Driving in the Dark

18th December 2013

The Mason & Guests Show           

“The only cricket show in the Caribbean”

It’s been a tough week to be a sports follower. Or should I say it’s been a tough week to be THIS sports follower? I implied as much to Andrew when he introduced me on last night’s show:

AM: “How are you, David?”

DO: “I’ve been better, Andrew”

AM: “Why so?”

DO: “England. West Indies. Tottenham. They say disaster always comes in threes.”

In England’s case 3-0 and the Ashes gone. In West Indies’ case a third innings defeat in four Tests, and maybe Sammy soon gone. For Spurs it was 5-0 and AVB gone. All the above teams must dig deep in prospect of some gold, or need to look deep into Santa’s sack for a little star dust.

My fellow guests this week were once again journalist, Mike King, Dr Don Marshall (political scientist at the UWI) and my very good friend, Roland Butcher (Middlesex, Barbados and England; and Head of Sports at the UWI, Cave Hill). On the line we had Hugh Gore (Leeward Islands & Somerset) and the legendary Andy Roberts, all to review West Indies 2nd Test v New Zealand in Wellington.

AM: “A gutless performance. West Indies were crushed.” Our host did not intend this to be a show in which words were minced.

Despite the ineptitude of the two batting failures, the bowling was the focus of the panel. Their lack of penetration, intelligence and technique was brought into question, and we picked through the bowlers one by one.

AR: “Best and Gabriel don’t have the pace to make you stay up at night” was the assessment of Andy Roberts, but it was not their firepower, or lack of it, that was his major cause for concern.

AR: “Our fast bowlers don’t learn anything about quick bowling… or movement of the ball.” Roberts’ critique was that the opening pair had little variation or subtlety in their craft when using the new ball, and made scant efforts to improve their personal games by exploring the genuine art of fast bowling in any depth.

Roland Butcher echoed Roberts’ sentiments:

RB: “We are obsessed in this region by pace. No thought of seam position, using the new ball, swinging the ball etc.” This lack of intelligent innovation in Caribbean bowlers undermines the West Indies in two ways: it translates into an inability to test international oppositions, and failure to improve regional batting. As Roland explained:

RB: “Successful teams in cricket always have someone who can do something with the new ball,” and by not facing good bowling in domestic cricket West Indian batsmen don’t learn to have the patience or technique to counteract it.

On the whole, however, experienced observers don’t blame the coaches or coaching structure for these failings, but the modern players themselves. The belief in the Caribbean seems to be not merely that the current crop are poorer performers than their predecessors, but thicker too.

HG: “When did you last see a West Indian fast bowler using the crease?” asked Hugh Gore. “You’ve got to work on your game!” he asserted, obviously suggesting West Indian cricketers, generally, don’t.

HG: “West Indian players are mentally weak.” Gore continued, citing the mental toughness of Australians, South Africans and the English as something to aspire to. Personally, I wouldn’t have thought this was a good week in which to cite English cricketers as prime examples of mentally strong cricketers, but I got his point.

The great Andy Roberts was best placed to give a technical evaluation of Best and Gabriel:

AR: “Someone needs to work with Tino Best on his wrist position to improve his release of the ball”.

A scrambled seam at the point of delivery was something the New Zealand TV commentators had focused upon in their coverage of the first two Test Matches. Chris Cairns in particular was very quick to point out this fault in Gabriel’s action on the first morning at Dunedin. Roberts described Gabriel as a ‘strong-arm’ bowler:

AR: “He’s bowling purely from his shoulder… he isn’t using his body in his bowling.” He was even more damning of Sheldon Cottrell:

AR: “Cottrell is a one-arm bandit. He must start using his right arm.”

Cottrell is unlikely to come into reckoning for the 3rd Test, despite Gabriel only taking 2 wickets in the series thus far at 125 runs apiece. His batting is not quite so productive however, though it has been consistent: 0, 0 not out, 0 and 0.

Of course any debate about the bowling strength naturally reverts, sooner rather than later, to captain Darren Sammy. It has become plainly absurd to have him as the third seamer in what Don Marshall decried as a “brittle attack”:

DM: “Sammy is sub-standard in Test cricket, while his heart is full of gold.” A nice observation from Dr Marshall – but golden hearts don’t win Test Matches.

Mike King, hardly Sammy’s greatest advocate, once again called for the skipper to get the chop, and lyrically invoked images of John the Baptist’s head on a silver salver:

MK: “Sammy’s birthday weekend should be his last as captain,” he insisted. Happy birthday from Mike King. And perhaps Merry Christmas from the WICB too?

I pointed out to Mike that serious cricket analysts usually warn against knee-jerk reactions in response to shattering defeats, and recommend instead a period of calm reflection. Since I don’t consider myself a serious analyst, I can recklessly call for swingeing change – now is a suitable time and place for swinging the axe, and not just for the West Indies but England too.

Many long-time defenders of Sammy, myself amongst them, have concluded his upcoming 30th birthday may indeed be his sell-by date. Unfortunately, if this is the case then there’s scant good quality alternative produce on the captaincy shelves, and no irresistible special offers – just an unedifying collection of reduced items.

But I will write more about the captaincy debate on another occasion.

West Indies’ only effective Test bowler in recent testing times has been Shane Shillingford – and his immediate banning by the ICC took up a further period of the panel’s discussions. Their reaction, and my overview I will also be writing about on another occasion – probably tomorrow.

The future does indeed look bleak, nay dark. No light at the end of the tunnel? Hugh Gore summed things up nicely:

HG: “Andrew, you ask each week if we are turning a corner? Right now we are on a highway with another 1000 miles to go!”

Sounds as though West Indies still have a very long drive in the dark ahead.

The Mason & Guests show is broadcast live on Tuesday’s from 6.15-8pm ECT (10.15-midnight GMT)  on Voice of Barbados 92.9fm and can be heard via numerous internet tune-in services.

David Oram

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