Zimbabwe no real test
THE opposition was embarrassingly weak, its frailties exposed mostly by a reinstated off-spinner on pitches that provided exaggerated turn and bounce.
In the circumstances, the West Indies did what they had to do in dispatching Zimbabwe in their two Tests with less resistance than has ever been mounted against them.
They needed only half the scheduled five days to complete victory in both matches over the inexperienced, underprepared and, not to put too fine a point on it, mediocre visitors, securing the clean sweep of the overall series that was rarely in doubt.
In all but the second One-Day International (ODI), in which they were pressed to pass Zimbabwe’s challenging 273 with just an over remaining, the margins were overwhelming, the statistics indisputable. Victories in the other two ODIs were by 156 runs and five wickets with 22 balls to spare, in the two Twenty20s by eight wickets, with 23 balls remaining, and 41 runs.
In the Tests, the inequality was even more pronounced.
The West Indies took the first at Kensington Oval by nine wickets (requiring a negligible 12 to settle the issue) and the second on Friday by an innings and 65 runs. Both ended during the second session of the third day, delight for the West Indies, bitter-sweet fare for their fervent Dominican fans at Windsor Park who were denied cricket on the weekend when the stands would have been as packed as they have been in Roseau’s two previous Tests.
In their four innings in the Tests, Zimbabwe scraped over 200 only in the first, then by just 11. Opener Tino Mawayo’s 50 was their highest individual score of the series.
On its own, success over Zimbabwe at present counts for little; more significantly, it stretched the West Indies’ winning streak to six Tests in succession, rekindling fading self-confidence that has for long been a handicap.
The two others in the sequence were New Zealand, who were trounced only a little less comprehensively than Zimbabwe in the Caribbean (and Florida) last July and August, and Bangladesh who were defeated in both Tests at home in November by 77 runs and 10 wickets.
Coach Ottis Gibson and captain Darren Sammy would have noted that, since then, New Zealand have recovered to beat Sri Lanka in a Test in Sri Lanka and have caused England unexpected headaches in their current series at home, while Bangladesh have amassed 638 away against Sri Lanka to earn a rare draw.
How Zimbabwe shape up against Bangladesh in a couple of Tests, three ODIs and two Twenty20s in Harare and Bulawayo next month should be the simplest guide as how the West Indies should assess this resounding triumph.
Sammy, for one, is likely to be duly guarded. Even at the height of the euphoria over becoming World Twenty20 champions last October, he cautioned that the only genuine signals of progress would be Test victories over the game’s bigger guns such as South Africa, England, India and Australia.
Such trials are a long way off. The West Indies go to India and South Africa in the latter half of 2014, host England and Australia in 2015. In the interim the Tests are against Pakistan at home, New Zealand away and home, Bangladesh at home.
So how might the West Indies have gone had their opponents been, say, South Africa or England instead of Zimbabwe? It’s a hypothetical question but one that must have exercised Gibson’s attention these past couple of weeks.
Shane Shillingford was clearly Man Of The Series for his 19 wickets (by three surpassing Courtney Walsh’s record in a series of two Tests) yet his choice over Sunil Narine set off inevitable debate. Narine’s international standing, after all, rated far above his principally on the mystery man’s ascendancy in the one-day game.
The selectors, so regularly pilloried for one perceived mistake or another, examined Narine’s modest Test stats (15 wickets at 48.06 each in five matches), especially his three wickets from 78.3 overs on the spinning surfaces in Bangladesh last year, and concluded that his effectiveness diminished when batsmen were under no pressure to eliminate dot balls, as they are in ODIs and Twenty20s.
With his height, his sharper spin and his “doosra” offering a more assertive option, they went for Shillingford.
In the conditions, he would have been a handful for anyone, as he was with his ten wickets against Australia on his home patch of Windsor Park a year ago, his previous Test in the Caribbean. From his first ball on the first day at the same venue, he was turning at sharp angles and bouncing at awkward height.
For certain, Hashim Amla, A.B. deVilliers, Kevin Pietersen and a host of others with superior experience, self-belief and techniques to the Zimbabweans would not have allowed themselves to be hemmed in by four close-in fielders against Shillingford and his accomplice Marlon Samuels. Their scorecards would not have featured the 13 catches the meek Zimbabweans prodded into eager hands. Yet, for all their class, caution would have been their necessary watchword.
The surfaces won’t always be so bowler-friendly as they were at Kensington and Windsor Park. The trial of Shillingford’s worth will come when there is nothing in the soil or its preparation to assist him and he is wheeling away at two embedded quality batsmen.
He has gone through that once before (one wicket for 138 from 34 overs against England at Trent Bridge last year); that should have been an invaluable lesson as to what lies ahead on other foreign fields. For the moment, he has secured his spot as the leading spinner in the longer game.
For all the West Indies domination, there were areas of concern. The most glaring was the batting, especially the failure of the two youngest in the order, Kieran Powell (8, 6 and 24) and Darren Bravo (11, 1 not out, 0), to carry their form in the white ball matches into the Tests against the limited bowling.
The choice of three fast bowlers and Shillingford demanded more of the top five in the order; Denesh Ramdin was placed at No. 6 as a result, a responsibilty that brought the best out of him (62 and 84 in his two innings) but still one slot higher than ideal.
In the first Test, Kevin Jarvis, backed by the debutant Tendai Chatara, exposed the batsmen’s aversion to controlled swing with his five-wicket return. The West Indies were 151 for six before Sammy capitalized on his opposite number’s strange tactic of persisting with Graeme Cremer’s leg-spin to add 106 with Ramdin. In the second, the pair also caused early problems that took hundreds from Chris Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul and another performance from Ramdin, all three senior men, to put right.
Shannon Gabriel, big, strong, distinctly pacy and 24 years young, gave the fast attack an edge that compensated for the dip in form of the spearhead of 2012, Kemar Roach.
For all the primacy of spin against Zimbabwe, it is a well-stocked fast attack and the development of gifted young batsmen that will more prescribe how the West Indies go in future.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.