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Prime time for young players

Tony Cozier

Prime time for young players

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As the battle of attrition between the two teams seeking to move out of the lower reaches of the ICC’s rankings continues in Antigua, the annual West Indies Under-19 tournament began in Barbados yesterday, while its Under-15 equivalent is in full swing in St Kitts.
The Under-17s completed their series in Tobago a few weeks back; the annual Sir Garfield Sobers International Schools tournament in Barbados ended last Wednesday.
In the meantime, the West Indies’ Under-19 squad, picked from last year’s tournament, has assembled prior to their departure to Australia and the tenth ICC Youth World Cup in Brisbane; the Sagicor High Performance Centre (HPC) team are on their travels again in mid-September, this time to Bangladesh.
Put simply, there has never been a better time for young West Indies cricketers to prepare for futures in the game.
Ironically, such opportunities did not exist for the great players of the past. The annual Under-19 tournaments began in 1970. So did intermittent exchanges at that level with England. The young Australians toured the Caribbean in 1970 and 1990 (with one Shane Warne in their ranks).
Headley, the Ws, Ramadhin and Valentine, Sobers and Hall, for instance, went straight into the Test team from club cricket. Derek Sealy was at Combermere School in Barbados when he became the youngest West Indies Test cricketer.
It remains a mystery why, in spite of such intensive contemporary grounding, this generation takes so long to make a mark at the highest level, if they do at all.
Assad Fudadin and Narsingh Deonarine are the current examples.
Fudadin’s potential was recognized from the time he was a pre-teen. He was in the West Indies Under-15 team that won the International Costcutter Cup (the only one of its kind to date) in England in 2000, in the Under-19s that reached the World Cup final four years later and directly into the Guyana senior team.
It took him seven seasons to score his first first-class hundreds earlier this year and break into the West Indies team where he doesn’t look out of place. Still, he turns 27 on Wednesday.
Deonarine, his fellow Guyanese, was one of the leading batsmen in the 1999 regional Under-19 series in Barbados. He captained the West Indies Under-19s two years later. A bright future seemed assured.
In 99 first-class matches, dating back 12 seasons, he has just eight hundreds and a first-class average of just over 37. His 13 Tests have been spread over seven years. He has occasionally made useful runs against worthy opposition and played well in Antigua. But it’s a lot of time wasted as he turns 29 on August 16.
Fudadin and Deonarine are not, by any means the only ones in such a category.
Marlon Samuels has only now added the consistency to the class that earned him a Test debut in Australia, aged 19, after a solitary first-class match.
Along with Deonarine and Samuels, Ryan Hinds was one of the standouts among the Under-19s, leading the West Indies in the Youth World Cup in Malaysia.
His 62 on debut, aged 21, against a Pakistan attack of Waqar Younis, Shoaib Ahktar, Abdul Razzaq, Danesh Kaneria and Saqlain Mushtaq suggested a long run in the West Indies team. Instead, his Test career has effectively come to an end at 31, with a batting average of 21 and a bowling average of 66.
There are several reasons behind such stories, many outside of the game itself.
Kieran Powell’s comment following his maiden hundred in the current Test is cause for encouragement. Like many others, the 22-year-old left-handed opener credited his improvement with his stint at the High Performance Centre.
It takes more than that to turn things around for the present up-and-comer. But the HPC is the academy the West Indies once had at St George’s University in Grenada before it was summarily closed, the type that has so obviously benefited other countries.
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None of his predecessors has endured more relentless doubting of his position than West Indies captain Darren Sammy.     
It has been based mainly, but not exclusively, on the question of whether, as an all-rounder with a modest record, he merits his place in the eleven, especially as his initial appointment was for four consecutive series, whatever his performances.
That he is St Lucian has also raised the charge, unjustifiable as it may be, from cynical quarters over the perceived influence of his fellow St Lucians, West Indies Board (WICB) president Julian Hunte and the chief executive Ernest Hilaire, in his choice.
In the circumstances, Sammy has earned much widespread respect for the composed manner in which he has coped with the most challenging and complex position in world cricket at a time of the West Indies’ continuing problems.
Much of that would have been compromised by his inconceivable action at the end of the third day of the current Test against New Zealand in Antigua.
Sammy went to the wicket with four overs remaining after Denesh Ramdin was sixth out, dragging one from Doug Bracewell into his stumps.
Even before Daniel Vettori began the final over, Sammy had removed his helmet, placed his gloves inside and held it under his arm, stationary as a statue in the non-striker’s crease.
The message was clear. It was even clearer when he refused Deonarine’s palpable single to cover off the second ball.
The captain – yes, the captain – was not prepared to face another ball. His partner, the last of the recognized batsmen, would have to see the day out, as he did.
Whether out of character or not, it was a thoughtless dereliction of responsibility. It can only be presumed what those under him made of it.
Deonarine would have been rightly cross had he been that one refused run short of his maiden Test hundred at the end. And can others in the same position follow suit in future?
Sammy’s action was hardly that of “a mighty warrior confronting global force with his team of little heroes” or that of “the Worrell-like figure, leading a youthful West Indies team”, as Sir Hilary Beckles, a prominent member of the WICB executive, recently described him.
Perhaps it was an aberration, but it has added to the doubts over Sammy’s credentials as captain.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.