FAZEER MOHAMMED: A clash of sporting cultures
WHO’S THE MORE TALENTED – Usain Bolt or Marlon Samuels?
Yes, it appears to be a completely doltish question, except that the query is not about who has achieved more, who has had the greatest impact on his particular sport or even who has more money.
It’s simply an invitation to do a very subjective analysis as to who appears to be more blessed with such instinctive, intuitive God-given abilities as to allow him to stand apart from the crowd.
Bolt has completed an unprecedented “triple double” in taking both the 100 and 200-metre gold medals on the track in Rio de Janeiro for the third consecutive Olympic Games. He’s also the anchor of a succession of record-breaking sprint relay triumphs and if you add his golden harvest over four World Championships, it’s easy to appreciate why former United States high jumper and now television broadcaster Dwight Stones described the amiable, engaging Jamaican as the “ray of sunshine” in the often sinister and cynical world of modern athletics.
Samuels has been the Man Of The Match in two West Indies triumphs in World Twenty20 finals over the past five years. His assault on yorker specialist Lasith Malinga of Sri Lanka in the 2012 final in Colombo represents the enduring image of that match. Even if he was upstaged by Carlos Brathwaite’s astonishing six-hitting assault in the last over of this year’s decider against England in Kolkata, his innings was critical to keeping the West Indies within reach of the target. In full flow there are few, if any, to compare with this elegant right-hander and while his appeal is nothing like the Bajan fixation with Carl Hooper in his underachieving prime, there is an entrancing element to his batsmanship which makes him eminently watchable.
At the same time that Bolt was beginning to achieve national recognition at William Knibb Memorial High School, Samuels was responding to the call to replace Shivnarine Chanderpaul on a West Indies tour of Australia, fitting into the middle-order in his first couple of Tests as if the 19-year-old was destined to achieve cricketing greatness in the manner of some of the Caribbean legends who preceded him.
But that hasn’t materialised, not by a long shot, even with those achievements already mentioned in mind. And if this Test match at the Queen’s Park Oval is his last in the Caribbean, as he has hinted more than once over the past few months, he saunters out with speculation over what could have been were he as focused, as disciplined and as dedicated as his countryman in sprinting to transforming all of that abundant talent into the sort of consistent high-level performances that would have left no doubt as to his status among the pantheon of outstanding West Indian batsmen.
A Test average of 33.07 over 68 matches spread across 15-and-a-half years – with a two-year ban for associating with an Indian bookmaker thrown in – is Hooperesque in its abject failure to live up to heady expectations. It’s quite unlike Bolt’s almost absolute dominance of the athletics scene over the past eight years and especially since he made the 2008 Beijing Olympics the first of his own personal, Jamaican and Caribbean celebrations in a manner that has made him immensely popular to the extent that the only nights of near full-houses at the Olympic Stadium in Rio were for his defence of the sprint titles last Sunday and Thursday.
Where the sprinter is the smiling superstar who takes selfies with adoring fans even as he participates in yet another victory lap around another major stadium, the batsman is the pouting, brooding introvert who seems so preoccupied with himself that his occasional achievements aren’t so much cause for joyful all-inclusive celebrations but angry chest-beating vindications of his presumably unappreciated greatness.
Yet both are from the same island. Both are part of their country’s rich sporting tradition, except that Bolt and his contemporaries have taken that already impressive reputation in athletics, especially sprinting, to a stratospheric level. In contrast, Samuels, like many of his peers, seems barely ruffled by the inescapable fact that this is the generation of West Indian cricketers defined by mediocrity and underachievement so soon after the greatest period of dominance in the history of the game, if not all sport.
West Indian societies are often described as extremely complex given the many influences, forced or voluntary, over the last five centuries. That complexity becomes apparent when you consider that Jamaica’s culture of excellence and insistence on the very highest standards in athletics exist side-by-side with the talented yet dysfunctional environment of domestic and regional cricket.
But back to that question: who’s the more talented? If it’s determined by the ability to exasperate, infuriate and every so often, cause absolute delight, then mercurial Marlon is the man.
Fazeer Mohammed is a regional cricket journalist and broadcaster who has been covering the game at all levels since 1987.