No batting remedy in sight
Ian Chappell, one of the most perceptive of former players, has set off an informed discussion on the social media with his reasoning for what he sees as the decline in Australian batsmanship.
Most comments have been from West Indians concerned over the even more dramatic disappearance of their own magnificent batsmen who were, from their earliest days, permanent features of their teams.
Chappell bases his worry mainly, but not exclusively, on Australia’s batting woes on their struggles against spin in their crushing defeat in the Test series in India last month.
They passed 400 once and 300 once in the four matches but fell for 131 and 164 in two others and under 300 in the others. Their only hundred in eight innings was by captain Michael Clarke, a special talent finally blossoming seven years into his Test career.
Chappell told the espncricinfo website that Australia won’t again produce quality Test batsmen such as the recently retired Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey and Clarke unless they pay more attention to how the coming generation is developed, to the standard of pitches in their first-class Sheffield Shield and to “the impact of a muddled schedule tossing players from Twenty20 to Tests and back again”. Repeatedly changing coaches and players wouldn’t solve the problem.
Such assertions have been all applicable to West Indies cricket for some two decades now, only multiplied several times over. As in Australia, they have been largely neglected by the administrators. Statistics accurately tell the story.
In the 18 matches so far this season in the annual four-day competition (a misnomer since most are completed in three days), there have been 26 – count them, 26 – team totals under 200, interspersed with four of 86, 78, 97 and 83. Only two have exceeded 400, two more 300.
Only seven batsmen have scored hundreds; just two (Jahmar Hamilton of the Leewards and Kevin Stoute of Barbados) have not yet worn full West Indies colours.
By far the most prolific batsman is Devon Smith, the left-handed Windwards opener. He is a veteran at 31 and played the last of his 33 Tests, in which he averaged 24.71 with a solitary hundred, two years ago. He’s hardly one for the future.
Those who form the backbone of the Test team – Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels – are also over 30. Chanderpaul is 37, even if he churns out runs as if he was ten years younger.
As the hopefuls from the under-19s and the successful “A” team last year have made no progress and Adrian Barath, who scored a hundred against Australia on debut, aged 19, has fallen out of contention, their eventual replacements are not evident.
Darren Bravo and Kieran Powell are two left-handers with a sublime touch whose returns in Tests in Bangladesh and India last year (and Bravo in his debut series in Sri Lanka the year before) raised expectations. So did Kirk Edwards with two hundreds and an average in excess of 50 in his first six Tests.
Bravo’s early class prompted Steve Waugh to describe him as “the next superstar in world cricket”.
Unlike the over-30s as they developed, the youngsters now have to deal with “the impact of a muddled schedule tossing players from Twenty20 to Tests and back again”, as Chappell described it.
It was hardly coincidence that, in both his innings in the recent Tests against Zimbabwe, Bravo was out to slashes outside off-stump more in keeping with the limited-overs formats.
He went into that series on the back of 11 ODIs and four Twenty20s against Bangladesh, Australia and Zimbabwe (scoring his first ODI hundred and an unbeaten 72 in the latter). Powell also went cheaply in the Zimbabwe Tests after his equally packed lead-in short-version matches.
Inevitably, most of the responses to Chappell’s comments placed the blame for batting’s decline squarely on the advent of Twenty20.
“I have long argued that Twenty20 is ruining our batsmanship,” one stated. “Left to me . . . I would ban anyone under 23 playing the game. It is glorified swiping but, practically, with the riches on offer there is not much than can be done.”
Another contended that Twenty20 was “developed to suit the lifestyle of today’s younger generation who want everything quick and want it now, especially if it doesn’t involve much effort”.
He added: “To all those who think Test cricket is dull I say keep yuh backside at home and leff it to those of us who understand the game and its nuances.”
Another was more reasoned.
Using Barbados (the Three Ws, Sobers, Nurse, Greenidge, Haynes) as the benchmark, he noted that batsmanship there “has been in decline for a period which predates the advent of Twenty20 cricket.
“The issue is that individuals and coaches do not know how to work effectively to develop mental toughness,” he added. “That to my mind is where the focus needs to be.”
All intriguing stuff but everything is increasingly pointing in the direction of a cricket world – perhaps with the exception of Australia and England – ruled by Twenty20, Fifty50 and the television revenues that fuel them.
It is where the money is, unsurprisingly attracting players and also those administrations that have little of it (read West Indies Cricket Board of Control).
For 2013, the WICB has already tossed the International Cricket Council’s Future Tours Programme (FTP) into the bin and replaced a home series against Sri Lanka that would include two Tests with a three-day ODI series also involving India.
The reason was that the FTP scheduling coincided with the last part of the pervasive, exceptionally lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) where the strongest West Indians and Sri Lankans would be involved.
The WICB had already sold its Twenty20 tournament to a Barbados-based international wealth management company that starts the first Caribbean Premier League (CPL) in late July. It has all the makings of a transposed IPL with unheard of big money contracts and global exposure for peripheral local players.
The FTP has Pakistan down for two Tests, five ODIs and two Twenty20s in the Caribbean in August. That would clash with the CPL. No prizes for guessing which one would make way. From all reliable reports, the Pakistanis won’t be coming.
It means the West Indies would have just two meaningless Tests against Zimbabwe in the year from one November to the next when they are scheduled to go to New Zealand.
It’s a trend that makes all the bother about producing the Sobers, Richards and Laras of the future hollow.
Indeed, what would be the purpose of the annual West Indies four-day tournament? To prepare for a couple of Tests against Zimbabwe here and a couple against New Zealand there?
It’s a question that should be exercising the mind of the WICB.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.