin and Dale Richards while the exiled (hopefully temporarily) Ramnaresh Sarwan has been at No.3. Young batsmen like Barath and Bravo need Gayle’s experience to feed off.
While the West Indies appreciated how tough the task would be, the Sri Lankans were the ones who weren’t properly primed, as captain Kumar Sangakkara clearly hinted afterwards.
“Our attitude probably in the first two sessions was a bit wanting,” he said. It was a typical understatement, but it was not difficult to get his full meaning.
His team, after all, is at No. 3 on the ICC Test rankings and was just back from trouncing Australia in Australia, albeit in short-format matches.
The opposition, floundering at No. 7 throughout the first decade of the century, had been beaten in their five previous Tests in Sri Lanka and had never won here. In the end, the West Indies couldn’t deliver the knockout punch because they lacked all the necessary combinations.
Gayle’s second triple hundred, that elevated him into the elite company of Brian Lara, Don Bradman and Virender Sewag, was more than half the total that initially shook the Sri Lankans.
When he finally fell, a flurry of blows was needed to add another 100 or so to 566 for six. Instead, the tail was swept away by the magic of the flicking fingers of Ajantha Mendis. Roach, fast and incisive, and Shillingford, with his variations of spin and bounce, were as singularly influential with the ball as Gayle with the bat.
Between them they secured ten of the 14 wickets taken in the press to complete the domination. Twenty were required.
In only his eighth Test, Roach had the scalps of the top four of Sri Lanka’s classy top order. At 22, he continues to develop into one of the game’s foremost fast bowlers. Shillingford, in his fourth Test, kept posing questions throughout his 63.2 overs. But both lacked the penetrative support essential for such apprentices.
In Roach’s case, Andre Russell was his accomplice in his debut Test while Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor remained back in the Caribbean hopefully recovering from recurring injuries.
Shillingford was obliged to do without the spin partner of his three previous Tests, Sulieman Benn, who had to watch from beyond the boundary as he served his disciplinary ICC suspension.
The West Indies were also hindered by five missed catches. The most telling, sharp as it was, came to Sammy’s right at slip off Shillingford early on the last day when the left-handed opener Thushara Paranavitana was 53.
The total was 112 for two, the deficit was still 90, Roach had just taken care of Tilakeratne Dilshan and Sangakkara and ample time remained. Earned respect It was the standard of its all-round fielding that earned respect here for the under strength West Indies of 2005, severely depleted by the first of the damaging players’ strikes.
No team, but especially this one with its limitations, can afford to again let off batsmen the calibre of Sangakkara, Paranavitana, Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera, as they did here.
Sammy had a difficult induction into the captaincy, out first ball, wicketless with the ball and that missed chance. Even as he was appointed, unsympathetic bloggers were doubting that he was worth his place in the side. On the evidence of his first Test, he needs to show more faith in his own ability.
He limited himself to 20 overs of the 176 Sri Lanka batted. Only once in his eight previous Tests had he bowled fewer. With Benn most likely to return in place of Russell for the second Test, starting on Tuesday in Colombo, Sammy must lead from the front, take the new ball with Roach and put more of the energy he speaks of as captain into his bowling than he did in Galle.
Otherwise, he will continue to be referred to as the “non-playing captain” by those who delight in internet denigration. At least he can point to the fact that he was able to make superior opponents follow on in his first Test as skipper. Not many others of late can make that boast.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.