CHENNAI — The defining match of the World Cup arrives for the West Indies today (starting 5 a.m. south Caribbean time).
It is not obligatory that they beat England in the burning heat and on an unpredictable pitch at the M. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai to secure a place in the quarter-finals next week.
They can even lose it and also Sunday’s final group stage encounter, against hosts India at the same venue, and still advance on superior net run rate once Bangladesh are dismissed by powerful South Africa, as they should be, in their last group match in Dhaka on Saturday.
Head coach Ottis Gibson would take it whichever way but he won’t be entirely satisfied to wiggle through on other results. The first priority, as in any sporting contest, is obviously to win. That, by itself, would settle their quarter-final place, even if Bangladesh create an upset on Saturday.
According to Gibson, it goes further than that. After a comprehensive loss, by seven wickets, to South Africa in their opening match, the West Indies have despatched three lesser contenders — the Netherlands, Bangladesh and Ireland.
The Dutch presented no genuine challenge, Bangladesh, routed for 58, felt the wrath at their demotion below them in the ODI rankings and Ireland, the best of the associates, tested their nerves but lost.
“We did what we had to do in those matches but to go further in this tournament, and in future, we’ve got to start getting over teams ranked higher than us,” Gibson noted.
For him personally, victory would be a happy birthday present. The Barbadian, who was England’s bowling coach before taking up his present post just over a year ago, turned 42 yesterday.
Before this match, the West Indies had gone 13 ODIs, dating back to June 28, 2009 (when they beat India by eight wickets at Sabina Park), without success against such opponents – six against South Africa, four against Australia, two against Sri Lanka, one against India.
It is not that they were dominated every time. It is that they were overcome by self-doubt whenever in a tight contest. Gibson reckons they might even have won the ODI home series against South Africa last May instead of going down 5-0.
It is optimism typical of most coaches but they certainly were better placed to clinch the last two, beaten off the last ball in the first, by one wicket with two remaining in the second. Each time they froze.
To overcome England today would not only get them through to the quarter-final but start rebuilding their conviction.
As it is, England themselves have been suddenly overtaken by insecurity. Their resounding Ashes triumph over Australia was followed by a 6-1 loss in their ODI series; in this tournament, they have somehow succumbed to Ireland and Bangladesh, meaning they need to win today to keep alive their hopes of lifting the World Cup for the first time.
They start with one advantage.
It was in Chennai that they claimed their one, most notable scalp in the tournament, South Africa in a low-scoring contest that was easier to lose than win before their opponents fell apart at the end.
So they know what to expect from a surface even drier in the recent heat than it was for that match 11 days ago. The West Indies have to go on guesswork and local intelligence although everything indicates a slow, low, turner.
Injuries have left both teams below the strength they arrived with. The losses just about cancel out each other.
England’s most dangerous batsman, Kevin Pietersen, and fast bowler, Stuart Broad, are now back home. The dynamic, experienced West Indies all-rounder Dwayne Bravo was gone after the first match against South Africa in which he strained ligaments in his left knee.
Although England captain Andrew Strauss and key off-spinner Graeme Swann play, they won’t appreciate the 35 degree temperatures after spending Tuesday in bed with the gastric complaints always associated with tours of this part of the world.
For the West Indies, there is also concern over the worrying loss of form of Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Now 36 and one of the few still around in his fifth World Cup, the most dependable West Indies batsman of the past decade has laboured for his runs since returning to Sri Lanka last month for the postponed ODI series.
In two official matches and two World Cup warm-ups there, followed by his three innings in the Cup proper, he managed 109 runs off 194 balls with a best score of 35 of 62 balls against Ireland.
His strike rate of 58.82 runs per 100 balls in the Cup is the lowest among the team’s top order batsmen.
If there are extenuating circumstances they are that he has been shifted around in the order, down at No. 7 against the Netherlands, promoted to open against Ireland after Chris Gayle’s abdominal strain forced his withdrawal. His know-how is invaluable and a major innings can’t be far off. If it isn’t, Kieron Pollard and Gayle, on his return from injury, cannot be expected to take up the slack on their own, as destructive as their hitting can be.
Over the last three matches there have been encouraging signs that much else has begun to fall into place. Pollard has proved what he has stated all along – that, given the chance, he is more than just a Twenty20 hitter. Devon Smith’s hundred against Ireland was a timely, sensible and morale-boosting innings. Against the testing South African attack, Daren Bravo’s 73 was top class.
Used with the new ball, the pace-spin combination of Kemar Roach and Sulieman Benn has invirably made an early breakthrough. Under pressure against Ireland, captain Darren Sammy’s medium-pace and debutant Andre Russell’s controlled aggression intervened to check the advance.
Backed into a corner, England are bound to come hard. How Gibson’s charges respond will inform the coach at to what progress they are making as a team.