Had he watched the early matches in the Caribbean Twenty20 from his luxury villa on Barbados’ west coast this past week, Verus International’s head honcho Ajmal Khan might have wondered just what he got himself into, splurging millions of his merchant bank’s money for the licence to replace the West Indies Cricket Board’s tournament with his own.
Even for the game’s most abbreviated version, the cricket transmitted globally on ESPN has been, not to put too fine a point on it, appalling.
The first regional tournament since the West Indies’ joyous triumph in the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka last year stirred understandably high expectations. ESPN promoted it as the “most competitive and celebrated”; it has fallen well short.
Rain that had drenched Port of Spain for months, and was never far away, left sluggish pitches off which the ball seamed and turned. Yet only the Trinidadians, comfortable in their own environment at the Queen’s Park Oval, appreciated the need to adjust; for the others, there were mainly two options, block or slog. For as many high catches that were taken in the deep, almost as many were dropped.
In the first 11 matches up to Friday, there were seven totals under 100. Barbados, homeland of the Three Ws, Sobers and a host of other batting icons, were routed by spin, for 66 by Guyana and, after enduring a hat-trick off their first three balls in the next match, kept to 99 for eight by the Combined Campuses and Colleges (CCC) in their second successive defeat; the Leewards, which gave the world Viv Richards and Richie Richardson, eeked out 87 against Barbados, 92 for eight against Trinidad and Tobago. CCC fell for 94 against Trinidad and Tobago and 87 against the Windwards. Jamaica folded for 72 against Barbados.
The average run rate was six an over and that only boosted by the 7.13 of Trinidad and Tobago, the defending champions, who included six of the West Indies World Twenty20 squad in Sri Lanka and were in a different class to the others.
Jamaica were undoubtedly handicapped by the absence of two major, experienced Twenty20 batsmen, Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels, on duty for Sydney and Melbourne franchise teams in Australia’s Big Bash but no one seized the chance to capably fill the breach.
The four individual scores over 50 were by those with West Indies credentials – CCC’s Chadwick Walton’s unbeaten 99 against Guyana, 65 not out by Darren Bravo and 62 by Lendl Simmons for Trinidad and Tobago against the Leewards, Narsingh Deonarine’s 57 for Guyana against the CCC.
Keiran Powell, scorer of hundreds in each innings of a Test at Bangladesh last November and, at 23, one of the most realistic hopes for the future, was out to the first ball of the innings in each of the Leewards first two matches. His downfall in the first, as it was in two Tests last year, was again caused by a hook; it is a dismissal all fast bowlers have already taken note of and needs eliminating.
Jonathan Carter, a West Indies “A” team player and another long-term aspirant, was out for 0 and 1, the latter a wild, top-edged slog to point to make Barbados five for four against CCC.
This was not how it was meant to be. The principal purpose of Twenty20 is entertainment – or, in the typically contemporary jargon, “crickentertainment”. It should feature six-hitting, dazzling catching and slick-fielding, all supported by gyrating cheerleaders, indulgent DJs and now, it seems, further augmented by shirt-tugging initiated by Marlon Samuels and the finger-pointing, ball-tossing, broadcast profanities of superstar Shane Warne in a Big Bash match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last week before a crowd of 46 681 and with a television audience four times that number tuned in.
The official reaction of the governing body, Australia Cricket, before it banned Warne for a match and fined him what, for him, was pocket change, was instructive. It “could not condone” what occurred, it said, but added that it would serve to “inspire greater rivalry and create greater interest in the Big Bash League”.
Hopefully it is an example Verus’ Caribbean Premier League (CPL) will not feel inclined to follow. If it should, it should surely find difficulty in getting any of its signings “to inspire greater rivalry and create greater interest” by accosting the talented 19-year-old Rakeem Cornwall, the Leewards’ intimidating, 300-pound big unit.
In the meantime, West Indies cricket must be concerned with the worrying standards exposed at Queen’s Park, especially the pattern of batting meltdowns and failures that have become familiar to both Barbados, once the powerhouse of West Indies cricket with more major titles than all the others combined, and the Leewards.
Their administrators and coaches, even more so than the players, have a lot to answer for.
No words were necessary as coaches Emmerson Trotman and Vasbert Drakes took in the Barbados implosions with glum faces; the words came from Sylvester Joseph who revealed at the toss in the Jamaica match that the Leewards team had no pre-tournament preparation.
The chain is as strong as its weakest link and the Leewards are now the weakest link in West Indies cricket. It requires the urgent attention of the WICB in organization and finance.
The show moves on to St Lucia on Tuesday for the final eight matches leading to the play-off between the teams second and third in the standings to determine which meets No. 1 in the final.
Once the weather is not the factor it has been at Queen’s Park, conditions more suited to the Twenty20 game can be expected at the Beausejour Stadium. It is a chance for redemption by those batsmen who embarrassed themselves over the past week.
Clyde Butts and his co-selectors might also be swayed by a performance or two when they chose their squad for the five-match ODI series in Australia, starting February 1 at the WACA in Perth.
There has been no regional Fifty50 tournament to provide them with a proper guide to current form (with typically baffling scheduling it now dovetails with the four-day matches and starts February 7).
Already they have to find a replacement for Samuels, the batting star of 2012 who has been eliminated by the severely damaged eye socket inflicted by a Lalith Malinga bouncer in the same match as his close encounter of the Big Bash kind with Warne.
A couple of convincing innings in St Lucia could well clinch his place, even if they are in the Twenty20 format. It would be a welcome change from the past week.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.