20th April 2015
Patrolling the Boundary – a view from the outfield
We left Barbados in January, and my wife, Christine and I moved into our new home in Islamabad a little over a week ago. It has been a hectic time!
Since Christmas, preparations for the big move and then the huge upheaval itself, was followed by a few months back in Britain – catching up with friends and family – effectively homeless (our UK home is rented out) enjoying a nomadic existence, sleeping in a different guest bedroom or guesthouse most nights, and wondering why on Earth we had timed our move to coincide with the English winter?
I had hoped that before I left the Caribbean I’d find/make time to compose a final, farewell piece on the place I’d lived and adored since July 2011. But sadly I didn’t.
There wasn’t much time for cricket writing. And since then, there hasn’t been much time for cricket watching either.
I’d hoped to settle in front of a fireplace somewhere and let the World Cup warm me up and wash me down – the inevitable defeats and humiliations of my two teams (England and West Indies) being a foreseeable set-back that would be quickly overcome.
But the time zones and travelling defeated me, and it wasn’t until the semi-finals that I got to see any of the competition at all. I had been asked by one online cricket website to contribute some pieces featuring reactions to the West Indies’ matches. Unfortunately, I had to decline. I knew I’d have little free time and opportunity to pen anything. It would have been tougher still to write about cricket I didn’t even see.
But I don’t feel as though I missed much.
I confess I don’t really care about one-day cricket. If I did, I’d already be off on the wrong foot with my new team, my third team. Two heavy defeats to Bangladesh in the first two ODIs in the last three days are weighing heavily here on the passionate cricket lovers of Pakistan.
It’s too early for me to voice an opinion on whether this is further evidence of the rise of Bangladesh, or the fall of Pakistan. A local colleague this morning assured me that, like most things in life, it’s a bit of both.
If this is indicative of a decline in Pakistani cricket, then it is a shame – but the emotions associated with it will not be new to me.
I spent three and a half years watching the once wonderful WIndies regress and consolidate their position as the world’s 8th best team; and I’ve spent most of my lifetime watching England take a thrashing in the Ashes. Yes, I was old enough to be there to see Botham in 1981, and Flintoff in 2005 among others; but I also suffered years of watching Waugh bat and Warne bowl far too well to be able to enjoy it – I was of course too young to appreciate it with detachment.
In 2005 I witnessed Glenn McGrath’s devastating 5-for on the opening day at Lord’s, reducing England to 92-7, sobering us after we’d been heady and delirious from seeing Australia hustled out for 190.
As we left the ground, deflated and flattened by that artful metronome, after a considerable silence my Dad broke the air by magnanimously observing: “Well, you have to admit that was great bowling.”
“Yes you do.” I said. “But not today. Sometime, one-day. But not today. Today he can just #### off.”
We lost the match, but won the series. The highs and lows of the great game – and my three teams are generally experiencing the low-end of it at the moment. That’s where they are at now.
And now I am at last re-engaging with the cricket world – via playing (19 on debut in Islamabad!), email, Twitter, this blog and TV.
I managed to tune back in just in time for the 1st Test between two of my teams last week.
Officially, third versus eighth in the ICC’s Test table, this promised to be a much closer encounter than the rankings suggested.
Ahead of the series, English cricket’s new Chairman, Colin Graves suggested anything less than an emphatic win for England would be unsatisfactory, since the West Indies are “mediocre”. He was quickly hollered at in the Caribbean media, some hyperbolic reporting placing his assessment of the West Indies alongside Tony Greig’s infamously incendiary evaluation of 1976.
An over-the-top reaction to an over-the-top comment? Yes and no. Graves was right – perhaps even over-generous. West Indies are mediocre, often downright bad, and the region’s commentators and broadcasters are all too well aware of it. But the point was it was not for him to say that. It was as insulting as an acquaintance telling you that your sister is ugly. Yes she is, and you know it – but how dare he say such a thing?? And with blood boiling you thump him.
The WIndies didn’t quite thump England, or even blacken their eye in the first Test – but they did fight back well enough to give the potential bullies something to go away and think about.
What will be interesting now is to see how both teams react to the opening exchange – and which has the greater self-belief as we progress to Round Two.
England spent 2-3 years strutting their stuff in international cricket, walking the walk, and doing far too much talking-the-talk – Jimmy Anderson in particular having far too much to say for a mere ‘good’ bowler. England’s best ever? Not even close.
But with Anderson they did reach and justify the mantle of World Number One. And then they got hammered by Australia. The Aussies have spent the majority of their cricket history at the top, and expect to be there. When they are, they talk-the-talk to such an excessive extent that it is hard not to hate them. But we try.
They believe they are the best, and when they are not they fight hard to make sure they soon are again. When England reach giddy heights they tend to suffer vertigo, and an immediate nose-bleed. It all gets a bit too much for them to stay up there for very long.
The West Indies ruled the roost for 15-20 years; but it took them a further twenty to hit the canvas after they took a knockout punch. Some believe they may not have got there yet. For years there has been hope amongst the fans and followers that there may be light at the end of the tunnel – but many concede that the light may still be ever dimming, and that an ultimate darkness may yet prevail. Such a blackout may be unthinkable, but it is not impossible.
So the result in the 1st Test is a cause for momentary rejoicing – but let’s not get carried away. After all, this is only England. English cricket teams more than any other still bear the scars of their thrashings and blackwashes throughout the 80s and 90s; and still see West Indies opposition, especially in their own islands, as an imposing menace to overcome.
So they should be – but few other opponents have hung on to their fear of the West Indies like England. In the Caribbean, they still have an inferiority complex.
Additionally, England is going through a period of civil war and self-destructiveness, which has ridiculously manifested itself in some eyes as a direct conflict between round-head forces of oppression – personified by Captain Alistair Cook – against the freedom fighting cavalier that is Kevin Pietersen.
In reality, a dysfunctional and poorly administered ECB has for over a year now allowed its own mismanagement and incompetency to spill over onto the cricket field, with dire consequences for the national side.
Cook and Pietersen, in very different ways, have publicly suffered from this disharmony – one on, the other off the cricket field – but it is the lasting collateral damage to the younger emerging England players in the side and squad that should be of the greatest concern to observers.
England is ripe for the taking. And by denying them in the 1st Test, the West Indies are in a position to pick them off and fill their baskets. But only if they believe they can do so, and I doubt that they genuinely have that belief. Tony Cozier said the same this weekend.
Personally, I don’t think that, firstly, the WIndies players believe they are (yet) that good at Test level; but secondly and more damaging, they do believe that England ARE.
They are misguided. West Indies know they should be higher than number 8 in the rankings, but they don’t realise that England are flattered by their placing at number three.
West Indies supporters have long seen World cricket in terms of the natural order of things: Australia and England near the top (and where the WI should be, too); Pakistan and India towards the middle, and New Zealand near the bottom – only slightly more worthy of recognition than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
Hence, when in 2012 West Indies defeated the emerging New Zealand team 2-0 in the home Test series, supporters were underwhelmed: “It’s only New Zealand.”
There was not an awareness, or an acknowledgement in the Caribbean that Darren Sammy’s team had just overcome a fine side that would be heading towards the top half of world cricket within the next couple of years. (At the time I counselled the dissatisfied not to belittle this victory – and warned that one day their opponents may be saying “it’s only the west Indies”).
Subsequent defeats of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were similarly dismissed as unimpressive and meaningless – despite West Indies now having won six Tests in a row. And then, when home Test series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka would have genuinely gauged West Indies’ improvement, the WICB cancelled them both – and we had truly meaningless and unimpressive one-dayers versus India and Pakistan instead.
The moment to regain status and confidence was lost – and soon the men who had shaped this gradual but genuine progress were lost too: both Sammy and coach Ottis Gibson were sacked.
Not only did the sides’ aspirations go with them but other qualities too. These were two men who had instilled self-discipline and self-belief. It was of no surprise (to this observer at least) that it was only a few months later that the ODI team was led into anarchy by the arch-agitator, Dwayne Bravo.
The WICB may not have been guilty ultimately of the heinous crime of calling off the October 2014 tour of India; but they certainly set in place the conditions for such an act of treachery to occur.
Bravo has since shouldered the blame and been punished – banished (probably for ever) to the IPL. Not the harshest of sentences.
But the other guilty party, Dave Cameron got off scott-free. He was not properly called to account or reproached – beyond suffering a verbal admonishment from Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of St Vincent & the Grenadines, for failing to be a man of his word.
Cameron’s only ‘trial’ was to suffer the ordeal of having to gain re-election as President of the Board. It is indicative of much in West Indies cricket administration that he is still deemed to be the best man for the job.
No successor was identified for Cameron, but Chairman of Selectors Clive Lloyd identified his man to replace Dwayne Bravo sometime ago. Lloyd spoke of Jason Holder’s qualities of leadership when naming him to lead WI in the World Cup – on the back of scant captaincy experience. While he neither shone in that role in the tournament, neither did he freeze in the glaring stare of the headlights either – and made one or two bold, if confusing, decisions.
I doubt the qualities Lloyd observed when he made him ‘Holder of the Poison Chalice’ was anything he’d seen on the field. I’m convinced that the personal qualities young Jason displayed during the ‘unanimous’ strike (he was part of the squad and Lloyd was there as a Selector) was the factor which gained him the ODI captaincy.
It’s known that the strike was far from unanimous, and that eloquent words of both bewilderment and disapproval were expressed to Lloyd from certain quarters at that time from within the squad.
If Holder displayed little evidence of leadership before being made the ODI figurehead, until this week he’d done a little, but not much more, to suggest he had the makings of a fine all-rounder. The match in Antigua, at least for now, appears to have made him a Test selection certainty. But don’t expect him to be given the heavy responsibility of leading that XI too. Denesh Ramdin is living on borrowed time, and it’s a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ he is replaced as skipper. And his replacement will be opener, Kraigg Brathwaite.
Brathwaite and Holder hail from the same club in Barbados, The Wanderers. It is the island’s oldest cricket club – the home of many former great cricketers, and home too of the great Tony Cozier. It was also my home club.
Holder and Brathwaite are the future – and the present. And Jermaine Blackwood made a very strong case for being a fixture in the set-up too.
Indeed, such was the unexpected success of a few WI players in this Test that it’s difficult to see how they can change the un-balance of the side. Because it was evident, if it needed to be so demonstrably plain, that WI need to have a five-man attack. Four is fine if they are good enough – and West Indies’ aren’t.
Roach and Taylor need more resting, not excess overs of donkey-work. Holder is an able second change, who may improve to something better. And Sulieman Benn was the manual labourer. But his skill (or concentration) is waning, and West Indies lack a bowler who can be trusted to hold down an end for 25 overs-or-so at negligible cost.
Bishoo is definitely not that man. He could be an attacking force, maybe even a match-winner, if used properly in a five-man attack.
Radio commentator Andrew Mason has continually championed picking a strong five-man bowling attack – his accusation long being that “we devalue bowling” in team selection. He would not have been surprised by the typically defensive XI which took the field at The Sir Vivian Richards Stadium.
But then who would West Indies omit? The two vulnerable men before the Test were Smith and Blackwood, but they both did well. In fact some commentators may have been surprised by Blackwood’s selection for the 1st Test to begin with.
Roland Butcher on a recent ‘Mason & Guests’ show expected the 6th batting slot to go to Leon Johnson. But with Blackwood’s century and Smith’s fifty it is hard to see anyone else from the top 6 being dropped just yet.
Nevertheless, if it were me I’d be bold enough to drop a batsman (probably Darren Bravo), bring in Bishoo and stiffen up the batting order by picking a second spinner who can bat and field in place of Benn – either Guyana’s Permaul or Barbados’ Ashley Nurse; or all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite as 4th seamer.
But I expect to see another defensive selection – with Gabriel (who has been showing indifferent form and pace for a couple of seasons) to replace Benn – and for the West Indies to be punished this time for their negativity, with, I’m genuinely sorry to say it, England winning.
That’s were WI’re at.
David Oram is an Englishman resident in Islamabad following West Indies cricket. When living in Barbados he was the ‘statto’ and sometime presenter of ‘Mason & Guests’ – Voice of Barbados’ weekly cricket talk show, the leading cricket radio show in the West Indies – hosted by the Caribbean’s principal radio commentator, Andrew Mason. You can tweet me at DavidOram@colblimp1983.