The recent tour of Australia and the future of West Indies cricket
History This Week
By Winston McGowan
December 29, 2005
Once again the Christmas gift of the senior West Indies cricket team to its increasingly exasperated fans has been a "whitewash" overseas. Almost every year since 1997, when this pattern started with a 3-nil loss in a Test series in Pakistan, this has been the regional team's fate abroad just before or during the Christmas season. Resound-ing defeats overseas have now become a lifestyle for the West Indies. This year the debacle occurred in Australia.
Admittedly, on this occasion the West Indies were the unfortunate victims of an incredibly large number of errors committed by members of the much-touted elite panel of umpires. If those who presided in the recent series Down Under were Aus-tralians, they would have understandably been accused of barefaced cheating.
Even if, however, the West Indies had won the last Test and lost the series 2-1, that result would not have altered this writer's view of the current state of West Indies cricket at the highest level. Any such evaluation must take serious cognisance of the overriding objective of Caribbean cricket, namely, regaining world ascendancy that was lost ten years ago when Mark Taylor's Australian team dethroned Richie Richardson's side in the Caribbean. The recent series suggests that the West Indies senior team has not made any significant progress over the last year and is not nearer regaining world dominance than at the beginning of 2005.
As the second instalment of this article will show, the negatives of the recent tour to Australia outweighed the positives.
Thankfully, however, there were some positives, at least three, two of which are significant for the future of West Indies cricket.
The first, but not necessarily the most important, positive aspect of the tour from a Caribbean perspective was the performance of the young Trinidadian Denesh Ramdin as a wicket-keeper batsman. Behind the stumps, he moves quickly, takes the ball cleanly, concedes relatively few byes and so far has made few mistakes. With the bat he is solid in defence, sure in attack, equally competent against pace and spin, and cool and collected even in a crisis.
Ramdin, based on his performance Down Under as well as on his debut in Sri Lanka earlier this year, seems to have both the ability and potential to admirably fill the gap left by the retirement of the reliable Antiguan, Ridley Jacobs. This writer will not be surprised if Ramdin eventually eclipses Jacobs' commendable achievements as a successful wicket-keeper batsman. He certainly has seized the opportunity missed by the Jamaican, Carlton Baugh. Baugh is an able but inconsistent batsman and regrettably for West Indies cricket, his keeping has not improved in recent years. In fact, it may have declined.
The second positive of the recent Test series was the performance of another young Trinidadian, the all-rounder Dwayne Bravo, who surprisingly was not selected for the first Test at Brisbane. A century (114), a half-century (64) and a six-wicket haul in an innings in only two Tests is a superb achievement against the best team in the world, in spite of its recent loss of the Ashes.
Bravo, with an aggregate of 214 runs at a good average of 53.50, was second to Lara in the team's batting average. He also topped the West Indies bowling averages with eight wickets at a very reasonable cost of 25.12 runs each. Furthermore, he is one of the best fieldsmen in the team. He seems to be responding admirably to the team's long-standing need for a genuine all-rounder at Test level. There have been very few such players in the long history of West Indies cricket and arguably none since the days of another Trinidadian, Bernard Julien. Since then the reputed West Indies all-rounders at Test level were either bowling all-rounders such as Malcolm Marshall and Roger Harper or batting all-rounders like Carl Hooper.
During the tour Bravo demonstrated ability against spin bowling which was hitherto not evident, though, admittedly he has not yet completely eliminated his weakness of playing against the spin through the onside. It is also not yet clear how effective his bowling will be in conditions and on pitches such as those normally found in the Caribbean and Asia, for example, not particularly suited to his lively medium-pace swing bowling. If Bravo can achieve an average with the bat of about 35 runs an innings batting at Number 7 and be effective with the ball that will be a great asset for Caribbean cricket in the future.
The third positive feature of the tour was the performance in the final Test at Adelaide of Brian Lara, after being the victim previously of three errors. His double century (226) in the first innings, after a run of low scores, proves that at 36 years of age he is still a master batsman. Not surprisingly, he again headed the team's averages, scoring 345 runs in the series at an average of 57.50. In the process he broke another world record by achieving the highest career aggregate in Test cricket.
While Lara's success is welcome, it raises disturbing questions about the current state as well as the future of West Indies Test cricket. For example, his batting during the series again demonstrated the unhealthy excessive dependence of the team's batting presently on him.
One particularly disturbing question about the regional game in the future is who will replace Lara as a master batsman in the team when he eventually retires. As the second instalment of this article will show, those who are expected to replace him in that role, notably Ramnaresh Sarwan and/or Christopher Gayle, failed dismally recently in Australia. Will they ever be ready?
The first instalment of this article focused on three positive features or highlights of the performance of the West Indies in the recent Test series in Australia, where the regional team lost all three Tests. The three features were the performance of wicket-keeper-batsman Denesh Ramdin and all-rounder Dwayne Bravo and the batting of Brian Lara in the final Test.
This second instalment will begin to address the negative aspects of the West Indies' performance which outweighed the positive ones. It is these negative factors which were largely responsible for the resounding defeats that the West Indies experienced in the three Tests by 379 runs, nine wickets and seven wickets.
The most disturbing feature of the tour from a Caribbean perspective was probably the inconsistency and/or failure of all the specialist batsmen, constituting the top order, including star batsman Brian Lara. Their disappointing overall results, admittedly, were due partly to inept umpiring.
The numerous faulty umpiring decisions, however, should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the West Indies batsmen struggled against the Australian bowling virtually throughout the Test series. Very rarely were they in command of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and the supporting bowlers.
The inadequacy of the West Indies batting was evident in their innings totals - 210 and 129, 149 and 334, and 405 and 204 - four of which were poor, one respectable and one marginally good.
Christopher Gayle - 'not likely to become a dependable productive opener in' Tests'
It was also reflected in the fact that the West Indies had only two centurions, namely, Lara (226) and Bravo (113), and two century partnerships - 182 for the seventh wicket between Bravo (113) and Ramdin (71) in the second innings of the second Test and 116 for the fifth wicket between Lara (226) and Bravo (34) in the first innings of the final Test.
In striking contrast, the Australian batting was far more productive and consistent. This was evident in higher innings totals (435 and 283 for two declared, 428 and 182 for three, and 406 and 78 for one), a greater number of hundreds (six - two each by Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey), and more century partnerships (four).
The Test series confirmed that the five principal problems plaguing West Indies batting over the past decade still exist. These problems are the lack of a reliable opening pair, the inconsistency of the middle order, the unhealthy excessive dependence on Lara, the fragility of the tail, and frequent cataclysmic collapses. The first three of these issues will be the focus of the remainder of this instalment of the article.
The batting problems in the recent series began at the top of the order where the replacement of the Jamaican, Wavell Hinds, by the young Grenadian Devon Smith, failed to enhance the team's fortunes. Smith, a well-organised left-hander who seems technically a better player than Hinds, began the series with a solid, courageous knock of 88, then faded, making a series of single-digit scores (3,4,8,7 and 0) in his subsequent innings.
His series aggregate was only 110 runs with a paltry aggregate of 18.33. In short, Devon Smith, who as a youth player seemed an outstanding prospect far superior to his peers, at the age of 24 and after 15 Test appearances since his debut against Australia at Bourda in 2003, regrettably continues to struggle to make a successful transition to Test cricket.
Smith's partner in the first two Tests in Australia was the Jamaican, Christopher Gayle, the team's senior opener. Like Smith, Gayle's performance was very disappointing, with one productive innings of 56 in the first innings of the second Test at Hobart and three other scores of 10, 33 and four - a total of 103 runs in four innings with a poor average of 25.75.
Although Gayle is presently the most successful opener in the region, the truth is that he is not a genuine Test opening batsman.
His blatant major deficiencies in technique, especially his marked lack of foot movement to deliveries pitched on or outside off stump, make him very vulnerable to good fast bowlers, especially in conditions which provide bounce and movement in the air or off the pitch.
Typical of Gayle's dismissals is the one in the second innings of the recent Test at Hobart when he opened the batting with his team facing a massive deficit of 257 runs. According to Tony Cozier, "Gayle pulled the third ball of the innings to the boundary and was bowled by the next, offering a casual flat-footed drive to an inswinger.
"It was not an unfamiliar dismissal for the tall left-hander, but it was unbecoming of an established player in his 54th Test."
Admittedly, the fearsome power with which Gayle hits the ball and his devastatingly aggressive, sometimes cavalier approach to batting will enable him periodically to record a big score overseas.
Unless he remedies his technical flaws, however, it is very unlikely that he will score heavily consistently overseas against quality fast bowling and so give his team the good starts it badly needs.
He will continue no doubt to be much more successful in Tests on the slow flat pitches of the Caribbean and in limited-over cricket where good bowlers are at a serious disadvantage.
The recent tour of Australia reaffirmed that Gayle is not likely to become a dependable productive opener in Tests, especially overseas, in the way that Jeffrey Stollmeyer, Conrad Hunte, Roy Fredericks, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes were during their distinguished careers. With Gayle, Devon Smith and Wavell Hinds opening in Australia, the West Indies invariably lost an early wicket, with none of their stands producing more than 20 runs - 20 and 11, 15 and 4 and 16 and 2 in the three Tests. This compared very unfavourably with their Aussie opponents who almost invariably had fruitful opening partnerships, including one mammoth one - 9 and 71, 231 and 77, 97 and 51. In short, the long, until now futile, search for a reliable opening pair since the end of the famous successful Greenidge-Haynes partnership fourteen years ago needs to continue.
The openers were followed by Ramnaresh Sarwan who occupied the pivotal No. 3 slot in the batting order. This classy seasoned right-hander, however, was again a great disappointment.
Sarwan technically is the best of the younger generation of West Indian batsmen, though admittedly, his batting does suffer from several weaknesses, both technical and temperamental or attitudinal. Notable among his technical weaknesses are a measure of uncertainty to deliveries pitched just outside the off-stump and vulnerability to fast, especially swinging yorkers because of his inordinately high backlift.
His temperamental deficiencies include lapses of concentration resulting in carelessness, overconfidence, failure to exercise caution and good judgment, and false ambition which sometimes makes him attempt strokes beyond his abilities.
These deficiencies and weaknesses were frequently responsible for his downfall in Australia where though he had several useful starts, as often in the past, he failed to proceed to a big score. Unfortunately, in the one innings where he seemed likely to do so, he suffered from an umpiring error.
Sarwan, like Gayle, does not seem to learn from his mistakes. For example, in Australia he continued to be caught hooking - the 11th occasion in his Test career. One would have thought that by now he would have eliminated that stoke which he plays incorrectly with insufficient movement of his back foot.
In Australia Sarwan continued to be dismissed in other irresponsible ways that are distressing. This is reflected in Tony Cozier's description of his innings of 32 in the second innings of the second Test.
According to Cozier, "For an hour and a quarter… Sarwan struck six fours, mostly cuts of varying authenticity in a shot-a-ball 32 of 58 balls.
"It was a buccaneering approach that didn't portray a sense of permanence and, six balls after play resumed in fading light following light rain, it ended with a wild slash off Lee that presented a catch to the wicket-keeper.
"It was a stroke indicative of the general don't carish attitude that has brought West Indies cricket to its knees."
Sarwan's scores in the series were 21 and 31, 2 and 32 and 16 and 62 - an aggregate of 164 runs in six innings with an average of 27.33.
This was not only a very poor performance by a player of undoubted ability, but also a bad omen for the future of West Indies cricket.
Sarwan was followed in the batting order by master batsman Brian Lara. Lacking initially both form and confidence and the unfortunate victim of three umpiring errors, Lara did not come good until the final Test at Adelaide. There he made a double century (226), his eighth in Test cricket, taking his career Test average to an excellent 54.19 with 31 hundreds and 46 half-centuries in 213 innings and breaking the record for the highest Test run-scorer of all time. That innings, which constituted more than 50 percent of his team's highest total (405) for the series, again demonstrated clearly its unhealthy excessive reliance on him.
This continued dependence on Lara was rendered greater in the series by the failure of skipper Shivnarine Chanderpaul who had an uncharacteristically unproductive series which was a great blow to the team. Chanderpaul, a reliable batsman with more than 6000 Test runs and an average of 46, failed to record even a single half-century in the series. The victim of two questionable umpiring decisions, "Tiger" had scores of 2 and 7, 39 and 10 and 25 and 4 or an aggregate of 87 runs with a paltry average of 14.50. This was by far his worst performance in his distinguished Test career dating back to 1994.
Unfortunately, the recent tour did not provide sufficient opportunity to assess the ability of two of the team's reputedly gifted younger players, namely, Marlon Samuels and Dwayne Smith. They occupied the last specialist position in the batting order, the former for the first two Tests and the latter in the final game.
Samuels, the elegant 24-year-old Jamaican, has long been regarded as one of the West Indies' most promising batsmen, but without fulfilling his potential. In Australia he was playing his first Test in two and a half years, after an indifferent start to his Test career in which he appeared in 20 Tests and scored only 896 runs with a solitary century.
Returning to the team apparently with a new attitude and a different, more patient and mature approach to batting, Samuels scored a brilliant career- best double century (257) against Queensland in the single first-class game before the Tests. Regrettably, however, he could not repeat this in the Tests, where he had scores of 5 and 17 not out and 5 and 29, an aggregate of 56 runs with an average of 18.66 before his tour was cut off by a knee injury.
His replacement in the team for the final Test at Adelaide, the 23-year-old Barbadian, Dwayne Smith, was playing his first Test in 14 months.
This dangerous, explosive, audacious inconsistent batsman had done little of note with the bat in seven Test appearances since scoring a brilliant unbeaten run-a-ball century (105) on his Test debut in South Africa about two years ago. At Adelaide he had scores of 14 and 0, being a victim of an umpiring error in one innings.
This writer continues to reserve judgment on Dwayne Smith (as well as on his namesake, Devon Smith) as a potential Test batsman of quality until later.
The critical question is whether Dwayne Smith has the ability/potential as well as the discipline/cricketing sense to make the kind of contribution another hard-hitting aggressive player, Andrew Flintoff, makes regularly to England with the bat.
The third and final instalment of this article will complete the examination of the team's batting problems, as well as focus on its bowling and the thorny question of captaincy.
This fourth and final instalment of this article on the recent West Indies cricket tour of Australia will address two important issues. Firstly, it will deal with the question of the captaincy of the regional team. Secondly, it will seek to assess the present state and the prospects of West Indies cricket in the near future.
The recent Test series in Australia as well as the West Indies tour of Sri Lanka earlier in the year have drawn attention to the thorny question of leadership, which is often a significant factor in the success of a cricket team. It is this writer's view that it is in the best interest of West Indies cricket to have Shivnarine Chanderpaul replaced as captain as early as possible and allow him to concentrate on the role of being a reliable, productive middle-order batsman which he has performed with credit or distinction throughout most of his successful Test career.
This view has nothing to do with the fact that Chanderpaul became captain by default in a crisis or with the debatable question as to whether or not the burden of captaincy is adversely affecting his batting.
Nor does it stem from the fact that his record as skipper is very poor - one win, two draws and eight defeats in 11 Tests in three series. Furthermore, Chanderpaul's captaincy, though deficient, is not being blamed for the recent "whitewash" in Australia, which was due to numerous factors.
The truth is that Chanderpaul does not look like a real captain in the field, that is, like a man in command of a team and the situation.
He is not suited for the job from at least two standpoints. Firstly, as Courtney Walsh, his former team-mate, recently pointed out, Chanderpaul is not "a natural leader", in terms of personality, bearing, disposition, dynamism, conviction, confidence, imagination, the ability to command respect, loyalty and support, and other personal attributes which contribute to the success of a leader.
Secondly, in spite of his long experience in Test cricket, Chanderpaul has never been known to have what is sometimes called an excellent cricket mind, that is, to be someone who is a good thinker and an advanced student in the finer points of the game. This virtue is critical for the conception and implementation of appropriate strategy on the field.
These two deficiencies have often made Chander-paul's captaincy both uninspiring and technically deficient. His captaincy tends to be predictable rather than imaginative, passive rather than positive. As Colin Croft, the former Guyanese and West Indies fast bowler, observed, "Chanderpaul looked totally out of his depth, seemingly at a complete loss as to what to do next for strategy and cohesiveness."
Admittedly, it is a dilemma to decide who should replace Chanderpaul as skipper. Hopefully, not Brian Lara, though this writer will not be surprised if the 36-year-old master batsman is entrusted with the leadership of the team for the third time.
Lara does possess experience and a good cricket brain. He, however, lacks one of the most important ingredients for successful leadership, namely, good exemplary character which commands respect, submission and support from others. It was this quality which distinguished the leadership of Frank Worrell and Clive Lloyd, the two most outstanding captains in the long history of West Indies cricket.
Lara, on the other hand, has a well-known history of indiscipline and has been accused by his team-mates of selfishness. His flaws in character and conduct contributed significantly to the conspicuous failure of his leadership in the past. The truth is that the approach of "Do what I say, not what I do" has almost invariably been a recipe for disastrous leadership.
In conclusion, it is sad to note that at the end of another calendar year the West Indies remain ranked lowly eighth among the ten Test-playing teams, above only weak Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the two most recent admissions to Test status.
The recent whitewash in Australia means that the West Indies have lost their last eight Tests there, dating back to the 1996-1997 series, and 11 of the last 12. It also means that the regional team has won only three of its last eleven series and none of the last five. The most recent West Indies series win was 1-0 over Bangladesh in 2004. In 2005 the team won one Test, lost eight and drew two.
These lamentable statistics suggest that West Indies cricket at the highest level has made little or no progress in the last year or two. Essentially, it has been marking time.
The senior team's erratic performances continue, with a marked lack of consistency even during the same Test. The batsmen and the bowlers continue seemingly not to learn from their mistakes, series after series. Furthermore, the optimistic pronouncements by the captain and coach before each series and each Test continue, but remain unfulfilled. Finally, the supreme regional cricket authority, the WICB, continues to be deluded into believing that the senior team is better than its results indicate.
Yes, the recent tour Down Under has shown that little has changed in West Indies cricket over the past year. As Colin Croft stated in an article at the conclusion of the tour, "Bravo is a bright point, but overall the picture is bleak. The West Indies team is just as poor a unit as it was a year ago."
The recent series in Australia certainly has done nothing to alter this writer's opinion, expressed several years ago when Brian Lara, Carl Hooper and Ridley Jacobs were the pillars of the senior regional team, that the West Indies will not be able to regain world ascendancy in cricket during their careers or even in this decade.
This may seem to be a very pessimistic, unpatriotic hypercritical view. It is, however, a fair appraisal and the true reality of current West Indies cricket which Caribbean cricket fans and the deluded cricket authorities need to recognize. Only time will tell whether in this year, 2006, any significant light will appear at the end of the dark tunnel in which West Indies cricket at the highest level has been travelling for most of the last ten years.