5th May 2015
Patrolling the Boundary – a view from the outfield
It’s been asked in the Caribbean for as long as I’ve been closely following its cricket – and posited for at least a decade before that: “Is there light at the end of the tunnel?” Well, is there a glimmering?
The variant of the query is, “have we turned a corner?” It’s basically the same question, but maybe this time the answer is “yes”.
During the Grenada Test Match, the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew asked this of Jeffrey Dujon. A few days after they’d saved the 1st Test (and a day or two before their horrible collapse in the 2nd), Dujon replied that the West Indies had “turned so many corners that they were effectively back where they’d started”.
With Phil Simmons recently taking control of the ‘reigns’, there is very much a feeling of ‘back to square one’ – but a back-to-basic approach is not a bad point from which to begin.
Simmons took over a side that’d been effectively leaderless since the dismissal of former Head Coach, Ottis Gibson back in August 2014, just prior to the Test series v Bangladesh. This was not long after the sacking of Darren Sammy as Test captain in May, and little more than a week after the removal of Clyde Butts as Chairman of Selectors.
Subsequently, and perhaps not surprisingly, into this leadership vacuum stepped Dwayne Bravo when the ODI team was on tour in India in October – and promptly led the entire squad ‘unanimously’ out on strike. The new Convenor of Selectors, Clive Lloyd was present in India – but only recently elevated to the role, he did not yet have the weight to persuade the players not to desert their posts.
This act of betrayal has helped to shape the subsequent sides Lloyd has picked – the type of characters he wants appearing for the West Indies, and the manner in which he hopes to see them progress as cricketers, and men.
Not much more than a year ago, in February 2014, Lloyd was a guest on the radio commentator Andrew Mason’s weekly cricket talk-show, Mason and Guests. The other main guest was Curtly Ambrose. Alongside these three, incredibly, was me, as the show’s regular co-host and ‘statto’.
Clive spoke passionately about the need for the best Caribbean cricketers to recommit themselves to cricket in the region – which should come before the ‘bright lights and big money’ of overseas tournaments. He wanted the current players to show some love for West Indies cricket. He urged the High Performance Centre to be more cohesive, and to produce well-rounded cricketers who think more about the game. He also implored former greats like Viv Richards and Curtly Ambrose to be utilised and share their skills with the emerging players.
Since that programme, Lloyd has become Chairman of Selectors, Ambrose the WI’s bowling coach (and also got knighted), while I’ve moved to Islamabad. Such is life.
Ambrose’s presence in and around the WI team has had a significant impact on the players and their performances. He has managed to instill in them his passion and desire for the game – and his sense of ‘team’ and ‘us’.
One of the foundation stones of Lloyd’s great period at the helm of West Indies cricket (like Sir Frank Worrell before him, and continued by Richards) was his constant reminder to his team that they were not there just to win, but to embody the collective identity and interests of the people of the Caribbean. In the years since their fall in the mid-90s it’s not been unusual to assume that most of the team are looking out for their own.
While one can sympathise individually with those players who have succumbed to the allure of (millions of) mighty rupees, they have collectively turned their backs on the shared national identity that is the West Indies cricket team.
Dwayne Bravo famously said that his first allegiance was to his country, Trinidad & Tobago, secondly to his IPL team (then the Mumbai Indians – presumably he is now equally devoted to the Chennai Super Kings), and thirdly to the West Indies.
WI Director of Cricket, Richard Pybus introduced the policy of ‘West Indies first’, and for Clive Lloyd it has more than one simple meaning. For him, and many others, national consciousness is to be found in West Indies cricket – not petty insular island identities, or distracting Indian IPL influences.
Sunil Narine was the first to suffer for putting West Indies second – not arriving home in time for the team’s pre-Test training ahead of the home series v New Zealand in June 2014, preferring instead to continue appearing for Kolkata Knight Riders. He was dropped.
Many critics were incensed at what they felt was a heavy-handed over-reaction, and a typical case of mindless ‘nose despite your face’ injustice. (It is ironic that the Indian authorities have subsequently shown no gratitude for Narine investing his time with them – and have banned him for a dodgy bowling action. Had his actions in June last year been different he might still be bowling for the West Indies).
Notwithstanding media criticism, the WICB had established a line in the sand. Admittedly, this was a little blurred when both Narine and Andre Russell opted to play for their IPL sides in the Champions League last September, rather than accept selection for the WI Test team v Bangladesh – but the Board obfuscated by saying the West Indies first policy did not apply to ICC sanctioned international tournaments such as the CLT20 – as opposed to domestic competitions like the IPL. Whatever.
At the time it suited Clive Lloyd not to make further waves with the players, while seeming not to undermine the policy. Within a few weeks that authority was challenged, undermined and obliterated by the ODI players’ strike in India.
While obviously a public relations disaster at the time (and still yet perhaps a crippling or fatal financial disaster for the WICB) the affair made it easy for Lloyd to focus on exactly the players he wanted.
During the recent three-Test series with England, many English papers felt the WIndies were weakened by the absence of several of their IPL ‘stars’. No such thing. And notice nobody even mentioned the ‘West Indies First’ policy this time around. Those that had chosen the IPL were surplus to requirements.
Speaking on the BBC’s Test Match Special (on which he proved a very popular contributor, particularly with British listeners) Tino Best suggested that, in his opinion at least, none of Narine, Russell, Dwayne Bravo or Kieron Pollard would have made the Test side. His only inclusion would have been Chris Gayle, especially with WI having an apparent void at the top of the order – neither Devon Smith nor Shai Hope quite cutting the mustard.
However, even if there had not been a clash of dates in Gayle’s diary, I doubt very much his back would have allowed him to stand in the field for a day and a half – or that the team’s management would have asked him to put it to the test. They may well think that the dressing room is better off without him.
A hardworking, positive, and united team ethic has been brought to the side – but not for the first time.
In their tenure in charge, coach Ottis Gibson and captain Darren Sammy attempted to tap into a similar ethos for success and some positive results were seen – and some negative. Ronnie Sarwan was a notable member of the old guard to fall foul of the new strictures, but with Sammy and Gibson at the wheel the team bus appeared, from the outside at least, to be slowly but surely navigating a corner on the path.
And then Chris Gayle returned.
By popular demand, and facilitated by Prime Minister of St Vincent & the Grenadines Dr Ralph Gonsalves to the maximum publicity for both men, Gayle was reintegrated into the WI team after spending a year on the sidelines for disciplinary reasons. At first, he succeeded with the bat, and indeed the team enjoyed its greatest success in years, winning the 2012 ICC World T20 tournament.
But inevitably the spirit dissolved.
This was not directly Chris Gayle’s fault. I am sure he does not deliberately set out to destabilise the environments he inhabits. But naturally, his ‘cool’ is infectious to callow fellows, and the desire of too many young and impressionable Caribbean cricketers has been to emulate Chris in style, manner and approach – on and off the field. Shiv Chanderpaul is not an attractive or viable role-model when Gayle is under your roof.
Two years after the prodigal’s homecoming the house had collapsed, blown down by the huffing and puffing of self-styled ‘Big Dog’ Dwayne Bravo. Gayle was not the Bad Wolf – but Bravo has always been a creature of similar habits and shared self-motivations.
The strike ultimately did Lloyd and his fellow selectors a favour: their subsequent sacking of Bravo (and acolyte Kieron Pollard) along with the injury to Gayle, allowing them to wipe the slate clean – and look to the future with a group of younger players.
Starting with Jason Holder as ODI skipper, continuing with the arrival of the estimable Phil Simmons as coach, and with Sir Curtly onboard, the West Indies team can now retread the path that Sammy/Gibson were following, on a footing of confidence. The only immediate obstacle is the current Test captain, Denesh Ramdin.
While it may be churlish to be critical of him in victory, Ramdin is still perceived as part of the ‘old-school’ problem associated with Gayle, Bravo etc. It’s probable he would be off to the IPL too if anyone wanted him.
After the strike his own T&T Board sanctioned him for his part in supporting it, stripping him of the island’s captaincy, and the WICB itself deliberately leaked its intention to do likewise at Test level – in favour of Kraigg Brathwaite.
The news made international sporting headlines, giving this blog over 10,000 hits for spreading the story via Twitter – but the WICB got cold feet and allowed the wobbly status quo to continue – at least for the time being.
But it’s no secret that the WICB and selectors would still like to see Kraigg at the helm. But in theory, drawing the England series makes it more difficult for them now to depose Ramdin. But why?
He is generally regarded as a poor, negative skipper who lets the game drift, over-bowls his preferred, unbalanced, threadbare four-man attack, and has a default defensive predilection for inserting the opposition when winning the toss.
In the long-term shaping of this emerging team, the sooner the selectors make a bold move the better.
With the WI on a high after squaring the series, now would be a good time to allow Brathwaite to takeover on home soil. Defeat in the upcoming two Tests versus Australia is expected, so anything better than a rout will be a relative success. And the process will give Brathwaite and Simmons more time in which to work together and gel, and mould this young side in their image.
An equally difficult Test tour of Australia follows in December, and the players will bond and learn more about each other if their long-term skipper leads them through the experience.
After Australia, the WIndies face India at home and Pakistan home and away. These are the Tests they need to build towards – the moment that, with the right coach, captain, team and attitude, they can beat these sides and genuinely start re-climbing the ICC Test rankings.
The ‘successful’ 1-1 outcome of the series with England should not impact on the course they are undertaking – only make the steps they are taking more certain.
Before the series, WI had been dubbed ‘mediocre’ by the incoming Chairman of the ECB. Simmons and others have since claimed that the comment was a source of inspiration for the team. Good. But they shouldn’t need perceived insults to make them raise their game.
Results-wise, West Indies have been worse than mediocre for a significant time. They have been poor – and this is reflected in their placings in the ICC rankings tables (8th, 7th and 4th).
At times in recent years some of the cricket they’ve played has also been beyond mediocre. It has been dreadful. Their capitulations in India in 2013 were not worthy of any 1st-class cricket team, let alone one of Test standard.
But equally, at times, some of West Indies’ cricket has been excellent. Darren Bravo’s match-saving ton in New Zealand in December 2013; and spells of hostile fast-bowling, flogging wickets out of a dead pitch, by Kemar Roach v New Zealand in July 2012 and Tino Best in Bangladesh later that year was exceptional.
So to be labelled as mediocre is fair enough. The point to all Caribbean cricket fans, and the players themselves, is that they know they are potentially so much better. Well then, they’d better set about proving it!
It is down to Simmons and Ambrose to remind the players constantly of their abilities in order to get the best out of them – and the players to get the best out of themselves: belief, concentration and commitment. Then they will surely make progress. There are no short cuts to success by merely being ‘cool’.
The crop of players now in the team and on its periphery are very exciting, each in their own individual and stylistic way.
Jermaine Blackwood’s batting scintillated on a couple of occasions, and while he may be liable to give it away from time to time, he needs a prolonged period in Test cricket to find the right balance between attack and defense for himself.
Kraigg Brathwaite is at the other end of the scale, but shouldn’t be encouraged to play more shots – just keep doing what he’s doing. He is the natural successor to Chanderpaul as the team’s limpet. With the responsibility of opening the batting and captaincy, Kraigg will have a lot on his shoulders.
Darren Bravo made a triumphant return to form in the 3rd Test, having looked vaguely disengaged from cricket for some time, and having had a couple of lay-offs to recharge his batteries in the last year or so. He could have gone either way – drifting away from the game like Kieron Powell, but hopefully this victory will give him the fuel to be at the heart of WIndies’ revival.
Jason Holder contributed tellingly with both bat and ball; and I expect his important interventions to increase as he plays more. Some commentators have argued he’s not good enough to perform the first-change quick bowling roll. I disagree.
If you’ve grown up watching Joel Garner come on as the third seamer (to be followed by Colin Croft!) then you have high expectations. But a generation with an additional decade of watching to draw upon will tell you that Holder compares very favourably alongside his namesake Vanburn, the Kent duo of Bernard Julien and John Shepherd, and is a lot better than Clive Lloyd!
If the West Indies are brave enough to play five bowlers rather than four, then they have the option of playing a further quick to support Jason, or two spinners. Both Bishoo and Permaul out-bowled England’s spinners in the series, while Samuels’ action again gave rise to concern amid horrifying still images of it on social media.
As Andrew Mason continually says, “West Indies undervalue bowling”. I agree with him. But bearing in mind WI won this Test with only four proper bowlers let’s not labour that point here. Neither of us undervalues winning!
Brathwaite, Blackwood, Bravo and Holder are the nucleus of a WI team that should be going places. And all of them came through the West Indies ‘A’ side in the last 2-3 years. In that period have also emerged Shannon Gabriel, Devendra Bishoo and Veerasammy Permaul, who all played in the series; and Leon Johnson and Carlos Brathwaite who featured in the squads throughout but did not make the final XI.
Gabriel, Bishoo and Permaul all made a positive impact, and we can expect more from them. Likewise the uncapped Carlos Brathwaite, who is a powerful all-rounder, and Johnson who has looked useful in the four Tests he’s played, and was unlucky not to have got the nod to replace Devon Smith at the top of the order in the last Test, having scored 66 and 41 against Bangladesh last September.
Shai Hope did not instill me with great confidence as an opener, but he should be given further opportunities to display his talent in the middle order.
The opener’s position is the one that needs filling most urgently, Smith having proved he’s not good enough at this level. But there are several young players beside Johnson and Hope who could fit the bill.
Johnson Charles has done the job in ODI cricket and has natural ability; Tyrone Theophile had a great domestic season for the Windward Islands; while there is always the possibility of the return of Kieron Powell, who is somewhat the forgotten man of WI cricket – having gone into self-imposed exile for personal reasons, after promising much and achieving some, in his initial 21Tests. But he needs to get some domestic cricket under his belt before he can be considered.
My own personal selection would be Assad Fudadin, who had a taste of Test cricket in 2012 and at twenty-nine is not yet too old to establish himself.
He is yet another who has enjoyed success on WIndies ‘A’ tours – and that is where the future West Indies is coming from – and from where it’s getting its influences.
When Dwayne Bravo et al were engineering and executing their strike last October, the A team was touring Sri Lanka under the tutelage of Graeme West, an Englishman who is Head Coach of the WICB’s High Performance Centre, based at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.
His colleague on that tour, and mentor to the players, was Sir Vivian Richards.
You can perhaps picture the influence the inspirational Sir Viv had on the young men, at a time when the news emerging from India of a players’ strike was alarming, chaotic and often contradictory. Richards doubtless was a calming and maturing influence on his wards as both cricketers and men.
West was a summariser for the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage of the Kensington Oval Test Match, co-commentating with Andrew Mason, Jonathan Agnew and Philip Hackett.
His pride at covering an England-West Indies Test Match in Barbados was only surpassed by his pride that six men in the WIndies team were alumni of the HPC: Brathwaite, Hope, Blackwood, Holder, Permaul and Gabriel.
Looking forward, it is in the continuing cricketing and worldly education of young men by the likes of West, Simmons, Ambrose and Richards that West Indies’ improving international fortunes lie.
Looking back, it’s probable that the things said to the young Caribbean cricketers in Sri Lanka in October 2014 had far greater importance, and of more lasting value, than anything being said by West Indians in India at the same time.
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.