Over to you Wes...
Stabroek News
December 23, 2001

THERE really isn't a lot more than can be said about the West Indies' tour of Sri Lanka that hasn't been said already.

It will, of course, be recited all over again, with a new twist to the story here and there, when the captain, coach and manager hold their debriefing with the top brass of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) in what has become a somewhat macabre new year's ritual.

Once the turkey, the ham, the jug, the pepperpot, the pastelles, the punche de creme and all the other culinary delights of Caribbean Christmas have been thoroughly digested and are outwardly manifesting themselves in a month's time, Wes Hall and his colleagues will sit down to digest what went wrong on yet another overseas mission.

They will hear many of the same phrases used by the constantly changing personnel during similar such ceremonies at the same time of year after identical defeats in Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Learning curve, mental toughness, commitment, inexperience, discipline and preparation are particular favourites.

This time they may need the help of some specialist from the St Joseph's Mercy to interpret some of the additions to the glossary such as "sick sinus syndrome" and "embryonic hernia".

They will be heartened only in a couple of respects, even though the most exciting has been temporarily, but cruelly, compromised by the injury to Brian Lara, the last and unluckiest break on a cursed tour.

Lara's rebirth was a major boost, not only for West Indies cricket but for the game as a whole.

As is evident in Michael Jordan's return to basketball and Mike Tyson's continuing presence in boxing, every sport needs its special stars, whatever their shortcomings might be, and West Indies cricket needs them more than ever now.

His was an extraordinary performance. He left the Caribbean under a cloud, still troubled by a dodgy hamstring, his motivation doubted even by his most strident supporters, his Test average languishing among the crowd at 47.

In other words, it was only realistic to deduce, as Sir Everton Weekes did, that we had seen the best of the sublime left hander.

By his own acknowledgment, such factors rekindled Lara's fire. He set himself two improbable goals to lift his average to above 50 once more and to pass 7,000 Test runs.

He needed to score over 600 in the three Tests to achieve the former, a height only ever reached by one batsman, Graham Gooch, and did it with runs to spare.

The figure for 7,000 was a little less taxing, a mere 467. He passed it with an innings in hand.

His 688 runs were 370 more than the next West Indian, Ramnaresh Sarwan's 318, and 421 more than the third, Carl Hooper.

These are mind boggling statistics but they do not, cannot, reveal the class and command with which they were compiled. Nor can they tell the story of how he completely mastered Muttiah Muralitheran, the off spinning wizard.

While Murali tied everyone else up in tightly bound knots, he was reduced to rare ordinariness by Lara's mental and physical strength, quick eye, twinkling footwork and, above all, refund desire.

That he should have been on the side of a team soundly beaten in each Test was a travesty.

Ramiz Raja, the former Pakistan captain who was one of the television commentators, kept marvelling to himself throughout, "I've never seen anything like this, never".

West Indians were denied the chance of seeing it at all by the absence of television coverage. It was for, it was something to have lifted their spirits and something to tell their grandchildren about.

Even if to a lesser extent, so too would Sarwan's batting. In the pivotal position of No.3 for the first time, he earned an average of 53 through the discipline needed to augment his rich talent.

In everything he does, Sarwan has the makings of the kind of exemplar West Indies cricket craves at present. He is a classical touch player and a brilliant outfielder and, come to think of it, a leg spinner who should be encouraged more.

Beyond that, and unlike so many young, present day West Indian cricketers, he has the necessary attributes of self confidence and personality. He never quite got the hang of Murali, but few ever do and he refused to be daunted by him.

Had Hooper, a proven master of spin, followed his example the regular collapses once Sarwan was out might not have been quite as sudden as they were.

The mystery was beyond the comprehension of Marlon Samuels, Ridley Jacobs and the clueless bowlers so Hooper's stability at No.5 was crucial.

But, with Lara each time at the opposite end, he could raise only two half centuries in six Test innings and an average of 27.83 that was a worrying reversion to his pre captaincy days.

Hooper's tactical options were limited by the inexperienced and unpenetrative bowling at his disposal on good pitches against quality batting. But, generally, his tactics were limited, full stop.

It was clear he didn't believe in his bowlers to make anything of advantageous positions as were first innings totals of 448 in the first Test and 390 in the third and Sri Lanka's stuttering 53 for four and 163 for five on the opening day of the second.

No mortal captain can turn water into vinegar but Hooper seldom tried to make the taste less palatable for the opposition.

Like Jimmy Adams before him, he has proved a caring and conscientious leader but there is an absence of intuition in his strategies, the appreciation of when to seize the moment when it comes along, rather than waiting for it to happen.

They are traits that also eluded Adams and are in short supply at all levels of West Indies cricket at present. It is born out of a climate of defeatism but only serves to fortify it.

There were other areas clearly beyond his control, such as the inability of the openers, Chris Gayle and Daren Ganga, to deal with the swinging ball.

It was a deficiency not especially evident on their successful initial association in Zimbabwe and Kenya but it was exploited by the control and accuracy of Chaminda Vaas. Previously no more than a useful left arm bowler, he showed what can be achieved by practice and persistence.

Vaas is 27. Pedro Collins, who also deals in left arm fast bowling, is 25 and, through injury, is only now rebooting a Test career that began back in 1999.

With no match practice prior to his inclusion in the second Test, he perceptively improved with each match, becoming more physically and mentally robust.

He increasingly swung the ball back into the right handers, developed reverse swing and used change of pace. All carried the cautious stamp of a bowler still finding his way at this level but there is something to work with.

He, Merv Dillon (when he returns from his strange disciplinary suspension) and whoever among the rest show the ability and keenness needed for success could become a useful, if not devastating, combination.

Certainly in his very brief appearance, Jermaine Lawson, at 20, showed enough pace and aggression to prompt optimism.

When they are finished with their annual conference of woe, the hierarchy might conclude that, however dreadful things look now and they could hardly be more so the future should not be all doom and gloom.

As an exercise to cheer me up for the season and you too, perhaps I've jotted down these 24 names of players under the age of 25 from whom, with proper, full time attention and experience (I'm thinking of admittedly expensive contracts here), to make something of the near future.

They are, I should stress, in no particular order of preference and there are a couple of others who would just as easily be included. They are: Sarwan, Ganga, Gayle, Samuels, Lawson, Garrick, Ryan Hinds, Corey Collymore, Ricardo Powell, Devon Smith, Tonito Willett, Kerry Jeremy, Suleiman Benn, Narsingh Deonarine, Kenroy Peters, Keith Hibbert, Runako Morton, Andrew Richardson, Andy Jackson, Dave Mohammed, Ryan Austin, Shane Shillingford, Keith Hibbert and Wayne Phillip Over to you, Wes.