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TONY COZIER: No excuse for sloppy Windies fielding


TONY COZIER: No excuse for sloppy Windies fielding

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WEST INDIES interim coach Eldine Baptiste should endeavour to get his hands on a copy of the 1954 Wisden.

As he couldn’t contain his frustration at the five dropped catches, one missed run out and overall fielding repeatedly referred to as “sloppy” by the television commentators as Sri Lanka amassed 484 in the first Test in Galle, his first in charge, Baptiste, the suspended Phil Simmons and coaches at every level in the Caribbean should find the Wisden report on South Africa’s 1952-53 tour of Australia instructive.

It would be simplistic to expect the West Indies to emulate the South African example of more than half-century ago in every detail but there are enough similarities to make it a useful template for those responsible for contemporary West Indies teams.

The gloomy predictions that preceded the South Africans as they set out for Australia resonate with the current West Indies. There are no signs they can yet match the remarkable South African story of confounding the doubters by sharing the series 2-2 with opponents manned by basically the same players who had seen off the West Indies 4-1 a year earlier.

The atmosphere for the “young and inexperienced team” as it set out for Australia, under captain Jack Cheetham, could “scarcely have been more gloomy”, Wisden stated. Replace Jack Cheetham with Jason Holder, Australia with Sri Lanka and the West Indies’ scenario was comparable as they went into their latest Test series on Wednesday.

Their desperation doesn’t extend quite as far as South Africa’s at the time.

“Many, acknowledged as sound and dispassionate judges, had suggested that the tour should be cancelled rather than allow South Africa’s cricket, admittedly at a low ebb, to suffer a sequence of seemingly inevitable crushing defeats which could cause long-standing damage,” Wisden reported.

Indeed, after the finances for the West Indies tour the previous season had ended up in the red, the Australia board “expressed apprehension of the public reaction to a side which, by general agreement, stood in danger of being overwhelmed”.

The South African board replied that it was prepared to lose as much as £10 000, then a considerable sum, on what it called “an educational tour” it hoped would put its cricket on the “right road for the future”.

The twist to the South African tale was incredible. Every time they appeared down and out, they came back strongly.

Defeat in the first Test was followed by victory in the second; a loss by an innings and 38 runs in the third was the kind that had been originally been predicted. Unfazed, they drew the fourth and levelled the series by overcoming a first innings deficit of 85 to win the fifth by six wickets.

Wisden’s take on the turnaround serves as an example for the contemporary West Indies searching for some formula to start dragging them out of the morass of their own making.

“Two reasons contributed above all towards South Africa’s success,” it wrote. “One was the standard of fielding which truly deserved the description of brilliant. The other was a fighting determination and team spirit which won the admiration of all.”

Neither was achieved by chance.

From the start, Cheetam and team manager Ken Viljoen, a earlier Test batsman, left no doubt that they would “give every fraction of their energies and thought to the task confronting them”. They expected the same from their players and got it.

The constant open bickering between board and players and now between board and head coach render “fighting determination and team spirit” an idealistic hope for the West Indies.

More specifically, and more significantly for the West Indies after their butter-fingered display in Galle, was the attention the South Africans paid to fielding. On arrival in Australia, Cheetham said he was not leading a team strong in batting or bowling but was “resolved that they should excel in the field”. As preparation for the Tests, they spent three or four hours a day on fielding alone.

According to Wisden, spectators went to see the fielding of “these superbly fit young men as to watch them bat and bowl”.

It is an aspect of the game that has always been critical to every champion team, not least the West Indies of the 1970s and 1980s which supported their formidable pace attacks with flawless catching and fleet-footed, run saving certainty on the ground. That, too, was not by chance but by practice.

Like so much else in West Indies cricket over the past two decades, the value of fielding has been largely discounted. Whoever is head coach, he would do well to start by copying Cheetam’s mantra that, while his team is not strong in batting and bowling, it is unmatchable in the field.

As South Africa demonstrated 53 years ago, it can work wonders.

Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.

Like so much else in West Indies cricket over the past two decades, the value of fielding has been largely discounted.