Marking Time: The sad state of West Indies Test Cricket
History This Week
By Arlene Munro
Stabroek News
September 2, 2005

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2004 has proven to be the saddest year in the history of West Indies Test Cricket since the regional team was dethroned as world champions by Australia in 1995, nine years ago. Firstly, the West Indies were trounced 3-0 at home in March and April by England and only averted what would have been their first "whitewash" in the Caribbean because of the brilliant unprecedented innings of 400 not-out by master batsman Brian Lara in the fourth and final Test in Antigua.

This series victory was a momentous triumph for the English visitors. Not only was it their first series win in the Caribbean in 36 years, but also the widest margin of victory ever achieved by any English team here. Unlike most recent rubbers in the Caribbean, the West Indies team failed to win even a single Test.

If that wasn't bad enough, the regional team then proceeded to England to suffer a humiliating "whitewash" in another four-Test series. This was the first occasion the West Indies had lost all the matches in a Test series in England since their inaugural rubber there in 1928, 76 years ago.

Michael Vaughan's team and its supporters were understandably elated. They were delighted to avenge the whitewashes inflicted on their predecessors by the invincible West Indian teams led by Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards in 1984 and 1986 in two five-Test series. It was England's first "whitewash" victory in an extended Test series since their 5-0 victory over India in 1959, 45 years ago. The whitewash of Lara's team enabled England to equal its best Test-winning sequence of seven matches, achieved in 1928.

While English supporters are exultant, West Indian cricket fans are sad. The statistics are truly depressing - 7 losses in 8 Tests against England, 32 defeats in our last 40 Tests overseas. Since the unwise decision to ask Lara to resume the captaincy, the team's record in 22 Tests is 4 wins, 13 losses and 5 draws. They only West Indian victory in the last 13 Tests has been against lowly Bangladesh in Jamaica in June last. Defeat has now become virtually a way of life - an unwelcome but inevitable normality - a part of Caribbean cricket culture. How sad!

It is difficult to find appropriate words to describe the recent and current state of West Indies Test cricket. On the very rare occasion when the regional team wins a Test against credible opposition, the authorities - the captain, coach, manager, selectors and the WICB - have almost invariably responded by asserting that the team and the fortunes of West Indian cricket have "turned a corner." What a sad delusion!

A more appropriate metaphor is that regional cricket at the highest levels is going round in circles. An even better description would be the military expression, "marking time." This is certainly valid in terms of the region's ranking among the ten Test-playing nations. We continue to be ranked eighth, only above lowly Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, significantly Test cricket's newest entrants, both of whom in recent encounters scared the West Indies, before eventually succumbing.

The woes of current West Indies cricket are essentially the same as those plaguing the regional team a year or two ago. Prominent among them are inconsistent batting, poor bowling, substandard fielding and tactically deficient and uninspiring captaincy. In short, in all departments of the game, the team's performance leaves much to be desired.

These terrible deficiencies cannot be explained away by claiming that the side is young and inexperienced, as Lara is prone to do. While this is true of several of the bowlers, it is certainly not the case with most of the remaining members of the team. Lara has played 112 Tests, Shivnarine Chanderpaul 83, Jacobs 65, Sarwan 50, and Gayle 47. Players such as Sarwan, Gayle and Pedro Collins, though young in age, have considerable experience and could meaningfully be described as "young veterans."

While Lara continues to make excuses for, and to rationalise, the poor performances of his alleged young, inexperienced team, the Caribbean public as a whole, and in particular the now retired players of the era of dominance in the 1980s and early 1990s, are becoming increasingly exasperated. Promises of an early return to ascendancy and glory, made repeatedly in the last nine years, remain unfulfilled and in today's reality have a very hollow ring.

The two decisive series victories by an English team of reasonable, but not great, ability have evoked serious questions about the state of West Indies cricket. Many valid reasons are being given for the poor performance at Test level. Among them are a lack of professionalism, focus, discipline and mental strength in many members of the team.

The most fundamental weakness of the current team, however, is probably the paucity of proven world-class players. Unfortunately there are presently only three such players in the team, namely Lara, Chanderpaul, when fit and in form, and Jacobs who, with a batting average of 28 and 229 dismissals, may now be in the twilight of a successful Test career. All the other members in the team need to transform their supposed talent into class.

Only three reputations were enhanced during the recent Test series, those of Chanderpaul, Gayle and newcomer Dwayne Bravo. Chanderpaul, the tourists' Man - of-the-series, achieved the team's highest aggregate and best average - 437 runs at an excellent average of 72.83 runs an innings, with a sequence of 128 not-out and 97 not-out, 45 and 43, 76 and 2, and 14 and 32 in the four Tests.

Gayle was more productive and consistent than usual with the bat, scoring 400 runs, including one hundred and three fifties, and achieving an average of fifty runs an innings. His commendable sequence was 66 and 81, 7 and 82, 5 and 42 and 12 and 105. As usual, the tall, hard-hitting aggressive Jamaican opener had by far the quickest scoring rate in his team, averaging 83 runs per 100 balls.

The other batsmen were on the whole disappointing. Sarwan, for example, continued to show, but not fulfill, promise, his two good innings being counterbalanced by failures in both innings of the first and last Tests. His sequence of 1 and 4, 139 and 14, 40 and 60, and 2 and 7 gave him an aggregate of 267 runs with a moderate average of 33.37 runs an innings. He continues to mark time, producing much less than he seems capable of. How long more must the region wait for this unquestionably talented player to develop into a world-class batsman.

The series was a major disappointment to master batsman Brian Lara who hitherto had a very impressive record against England. Admittedly, during the series he reached the coveted milestone of 10,000 Test runs, the fourth player to do so. He joined an elite group comprising the Australians, Allan Border and Steve Waugh, and the Indian, Sunil Gavaskar, reaching the landmark more quickly than they. However, Lara, the unfortunate victim of several questionable umpiring decisions, was only able to score 264 runs in the series, without a century and with a moderate average of 33 runs an innings. He finished an uncharacteristic fourth in his team's batting averages, behind Chanderpaul, Gayle and Sarwan. The outcome of this series was partly a result of his failure and a reflection of his team's continuing excessive dependence on his usually productive batting.

The recent series showed in other ways that the regional team is marking time where batting is concerned. In addition to the unhealthy reliance on Lara, other major problems continue to exist. Notable among them are the lack of substantial opening partnerships and an established opening pair, the inconsistent middle order, the fragile tail, and the tendency to cataclysmic collapses.

The brittle nature of the tail is demonstrated by the fact that the five fast bowlers - Jermaine Lawson, Pedro Collins, Corey Collymore, Fidel Edwards, and Tino Best - in 24 innings in the four Tests scored a total of only 93 runs. To make matters worse, the normally reliable Jacobs, batting at Number 7, also failed dismally, scoring only 33 runs in four innings.

In the series the West Indies experienced three dramatic collapses, the first two in the second Test at Edgbaston which England won by 256 runs. In the first innings, the last seven wickets fell for 39 runs in 20 overs, the last six for 13 runs in 10 overs. A similar collapse, triggered again by the left arm-spinner, Ashley Giles, also occurred in the second innings, with the last seven wickets falling for 50 runs in 12 overs.

An even more costly and unexpected collapse occurred in the second innings of the following Test at the famous Old Trafford ground in Manchester. Lara's men, enjoying a useful lead of 65 in the first innings, squandered a good position through a series of irresponsible shots, collapsing from 88 for 1 to 165 all-out. None of the batsmen from Number 4 to 11 reached double figures.

The lack of progress in the batting is also evident in the bowling and fielding. These aspects will be examined in the second instalment of this article.

Apart from the resounding defeats experienced especially overseas, the most distressing feature of West Indies Test cricket in recent times is the lack of perceptible progress. In spite of changes of captains, players, managers, coaches and WICB officials, the regional game at the highest level is simply marking time. The West Indies continues to be ranked eighth among the ten Test playing nations, above only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the last two nations to have been accorded Test status.

The first instalment of this article showed that no progress has been made in addressing problems in the team's batting, which is considered its best department. The recent Test series in England has made it palpably clear that the problems of the lack of a regular and reliable opening pair, the inconsistency of the middle order, the unhealthy excessive reliance on Brian Lara, the fragility of the lower order, and the frequent occurrence of dramatic collapses continue to exist.

This second instalment of this article will attempt to illustrate that the West Indies team is also marking time in the area of bowling, which is arguably presently its weakest department. Since the retirement of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, West Indian bowling in Tests has been distinguished by two major deficiencies, namely, the lack of both economy and penetration. These deficiencies, which were very obvious in the recent Test series in England, are largely results of the fundamental weakness of the bowling, namely, the lack of mastery of the basics of consistently good line and length and the ability to bowl to the field set.

As a result most of the bowlers were very expensive, usually conceding more than four runs an over. The statistics for the series were as follows: Fidel Edwards 4.00 runs per over, Pedro Collins 4.13, Omari Banks 4.38, Jermaine Lawson 4.70 and Tino Best 4.91. Such high economy rates from specialist bowlers may not be accepted even in limited-over cricket, much less in Test cricket. No bowler conceded an average of less than three runs an over. The least expensive were Corey Collymore, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo with an economy rate of 3.03, 3.07 and 3.25 respectively.

To make matters worse, the bowling almost invariably lacked penetration. Amazingly, three of the specialist bowlers achieved a series average of over 100 runs a wicket - Edwards 110.00 (3 wickets for 330 runs), Banks 117.00 (3 wickets for 351 runs) and Best 118.00 (one wicket for 118 runs). This is a record for a West Indies team in a Test series, surpassing the performance in the rubber against Ian Johnson's Australians in 1955 when two West Indian bowlers - Frank Worrell (103.66) and Frank King (134.33) had an average of over 100 runs a wicket.

The poverty and ineffectiveness of the West Indies bowling in the recent series in England were clearly evident in five facts. Firstly, the attack failed to bowl out England twice in any of the four Tests, as was the case in the Caribbean earlier in the year.

Secondly, it managed to dismiss England fairly cheaply on only one occasion, namely, the second innings of the second Test at Edgbaston when Michael Vaughan's men scored only 248 runs. In the other innings they made 568 for 9 wickets declared and 325 for five declared, 566 for 9 declared, 330 and 231 for 3, and 470 and 4 for no wicket.

Thirdly, in the first innings of the second Test England was able to reach a total of 566 for 9 off 134 overs after being at one stage 262 for 5. In short, the lower order put on over 300 runs.

Fourthly, the weakness of the bowling was reflected in the number of hundreds and fifties which the English batsmen made during the series - 8 centuries and 11 fifties. For the first time since 1990 three English batsmen scored centuries in the same innings - Robert Key (221), Andrew Strauss (137) and Michael Vaughan (107). Strauss and Key established a new second-wicket record for England in Tests against the West Indies with a remarkably quick partnership of 291 runs, scored at well over five runs an over and a run a minute. They surpassed the stand of 266 between Peter Richardson (128) and Tom Graveney (258) at Trent Bridge in 1957.

Furthermore, two English batsmen, namely, Vaughan (107 and 101 not out in the first Test) and Marcus Trescothick (105 and 107 in the second Test), were able to score hundreds in both innings of a Test. Vaughan became only the third player to perform this feat at Lord's emulating the achievement of George Headley in 1939 and Graham Gooch against India in 1990.

Finally, the deficiencies of the West Indian bowling attack were reflected in the excellent batting averages of the Englishmen and the fact that two of them, namely, Key (221) and Andrew Flintoff (167), made their highest Test scores. Seven of them achieved an average of over 45 runs an innings, while only two West Indians Shivnarine Chanderpaul (72.83) and Gayle (50.00) did so. The Englishmen were Ian Bell (70.00), Flintoff (64.50) Key (63.00), Graham Thorpe (57.20), Vaughan (55.00), Trescothick (45.57) and Strauss (45.28).

Although Gayle headed his team's bowling averages, the best Caribbean bowler was the debutant, Dwayne Bravo, who took 16 wickets at an average cost of 26.18 runs each. The spin bowlers were particularly disappointing. The wrist spinner, Dave Mohammed, failed to take a wicket in 32 overs on a helpful pitch, while Banks was both uneconomical and unproductive.

Banks' career continued to be distinguished by a marked lack of success with the ball. Apart from one accurate spell in the second innings of the first Test when he conceded only 45 runs in 16 overs, he continues to bowl long hops with a disturbing regularity as well as the occasional full toss. His pathetic performance again raises the question as to whether he has the ability or the potential to become a successful bowler at Test level. Among the bowlers, he in particular seems to be marking time.

The third and final instalment in this article will deal with the areas of fielding and captaincy.

The military expression, marking time, is the most appropriate term to describe the recent and current state of West Indies Test cricket. Little or no perceptible progress is being made in regional cricket at the highest level.

The first two instalments of this article demonstrated the validity of this assessment in the vital areas of batting and bowling. This third and final part will show that this is also the case where fielding and captaincy are concerned.

The West Indies team is one of the weakest sides in fielding in contemporary Test cricket. It is difficult to recall when last the fielding of a Caribbean team has been as deplorable. As Tony Cozier, the Caribbean's leading cricket commentator, observed during the recent Test series in England: "The standard of fielding has dropped to a new low on this tour."

Colin Croft, the former West Indies fast bowler, was as usual even more brutally frank. His candid view was that "the West Indies fielding was as poor as anyone has ever seen."

Misfielding, dropped catches and weak and inaccurate throwing occurred with disturbing regularity. Even Ramnaresh Sarwan, normally a safe catcher, dropped several catches.

Typical of the accounts of West Indian fielding was the one given by the Trinidadian commentator, Fazeer Mohamed, of the last session of the third day of the second Test at Edgbaston, when England reached 148 for the loss of three wickets, with Marcus Trescothick 88 not out and Graham Thorpe 20 not out.

Mohamed observed that "contemporary West Indian cricket is defined as much by fielding errors as bating collapses and Jacobs somehow contrived to drop Thorpe off Collins, while Lara just managed to get his fingertips to the ball, leaping at first slip when Trescothick slashed at Bravo.

The opener offered another sharp change just before the end of the day, driving back at Bravo, who could not react quickly enough to snare the opportunity."

These chances enabled England to recover from the precarious position of 52 for three. Some misses were even more costly. For example, Man-of-the Match Graham Thorpe was dropped on at least two occasions during his innings of 114, which played a major part in England's come-from-behind victory in the third Test.

The simple truth is that no team with bowling as weak as that of the present West Indies side can afford to drop catches and give away runs by misfielding. Regrettably, it is one of the rare sides in the long history of West Indies cricket that does not have even a single outstanding fieldsman. The best fieldsman in the region is probably Ricardo Powell, but he is unable to secure a place in the Test team.

In spite of the frequency and cost of the fielding lapses in the recent series and criticisms in both the Caribbean and British media, the West Indies continued to adopt a very casual approach to fielding practice. This was both ironic and strange, for the team's coach, Gus Logie, was a superb fieldsman during his Test career.

The West Indies have also been suffering from deficient captaincy. Good Test captains are usually both skilful tacticians and inspirational leaders who can bring the best out of their team. Lara unfortunately lacks both of these virtues, especially the commendable character which is critical to motivational leadership. The decision by the West Indies Cricket Board in 2003 to reappoint him as captain was not only unprincipled, given his notorious reputation for ill-discipline, but also unwise in view of his poor performance during the first stint of leading the team from 1998 to 2000.

Lara himself described his first tenure as captain as one marked by "moderate success and devastating failure." In that period, the West Indies in 19 Tests had six victories, 11 losses and two draws. Lara's record during his second tenure as captaincy is even worse than in his first stint. In 22 Tests since he replaced Carl Hooper in 2003, the team has won four, lost 13 and drawn five games.

Lara clearly needs to be replaced as skipper. A team which is deficient in batting, bowling and fielding can ill afford to have unskilful and uninspiring leadership.

Apart from the humiliating "whitewash" suffered, the most disappointing feature of the recent tests series in England was the poor performance of most of the younger West Indian players. This was particularly the case with the two Smiths (Devon and Dwayne), Dave Mohamed, Omari Banks and Carlton Baugh. Their failure has serious implications for the future of West Indies cricket, for it has been repeatedly claimed that it is allegedly talented player like these who will enable the region to regain dominance in world cricket.

The performance of Devon Smith, who was discarded after scoring only 66 runs in four innings in the first two Tests, is a blow to efforts to find a reliable opening pair. Furthermore, the poor bowling of Banks (three wickets for 351 runs in only 80 overs) and Mohamed (no wicket for 102 runs in 32 overs) makes the idea of modifying the all-pace attack by including a spinner seem ludicrous.

Carlton Baugh (111 runs in four innings with a highest score of 68 and an average of 27.75 an innings) indicated that he may be an adequate replacement for Ridley Jacobs with the bat, but his work behind the stumps was incredibly untidy. This has prompted the selectors to take the surprising and arguably retrogressive step of recalling the once discarded Courtney Browne.

The only young West Indian player who enhanced his reputation during the recent Test series was the 20-year old Trinidadian, Dwayne Bravo. With his controlled nippy medium pace bowling he captured 16 wickets, by far the largest number by a West Indian bowler. His best effort was impressive, six for 55 in 26 overs in the first innings of the third Test. He also scored 220 runs, including two half-centuries, achieving a moderate average of 27.50 runs an innings. He finished second in his team's bowling averages to Christopher Gayle and seventh in its batting averages, after Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Gayle, Sarwan, Lara, Dwayne Smith and Baugh.

In spite of the decidedly promising nature of Bravo's performance, it is important not to overestimate his achievements or to create unrealistic expectations of him. His batting, though very useful, is not yet sufficiently productive to justify his occupation of as high a position as Number Six in the batting order. Furthermore, while his bowling was often impressive, one needs to wait to see whether it will have similar effectiveness in the Caribbean and in other less accommodating conditions than those in England.

In short, it may be too early to affirm, as Tony Cozier has done, that Bravo is "an all-rounder of exceptional potential". Undoubtedly, however, his performance was the most encouraging feature of the tour where the long-term future of West Indies cricket is concerned. Hopefully, he will develop into a genuine world-class all-rounder, which the West Indies team has long lacked and badly needs. In spite of the commendable performances of Bravo, Chanderpaul and Gayle, the main significance of the recent tour of England is that it has established that West Indies Test cricket is not only in a sad state but also is making little or no progress. Hopefully the embarrassing trouncing experienced from Michael Vaughan's men will make the West Indies cricket authorities awake, fully acknowledge this distressing reality and take effective remedial action.

It may not be difficult to secure quick improvement in the fielding and leadership of the team. It, however, will be much more challenging to remedy the weaknesses in the two more critical areas of batting. Unless bold sensible steps are taken, however, West Indies Test cricket is likely to continue to mark time, while Caribbean fans long in vain for a return to the days of dominance and glory of the 1980s and early 1990s.