Straw men blown away
DELHI – West Indies cricket has endured several horrendous periods over the past decade but none more horrendous than in the last week of their 2011 World Cup campaign.
This is the game’s most prestigious tournament.
It was an opportunity on a global stage to prove that their record of 13 successive One-Day International (ODI) losses to major opponents since they overcame India in Kingston, as long ago as June 2009, was a statistical aberration.
Fired by the indignity of their demotion below Bangladesh from No.9 to No.10 in the International Cricket Council (ICC) standings, the hammering they dished out to the home team in Dhaka in their third group match hinted at a renewed intensity in their approach.
It turned out, as have so many such seeming revivals, to be just an illusion.
The technical and temperamental frailties that brought about their dramatic abdication as one-time kings of the game were cruelly exposed by far tougher opponents.
Three times their batting was blown away like a shack in a hurricane, except not by a whirlwind but by the gentle breeze of spin bowling.
The consequent defeats went from bad to worse – by 18 runs to England (after the fall of the last four wickets for 11), by 80 runs to India (the last eight for 34) and by ten wickets to Pakistan (all out 112), the biggest defeat ever inflicted outside the qualifying round in any previous World Cup.
Such debacles have depressed not only West Indians, even as accustomed as we are to them.
The legacy of the great players and teams of the past earned widespread affection for West Indies cricket, especially on the sub-continent, and there was sadness about the West Indies demise here too.
A doctor from Delhi in a Brian Lara T-shirt told me he had come to Dhaka on Wednesday specifically to support his “favourite team”.
He spoke with feeling about Clive Lloyd’s 1974-75 side here, that he had seen as a schoolboy, with Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts on their initial tours.
When I passed him afterwards on the way out amidst the throng of celebrating Bangladeshis, he was as glum as the players in the maroon who traipsed off the field following their defeat.
“But they’re still my team,” he said. It was not an isolated incident these past few weeks.
They are still Ottis Gibson’s team as well – but the head coach was adamant at the media conference afterwards that not all the same players would be in it for the imminent home series against Pakistan and India.
“West Indies cricket for the last ten years has been pretty much the same and we’ve had the same players,” he noted.
He was “not especially happy” with his senior players, a euphemism for his obvious feelings. What was needed were “some senior guys who have the hunger and the desire”.
Sachin Tendulkar was his chosen examplar.
It did not require a degree in logic to identify who he was referring to. The three most experienced members of the team are Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul and none could give the lead expected of them.
Gayle’s only notable score was 80 against the Netherlands (he also missed two matches through injury) and Sarwan didn’t pass 50 once.
No such doubts could be attached to Chanderpaul, for eons the team’s most reliable batsman. But age appears to be catching up and he was so short of form he was dropped for a couple of matches.
Except to the unrealistic optimist, replacements are just not ready. They won’t be until coaching and pitch preparation everywhere improve.
For regional season after season over the past 20 years, batsmen have faltered against modest spin bowling.
The collapses witnessed in Chennai and Dhaka over the past week are often just a wicket away in regional cricket.
The current first-class tournament is typical of those of recent years. There have been 22 totals under 200 in the 23 matches to date. Spinners are, as usual, the top wicket-takers.
Guyana, homeland of Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharran and an host of other batting greats, have not managed a single hundred. Their top batsman averages 26.12.
The Leeward Islands, where Sir Vivian Richards and Richie Richardson first made their mark, have only one batsman averaging over 40.
These statistics reveal the source of the problem. Without a tough playing environment for the coming generation, there is little meaningful competition for places in the West Indies team and established players can rest on their laurels.
There is also the issue of leadership.
None of the individual territories have helped prepare a potential West Indies captain. Ryan Hinds of Barbados, Daren Ganga of Trinidad and Tobago, Tamar Lambert of Jamaica and, until January, William Cornwall of the Leewards are no longer, or never were, in that category.
So, after the incumbent Gayle and his deputy Dwayne Bravo were eliminated for foregoing offered retainer contracts and Sarwan and Chanderpaul were no longer interested following their stints at the helm, the board was left to turn to Darren Sammy.
It did so virtually by default, even appointing him for four consecutive series, an unprecedented and dodgy decision.
Although never an automatic choice in the best XI on his all-round merit, Sammy was seen as conscientious and fully committed. He was, significantly, not part of the strike by leading players prior to the home series against Bangladesh.
The hope was that he would at least maintain standards to hold his place. That has clearly not happened in his three Tests and 11 ODIs in charge.
In the World Cup, players who should have been there by right – most notably Andre Russell in the quarter-final – were omitted to accommodate him. It will happen again if he is retained, as Gibson believes he should be.
A captain stamps his authority on every team.
World Cup winners have all been identified by their skipper – Clive Lloyd, Kapil Dev, Allan Border, Imran Khan, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting.
With the spotlight on him for the first time, this World Cup has been a disaster for Sammy whose failure as player has been compounded by that of his main batsmen.
“He didn’t set out to be captain, he has been made captain and he is doing his best to lead the team,” Gibson told the media.
No doubt he is for he is not one to shy away from a challenge but that is not enough.
An alternative needs to be quickly identified and Dwayne Bravo’s reinstatement as vice-captain for the World Cup is a sign that he remains in the reckoning as an all-rounder worthy of his place.
The Pakistan series starts April 21. As Gibson observes, there is not much time for “serious decisions” to be made.