Singing A Different Song

Earl Best gives credit where it is due.

I do not habitually have difficulty believing my eyes but I awaited the arrival of Monday’s Express to confirm what I thought my eyes had seen the day before. There it was in black and white in the middle of the ODI Scoreboard that adorned the back page:

M.Wade c DM Bravo b Roach………….26

C. McKay c DM Bravo b Roach…………0

Yes, DM Bravo, not DJ! And with that one chink in the armour now gone, there is reason, I submit, to be optimistic about the future not just of the player but of the team as a whole.

The Aussies had won the final ODI game against the West Indies at St Lucia’s scenic Beausejour Cricket Ground by 30 runs to earn a draw in the five-match series. But Darren Sammy and his men had unexpectedly run the tourists very close, threatening to fashion a remarkable victory out of a near impossible situation. Still, it was not just the 92-run eighth-wicket partnership that had said very positive things about this battling West Indian side; those who watched the Australian innings would have had to be struck by the excellence of the West Indian fielding. And Darren Bravo, not DJ but DM, he of the porous hands, had actually pouched two catches.

Now I have not yet, mind you, joined the growing band of West Indian supporters who are singing the praises of Coach Ottis Gibson. But if Gibson could have found a way to teach DM Bravo to catch, despite his obvious lack of player credentials, the man must have some coaching quality. And it’s beginning to show in a different way as well because the team is beginning to look – or perhaps we should say simply has looked in this series so far – like a side that we can once again be proud of. My guess is that we were all disappointed but not hugely surprised to find ourselves 0-1 down after the first game in Arnos Vale. It wasn’t the 40-run loss that caused the long faces but the nature of it, the fact that a team with a little character would have sailed to victory after getting to just short of 100 for the loss of only three wickets in quest of 205. But from a position of such promise, Sammy’s side came apart, unbelievably losing all of seven wickets for a mere 40-odd runs. The supporters must have been tempted to say, like a QRC boy of a few decades ago, that “We was leading (…) up to halftime and then they come back and lorse the match.”

Worse, we felt that, given the continuing struggles with the bat in the regional 40-over tournament, after such a debacle, they would go on to lose by increasingly bigger margins to the resurgent Aussies. It did not happen. Not only did we register our first win against the Aussies since 2006 in the rain-shortened second game in St Vincent but we inexplicably squandered a chance to go 2-1 up in the series in Game Three. All the doubts about character came sailing back when, needing a single run for victory with three balls left in the game, they somehow contrived not to win. Depending on where you were in the region, you heard bitter epithet-laden complaints about Sammy and Kemar Roach. But few seemed to feel that we had got the measure of new captain Shane Watson’s men and were about to put another cut-tail on them for the second time in three matches.

Interestingly, if you followed the results in the Express headlines, you had a sense that the editors were very sympathetic to the cause. “WINDIES CRUMBLE” announced the Friday defeat in Arnos Vale, with a drop head that said “Aussies win first ODI by 64 runs.” That was counterbalanced two days later on Monday, perhaps a little unimaginatively, by “WINDIES WIN,” the drophead this time explaining that the regional side had come back to “…register its first ODI victory over the Aussies since 2006.” Another two days and Wednesday’s “ARNOS VALE DRAMA – Windies, Aussies in thrilling tie” took no sides, no epithets appearing in the headlines despite presumably being the subjects of the most discussion in the rumshops and other tertiary level fora. “IN THE LEAD – Windies beat Aussies,” the editor trumpeted on Saturday after Keiron Pollard had smashed the Aussie bowling to all parts of the Beausejour to register his second ODI century and make victory possible in both the match and the series. And, doubtless of the conservative mould, he allowed himself a flourish after the defeat in the final game in St Lucia on Sunday, adding an adjective where he had sedulously refrained from so doing before: “SERIES TIED – Valiant Windies go down fighting.”

With the Commonsense Convois scheduled to come to a close with Sunday afternoon’s Family Day, I had been able to watch most of the Aussie innings on television, pleased as Punch with the West Indian fielding in particular and the character and fight they had shown in recovering from the battering by the Aussie top three. When your team concedes almost six runs per over in the first 20 overs of the match, you don’t expect them to have a chance of winning. And even if the opposition goes on to get only a relatively modest 281, you tend to feel that you have lost this one. I did. And I was certain of it when, as I left home to go rejoin the festivities, the scoreboard read 40-odd for three, newboy Johnson Charles, the struggling Marlon Samuels and the next world’s best  batsman DM Bravo having all perished without reaching double figures. As the periodical updates came in (“Bravo out; sixty-something fuh four,” “Eighty-something fuh five, Barath gone”) I had little interest in witnessing another certain drubbing. The television stayed off.  When it was made known that match winner Pollard had gone, caught Mike Hussey off skipper Watson with not enough heroics to get him past 33 this time, I mentally switched off the already dark and silent television, making a mental note to check the margin of defeat later.

Not for the first time, I had underestimated the West Indians, blind to their new-found resilience. Not for the first time, central to it was the livewire Andre Russell although skipper Sammy was the one whose bat did the most talking. What if anything Sunday’s showing forces us to reflect on is the selectors’ continuing mistreatment of Russell. On Sunday, he was quite brilliant in the field, one incident where he “dropped” a catch so as to save four runs demonstrating clearly the presence of a quick mind in a supremely athletic body. So hard was he on that body in this series that it came as no surprise to me that the all-rounder has been “ruled out of the Digicel Twenty20 International Series against Australia due to (sic) injury.”  “Diagnosed with a minor, right lateral hamstring strain, the report reveals, Russell had “played through the pain barrier in the recent Digicel One-day International Series, which ended level 2-2.”

“He played some important knocks,” it continues, “with 113 runs off 111 balls in four innings. He also took six wickets at 26.33 runs each, with best figures of 4-61 in the fifth and final Digicel ODI.” Yet Russell, whenever the selectors need to make way for a returning player, is the easy choice to come under the axe. For all of Sammy’s laudable performance in the ODI series in which he has contributed 160 runs with the bat in four innings and claimed four scalps for 147 runs in 32 overs with the ball, he is yet to convince me that he deserves a place in this side ahead of a fit Russell. But Sammy has done enough now to suggest that perhaps he will come eventually to earn his place on the side. So the captaincy issue really has to take second place behind the much, much more urgent issue of Chris Gayle.

A curiously unsatisfactory news item informed us last week that, despite the failure to agree on terms at the high-level meeting held in St Vincent last week, the former West Indies captain had signed an agreement with the WICB. The agreement, brokered and drafted by Caricom at the behest of newly installed Jamaica Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, comes with a Gayle “side-letter whose contents are yet to be disclosed.” Infuriatingly, it seems that the “resolution” of the impasse still does not mean that the hard-hitting Jamaican will be donning the maroon cap in the current series. Gayle is scheduled to represent the Royal Challengers Bangalore in this year’s version of the Indian Premier League which runs from April 4 to May 27. Since Gayle has also been contracted to play for Somerset in England’s domestic Twenty20 competition, his availability for the subsequent tour of England is also in question. But so far all we have heard from the WICB is silence.

Now, it seems to me that, with the current upswing in West Indian cricketing fortunes, now is the best time to get our very best team out on the field. I hear the cynics protesting that Gayle is not a member of our very best team and that the current upswing came because there is no Gayle but I remain unconvinced. I do not subscribe to the Gibson school of thought which says that the role of the senior players is to help the young ones along. For me that is the role of the coach and the management and the Board if you like. We can reasonably hope that, when selected, Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan will inspire and motivate their younger teammates like Darren Bravo and Adrian Barath and company. But we cannot reasonably require them to focus their energies in that direction; if they bat well and make centuries, they are doing their job, whatever else Gibson and his minions might want us to believe.

Hear, for instance, Chairman of Selectors Clyde Butts commenting on the squad chosen for the two-match T20 series against the Aussies last week. “We have named a squad with a mixture of experience and youth and we believe they have the quality to defeat the Australians. (…) The squad includes a number of three-dimensional players who bring energy and dynamism. They can change gears as the game progresses and give us options as well. We have brought in Dwayne Smith, Krishmar Santokie, Garey Mathurin, Fidel Edwards and young Nkrumah Bonner (…) and we expect them to contribute.” (my emphasis).

For me, the question is why does the Chairman of Selectors need to say that “we expect (the players we have brought into the squad) to contribute?” If you did not, would you have selected them, Buttsy? Are players ever selected – with the possible recent exception of Sammy – simply to make up numbers? My point is that as my fellow Review commentator Romain Pitt (See Page 20) has been making clear for months now, West Indian cricket fortunes have been shaped largely by the dictates of a handful of arguably misguided individuals, eager to impose their will on us all. And the selectors and the coach appear all the time to be imposing their agenda on the players and, by extension, on us all.

Which brings me to the final issue I wish to raise today.  Kenneth Ramchand is a respected academic whose name was for many years synonymous with literary achievement at UWI. The professor really should have remained cloistered in that ivory tower and not venture out into a field where he has to feel his way around. Hear Professor Ramchand last week not pleading for but demanding on what looks like exclusively parochial grounds that Trinidad and Tobago’s Pollard be given a chance to play Test cricket.

 “The time has come,” he declares, “to give Pollard an opportunity as a Test batsman. He has the form and the confidence. His zest and his delight in playing have been good for the team. Pollard has shown that he can be a T20 batsman as well as an ODI batsman. To understand the nature of the case, we must think not about Bacchus or Ricardo Powell but about O.G. ‘Collie’ Smith. The unborn T20 spirit was in Collie’s blood, and he was consciously adding new dimensions to Test match batting before his untimely death.

“In every era we have produced iconic batsmen: Headley; the three W’s; Sobers and Kanhai; the Master Blaster. Gayle and Pollard are the new men for the new age. Pollard can bring something new and typically West Indian to batsmanship in Tests. He must be told in advance that he is in for all the Tests against Australia. He must be given licence to learn on the job and deliver uniquely as a Test player.”

Professor Ramchand has this additional piece of advice on the way forward in the Gayle conflict.

“The West Indian Cricket Board has ever been a law unto itself, like FIFA, accountable to no one. The Caricom Heads should begin the process of terminating the Board with effect from the end of the Australian visit. And the Board should be instructed to formally enquire from Gayle whether he is available to play against the Australians.

“A new Board should be formed and it should be mandated to deliver a comprehensive report to Caricom Heads after each Test series involving the West Indies team.” 

“While this sounds nice,” Mirror Editor Maxie Cuffie responds, “on what legal basis can Caricom attempt to do this? The board is a legally incorporated body owned by its member associations. Its officials are elected and appointed by the representatives of cricket clubs across the region. West Indian governments are still struggling with the jobs they are legitimately elected to do and have not even been able to make Caricom work properly.”

“I, for one, would hate to see cricket end up in their hands. The ICC, and rightly so, would also not allow it.” (my emphasis)

And what better way to make crystal clear that what is at issue here is not the good of the game but naked power?

Today, with the Test series poised to take off in a few days’ time, the mood is upbeat. And inside my head I once more hear clearly the consistent strains of David Rudder’s anthemic “Rally Round the West Indies.”

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