Lip service to Test cricket
THE World Twenty20 title was the unquestionable highlight of 2012 for West Indies cricket and, not least, for Darren Sammy whose contribution in the final, as captain and player, earned him the respect previously denied him.
Yet, whatever else, Sammy is clearly a realist. While West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) president Julian Hunte boasted that West Indies “are world champions again after a period of drought”, Sammy was less gung ho.
“The T20 win doesn’t mean West Indies is back on top,” he told the website, cricinfo. “We have to beat Australia, England and South Africa. Once we start doing that consistently, the team will be heading in the right direction.”
Events in the three most recent Test series, a glance at the International Cricket Council’s Future Tours Programme (FTP) and the WICB’s recent indication of what it regards as the game’s most important formats, emphasise the size of the gap and the timeline that needs to be bridged before West Indies come close to fulfilling Sammy’s hopes.
South Africa are consolidating their No. 1 Test position after ousting England last summer. They overcame Australia in a hard-fought, away series in November and December and have just blown away New Zealand for 45 in their first innings and a two-to-one defeat in the first Test in Cape Town, the same New Zealand swept 2-0 by the West Indies in the Caribbean last July and August.
England completed their first victory in a series in India for 30 years in November and December to stay No. 2. The three Tests in New Zealand in March should comfortably secure their spot.
After challenging South Africa strongly, but unsuccessfully, for top place in their three home Tests, Australia are now set to complete a 3-0 clean sweep of Sri Lanka, ranked No. 6, five points above the West Indies.
Even without Chris Gayle, Marlon Samuels and Sunil Narine, all engaged in the Indian Premier League (IPL) at the time, the West Indies pressed Australia hard last season. According to Australian coach Mickey Arthur “they have gone toe-to-toe with us, haven’t taken a step backwards and provided us with some stern resistance”. They were similarly competitive in England; still they were beaten 2-0 in each with one match drawn.
So when do they have the chance again to test Sammy’s criterion? The answers are, not for a while yet and without ideal preparation.
South Africa are first on the ICC schedule, for three Tests, five One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and two Twenty20s there in December 2014-January 2015.
There are contests against England and Australia, each confined to five ODIs. The next time the West Indies meet England and Australia in Tests is for three each in the Caribbean from April through June, 2015. A return to Australia for three Tests is not on the cards again until 2015-2016, six years after the previous series there.
These are certain to be tough assignments. They first require toughening against strong opponents; between now and then, the only one presently in that category is fourth-ranked Pakistan, for a couple of Tests (along with five ODIs and two Twenty20s) in July and August.
The others along the way are Zimbabwe (two Tests, three ODIs, two Twenty20s) this February and March; New Zealand, who were just in the Caribbean, home and away between next December and July 2014 (overall six Tests, ten ODIs, four Twenty20s), Bangladesh, again, (two Tests, three ODIs, one Twenty20) at home in August 2014 and a tour of India (three Tests, five ODIs, one Twenty20) in October and November 2014.
The couple of Tests against Sri Lanka, which were on the FTP for April and May, would have been a handy litmus test for where the West Indies stand following their encouraging sweeps over New Zealand and Bangladesh last year. Instead, in deference to the pervasive IPL and its six-figure paychecks for six weeks’ play, the WICB has agreed to jettison these for a later triangular series of ODIs, also involving India.
The limited-overs versions (either 50 or 20) are patently not the grounding players require for Test cricket. Bowlers are confined to a maximum of 10 overs in the former case, with new white balls in use for either end, or four in the latter. Batting technique is based purely on attack, not defence; bowling the opposite.
It can do little for the development of those promising West Indians in their early 20s such as Kieran Powell, Daren Bravo and Adrian Barath or of Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Delorn Johnson.
The global spread and influence of T20 is an emotional subject. It is widely regarded as a threat to Test cricket, a view not diminished by boards which proclaim Test cricket’s “paramouncy” but, like the West Indies and Sri Lanka, are yet quick to scrap a Test series.
Arjuna Ranatunga, the former Sri Lanka captain, was never one for holding back. Calling T20 the “biggest fungus” that “must be removed”, he has been especially scathing about the effect it is having on the game.
He used the IPL and India’s sharp decline in Test cricket (whitewashed 4-0 by England and Australia in 2011-12) to make his point.
“There isn’t a single Indian spinner who can turn the ball,” he has said. “I think this is because the IPL makes you bowl flat.” Sunil Narine’s contrasting returns in the separate formats make his point that success in Tests, batting or bowling, requires experience.
Ranatunga described some modern batsmen as “looking like real butchers” and said that, if the trend is not addressed, Indian cricket will get into a major mess in a few years, adding that Sri Lankan cricket is already there.
He pointed the finger of blame at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) “which has made the Indian team ill-prepared for Tests with its promotion of T20 cricket”.
South Africa, England and Australia all have their T20 leagues but their priorities remain Tests, as they make it plain to their players.
As the money rolls in from the new Verus International T20 franchise deal, television rights holders that press for the shorter, all-action types and the IPL call the tune, the WICB needs to consider how to fit Test cricket into its increasingly crowded schedule.
Or, indeed, whether there is still place for it at all.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.