Every cricket series in which the West Indies senior team is involved needs to be evaluated in the light of one overriding consideration. That supreme consideration is the current priority to rebuild a team which will enable the region to regain the ascendancy which it lost to Australia eight years ago when Richie Richardson’s side was defeated at home by Mark Taylor’s team. That defeat brought a sad end to an unprecedented 15-year period of West Indian dominance of world cricket.
It is very difficult for at least three reasons to evaluate the current state and the prospects of West Indies cricket at the highest level based on the just concluded clash with Australia. Firstly, the encounter took place in the Caribbean where the regional team enjoyed home advantage, not overseas where it has suffered several humiliating defeats in recent years.
Secondly, both the Test and one-day games were played on flat placid pitches which were excellent for batting and very challenging for bowling. In the four Tests batsmen scored one double hundred, 14 centuries and nine fifties. In these circumstances it is difficult to assess the true quality of both batting and bowling. Were the totals made by the West Indies in the Tests - 237 and 398, 408 and 288, 328 and 284, and 418 for 7 or an average score of 325 - sufficient ground for satisfaction with the batting? Is the batting as healthy as skipper Brian Lara suggests in his comment on the eve of the fourth and final Test in Antigua when he remarked: “I am quite happy with the standard we’ve set, especially with the batting.” On the other hand, what do the totals achieved by the Aussies, who scored heavily and quickly, say about the ability and potential of the West Indies bowling attack? Their scores in the Tests were 489 and 147 for 1, 576 for 4 declared and 283 for 3 declared, 605 for 9 declared and 8 for 1, and 240 and 417.
The third factor which makes evaluation difficult is the great inconsistency in the performance of the West Indies in both the Test and one-day series. After losing the first three Tests easily, a sequence of defeats never before experienced at home, in the final game the West Indies achieved an astonishing victory, making the highest ever fourth-innings total in a Test and avoiding the indignity of suffering what would have been an unprecedented home whitewash in 41 series which the regional team has played in the Caribbean since 1930. Similarly, after succumbing in the first four one-day games, Lara’s team defeated the Aussies in the last three matches, on two occasions decisively.
This disparity in performance raises difficult questions about the quality of the team, especially its ability to perform effectively when things really matter, i.e. before the outcome of a series is determined. It may be significant to note that it is not uncommon for this victorious Australian team with the pressure off to lose the last Test in series it has won. This has occurred in five of their recent Test series triumphs.
The best feature of the Australian tour in terms of the future of West Indies cricket may be the considerable number of young players who made their first international appearance. There were six debutants, five in the Tests - Omari Banks, Carlton Baugh, David Bernard, Tino Best, and Devon Smith - and the other, Ryan Hurley, in the one-day competition. The five Test debutants were all under 22 years of age.
Regrettably, however, none of them preformed satisfactorily with the possible exception of Banks, a bowling all-rounder who was far more impressive with the bat than with the ball. Displaying good technique and excellent temperament, Banks, the first Test player from the tiny island of Anguilla, had a sequence of valuable scores in the lower order - 24, 32, 16 not out and 47 not out - and finished a commendable unexpected second in the team’s batting averages with 59.50 runs an innings, being eclipsed only by master batsman Brian Lara (66.62). He was fourth in the bowling averages, capturing 6 wickets at a high cost of 421 runs in 98 overs, an average of 70.20 runs a wicket.
Devon Smith, the left-handed opener from Grenada, gave glimpses of promise in three innings of 62, 59 and 37, but was otherwise disappointing, bagging a pair of ducks in the second Test at Port of Spain and achieving a series average of only 23.62 runs an innings.
Even more disappointing, however, were the performances of Bernard and Best. Bernard, who is viewed as the most promising genuine all-rounder in the region, seemed out of his depths at this level, both in the Test match and limited-over game. In his single Test appearance he had scores of 7 and 4 and conceded 61 runs in eleven expensive wicketless overs. Best failed to provide expected fire and was quickly discarded after conceding 99 runs in 20 overs without taking a wicket.
Notwithstanding the limited success of the debutants, West Indies cricket officials and commentators have expressed euphoria about the performance of the young regional team, which in some Tests had an average age 24. Only time will tell whether this satisfaction and optimism are justified.
The phenomenal West Indies win in the fourth and final Test in Antigua and the victories in the last three one-day matches understandably have evoked a great degree of euphoria in the Caribbean. West Indian cricket officials and sports journalists have expressed pride in "our young talented team" and great confidence in, and optimism about, the future of West Indies cricket.
Such sentiments were expressed by skipper Brian Lara as early as the eve of the third Test at Kensington Oval when he remarked: "I think the young guys have represented themselves pretty well...I think their approach to the game was very professional. I am seeing a great future for them."
Steve Waugh also has predicted a bright future for West Indies cricket. He observed at the end of the tour: "I think they are one of the few sides in the world who are on their way up. I think they've shown a lot of improvement since we beat them in Australia. You need to give the guys time." Tony Cozier was even more ecstatic in an article entitled: "Future looks bright after miracle win."
Although there were several positive features of the West Indies' performance against Australia, this writer does not share this unbridled optimism about the future of West Indies cricket. There needs to be a careful evaluation of the performance of the young team which had three categories of youths: debutants, those with only a few international appearances and the more experienced ones.
As the first instalment of this article showed, none of the six debutants - Omari Banks, Carlton Baugh, David Bernard, Tino Best, Ryan Hurley and Devon Smith - performed with distinction. Only Banks gave a degree of satisfaction, with his batting rather than with his bowling, which was the principal reason for his selection. All the other debutants, however, may be excused for their indifferent or poor performances for they were playing against the world champions. Hopefully, however, their experience will serve West Indies cricket well in the future.
Jermaine Lawson, the tall strongly built Jamaican with four previous Test appearances, confirmed that he is an excellent prospect, destroying the prolific Australian batting machine with a record-breaking seven-wicket haul in the first innings of the fourth Test. He will be a formidable force once he masters the basics of good line and length as well as the weapons, especially well-directed bouncers and swinging Yorkers, normally used with great effect by bowlers with his pace. His performance against the Aussies confirmed that he is presently the only source of comfort and optimism where West Indies bowling in the foreseeable future is concerned.
Particular concern must be expressed about the performance of the third category, namely, players, who, though young in age, have had a fair amount of international experience, often in both Test and one-day matches. These players include Pedro Collins (18 Tests), Daren Ganga (21), Christopher Gayle (31) Wavell Hinds (31), Marlon Samuels (17) and Ramnaresh Sarwan (32). Some of them have already had more or nearly as many Test appearances as some of the outstanding players of the past had in their entire careers - for example, Colin Croft (27 Tests), Gerry Gomez (29), Charlie Griffith (28), George Headley (22), Lawrence Rowe (30) and Jeffrey Stollmeyer (32).
How many more appearances will the current young West Indian players have to make before becoming capable of making more substantial and more consistent contributions to the team? How many more Tests will Sarwan, the best of the young batsmen, have to play before he learns to restrain himself from the hook which has been his downfall in at least five innings, often at a critical stage of the match?
Some of the young players, notably Wavell Hinds, have not made visible or significant progress over the years. Hinds has failed so far to satisfy the expectations he evoked in his debut season in 2000 which included a brilliant maiden century (165) against Pakistan at Kensington Oval in his fourth Test and the Man-of-the-Series award. Because of inconsistency he has been in and out of the side and still does not command a regular place in the team.
The Australian tour provided another opportunity for the West Indies cricket authorities to resort to the disturbing practice of attributing excessive ability and potential to the younger players, who are frequently described as "very talented." Regrettably, the criterion often used to determine talent is performance in the sub-standard regional first-class competition, usually dominated by discarded Test players such as Stuart Williams, Junior Murray and Floyd Reifer. Success in such a competition is obviously no index of talent.
The truth is that most of the much-vaunted "talented" young West Indian batsmen, especially Gayle and Hinds, have serious technical deficiencies which may not be very obvious on the placid pitches seen in the recent tour. These weaknesses, however, become glaring on wickets overseas that are more helpful to bowlers.
The Australian tour confirmed that batsmen with technical flaws are more likely to perform well in limited-over matches, where restrictions place bowlers at a distinct disadvantage, than in Tests. This largely explains why Gayle and Hinds have achieved much more success in one-day games than in Tests. Gayle is now ranked the sixth leading batsman in one-day international games, where he is often devastating and has already compiled five centuries in striking contrast to his two hundreds in Tests.
It is not clear whether the weaknesses in technique of Gayle and Hinds will be corrected and so enable them to become outstanding batsmen in Tests. Some coaches feel that if major technical deficiencies are not remedied long before a player reaches international level, it is virtually impossible to correct them later. This seems to be the view of the new West Indian coach, Gus Logie, who observed after the West Indies lost the first Test at Bourda: "It's very difficult to try and change players' techniques once they get into the Test team, but we can work on their attitudes." In short, will Gayle succeed in time in perfecting the movement of his feet and be able to cope effectively with deliveries outside his off stump? Unless he succeeds, he is likely to remain very vulnerable to well-directed swing bowling as he encountered, for instance, from Chaminda Vaas in his first series against Sri Lanka overseas in 2001.
One of the most distressing but very instructive features of West Indies cricket in the last ten years is that of the numerous young players hailed as "talented" or "very talented", only one, namely, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, has developed into a player of genuine undisputed international quality. Where batting is concerned, that is a player who can maintain a career average of over forty runs an innings and consistently achieve that minimum against good bowling attacks. Sarwan seems on the verge of becoming the second. Who else among the young West Indian batsmen will succeed, and, if so, when? The Australian tour, especially the Test series, did not provide ready definitive answers to this important searching question.
Some of the most vaunted players in recent times, notably Sherwin Campbell, Stuart Williams and Floyd Reifer, have failed to fulfill expectations. Campbell, who had an outstanding career in youth cricket, made a successful transition to first-class and then to Test cricket. After showing early promise as a Test opener, with good performances in Pakistan, a double century against New Zealand, and two hundreds against the powerful Australian attack, he faltered and was eventually discarded with a Test career average of 32, as the opposition increasingly exploited his technical weakness to deliveries outside the off-stump.
In short, in spite of the success achieved by the West Indies in four of the eleven games, the recent Australian tour has raised serious questions about the future of West Indies cricket. These questions need to be answered before there is ground for the euphoria and optimism being currently expressed. This will be established further in the final article in this series which will examine more closely the state of West Indies batting and bowling based on the recent performance against Steve Waugh's team.