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TONY COZIER: Smith’s fantasy, Holder’s reality


TONY COZIER: Smith’s fantasy, Holder’s reality

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STEVE SMITH’S proposed deal to Jason Holder to enliven the last day of the water-logged Test in Sydney was strictly fantasy. The West Indies captain’s rejoinder was reasoned reality.

Smith’s plan was for the West Indies to declare at their second day 248 for seven. He would forego an Australian second innings, “bowl lob-ups for seven or eight overs or whatever it was” and offer an equation of 370 off 70 overs to win, a runs-per-over rate of 5.28.

It was a flawed idea for a couple of reasons.

Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain, cited the suspicion such a contrivance would create at a time when the game is resolute in its crusade against match-fixing.

Above all, it would have transformed even such a disrupted match into a complete pappyshow, a glorified equivalent of a holiday fete match at Dover, denigrating the image of Test cricket rather than enhancing it, as Smith believed it would.

Holder’s “no thank you” decision was made in consultation with his team. It was based on the evidence of Australia’s carefree scoring against the shabby bowling throughout the series and, more to the point, on “our development and the phase we are at”.

Australia rattled along at an average 4.66 runs an over for their 1 489 runs in the series. What might have been, had Smith’s proposal been accepted, was obvious as David Warner blasted the fastest ever hundred in an SCG Test to deliver the last of the home team’s numerous hammer blows.

Sydney was just part of the “phases” mentioned by Holder. It was preceded by six consecutive Test losses, two to Australia in the Caribbean in June, two to a basically new, developing Sri Lanka team in Sri Lanka in October and the two in Australia.

This was a basically young, inexperienced team under a young inexperienced leader with the needle of confidence touching “empty”, just eight months after it was encouragingly replenished with victory over England at Kensington. It simply could not afford another dip, whatever the circumstances.

Holder admitted that modest batting targets were set before the series – to pass 90 overs and 300 runs in every innings. They began very short, but improved with every innings, from 223 and 148 in Hobart, to 271, from 100.3 overs, and 283 (88.3 overs) in Melbourne, to 330 from 112.1 overs, in Sydney.

Bravo, dominant at No. 3, filled the gap of reliability left by Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s exit. He and the opener Kraigg Brathwaite, breaking out of his previous ultra-defensive cocoon, carried the top order, the utter failures of Marlon Samuels and Jermaine Blackwood that followed required constant recoveries from the late order.

At 35, Samuels’ chequered career surely ended in Sydney after nine innings for 65 runs in Sri Lanka and Australia and no score above 20. His lackadaisical approach in the field suggested he knew it. His successors are advancing their claims in the first-class Professional Cricket League (PCL).

Blackwood, the standout against England, is 24, with ample time to break out of his diffidence triggered by his double duck in Hobart.

The belated introduction of all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite at No. 8 brought a refreshing awareness, self-belief and aggression that were transmitted to those around him. It was typified by his clean straight six off his second ball in Sydney, where he backed up his 59 in Melbourne with 69 off 71 balls, seven fours and three sixes. Around him, there were two closing half-centuries from under pressure wicket-keeper Denesh Ramdin and Holder’s one notable score, 68 in Melbourne.

In Melbourne, 150 for five was converted to 282 and 83 for six to 271; in Sydney 159 for six became 330.

Attitude and slackness in the field were other problems, yet none was as pronounced as the inability to take wickets.

As history shows, authentic bowling of pace and hostility, in quality and quantity, is the key to successful teams. There was none in Australia after Shannon Gabriel dropped out after ten overs of the first Test with injury. 

Jerome Taylor was the only one to top 140 kph; his two wickets were at an average of 128.5. The effects of a shoulder operation 15 months earlier were evident in Kemar Roach’s reduction in speed and effectiveness; he didn’t manage to take a wicket from 41 overs and leaked runs at six an over.

Apart from the spin combination of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine in the early 1950s, the West Indies have always struggled to keep totals down in periods when the pace cupboard was bare.

In 1955 in the Caribbean, their one quick bowler was the rangy Barbadian Frank King, who shared the new ball with Frank Worrell’s left-arm medium-pace swing. The upshot was Australian totals over 700 once, 600 twice and 500 once, with one individual double-hundred and 11 singles. The Tests of 2015-2016 were déjà vu.

With no immediate prospects of new Garners, Holdings and Roberts in sight, the situation is unlikely to change, no matter whether Bravo, Brathwaite and whichever fresh batting star comes around.

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