Strategising for failure
By Imran Khan
December 2, 2003
A few years ago the University of Guyana built a shed outside the bursary at the Turkeyen campus in response to annual bitter complaints from students that the registration process was long and painful as they were forced to stand in long slothful lines for hours under the steaming sun. A very senior administrative official who disagreed with the project complained privately that the shed was a monument to the glorification of backwardness and failure.
Instead of UG seeking to improve the registration process, he reasoned, it protected and endorsed the lackadaisical work ethic of its bursary staff by building a shed to make the students' excruciating wait a little less unbearable. Forgive me if it appears as though, like an errant lawyer, I am digressing from the mission of my mandate in this column, but the incident lunged at me from the latches of my memory as I began to scrutinize the 7-1-3 formula now being pursued by the West Indies team.
Continued selection of seven batsmen seems to be an approval of a band-aid panacea to the real problem of West Indies limited overs cricket. One-Day cricket, indeed any cricket, demands two main goals on the field of play, to score as many runs as possible when batting and to get the opposition out for as little as possible when bowling. Given that cricket is not a game in which reserve or `benched' players can be rotated into the final eleven depending on the specific needs of a team at any point during the game, the team management is forced to select, what in its estimation, is the best combination of batsmen and bowlers to achieve victory.
Since the World Cup this year in South Africa, accommodation has been made at the number seven spot for the celebrated Jamaican super- hitter Ricardo Powell.
This strategy has forced the West Indies to limit itself to three specialist bowlers and be heavily reliant on Chris Gayle, Marlon Samuels and Carl Hooper (when he was captain) to do a truckload of bowling.
But just what has been the result since this strategy has been in place?
The Windies was eliminated in the first round of the World Cup, lost a home series to Australia, lost another home series to Sri Lanka and initially struggled and had to play catch up to overcome Zimbabwe.
In the last two games Powell did play as one of the top six, but it was more by default as Marlon Samuels was dropped for off-the-field indiscretions.
These days when Powell emerges from the pavilion, commentators introduce him, not as a man with a worthy average but as the batsman with the second fastest scoring rate in the world behind Pakistani Shahid Afridi.
There is a specific reason for commentators shying away from lingering on Powell's other batting statistics and it is because they are nowhere near the lofty acclaim he once received at the beginning of his career when he was heralded as the next Viv Richards.
It was after his brutal broad-siding of India for 124 in the final of the Coca Cola Challenge in Singapore and in only his fifth One-Day match for the West Indies that Powell was paraded as the quintessence of greatness being moulded.
That innings was indeed, nothing short of great as Powell went to the wicket in the 17th over with the West Indies in a treacherous position at 67 for 4 chasing 254. His power-hitting was phenomenal. The robust right- hander slapped nine fours and heaved eight enormous sixes during his 93-ball decimation of the Indian attack that announced his emergence with a cataclysmic punctuation.
In retrospect that innings is perhaps one of the worst things to have happened to Powell in his professional career and indeed to the style of West Indies cricket of late. His subsequent record has not been setting the charts on fire. In fact, what has happened is that he has survived on little cameo innings scored off very few balls and then he invariably goes caught on the boundary as he continues to lash out.
That 124 gives reason for much to be now expected from Powell but he has not scored another century in One Day cricket.
The Jamaican has managed six fifties which is below par for a man who has played in 79 One-Day matches. What is dreadful about his half-centuries is that two were scored against the `sugar boat' bowling of whipping boys Bangladesh and another two against minnows Zimbabwe.
The 25 year-old has one fifty each against India and Pakistan. His average loiters at 25.40. A slot is found for him at number seven solely on the basis of his ability to score, not heavily, but quickly. And this is where the West Indies management, like UG, is strategising for failure and creating a monument dedicated to the glorification of backwardness.
What could be the reasons for selecting Powell at number seven? It has to be one of two. Management probably feels that they need someone lower down who can add a quick 30-40 runs in the last few overs to put their total out of the reach of the opposition. Or alternatively, they may feel that they need to lengthen the batting just in case the top batsmen fail to get off. Either strategy is imprudent and unfounded.
If the Windies needs quick runs in the last few overs, it would mean that the top batsmen have done well but did not carry on at the death. Why then short-change your bowling to add Powell to the final eleven when in either wicketkeeper, Ridley Jacobs or Carlton Baugh they have capable big hitters?
What, in my opinion, playing Powell at number seven does is give the top order batsmen a licence to be reckless in their stroke play under the false security of knowing that the batting line-up is long and should they take excess chances and lose their wickets early it would not matter much. In these last two games we have seen the result of a shorter batting order with the top order displaying a greater sense of responsibility and commitment.
One of the openers has batted through the innings and ensured the security of victory.
Whenever the top order falters as a result of the implied licence to be carefree and the middle-order struggles, Powell was inevitably left in an unfair position of being depended upon as a saviour. In the very simplest terms he has failed to produce in any consistently meaningful way in these situations. His last 30 innings count for 545 runs at an average of 30.27 with two fifties (both against the lowly Bangladesh).
So if it is the management feels that they need to bulk up on runs in the last overs, then they need to coach the top and middle-order batsmen to shoulder the responsibility of batting to the end of the innings.
Given that they would already have their eyes in and their confidence up, having seen and conquered the bowling, they would be in a far better position to hit the ball around and jack up the scoring rate.
It is cricketingly inhumane to expect Powell to just step to the crease in the 46th and 47th overs and produce 40-50 runs from 25 and 30 balls most of the time.
On the other hand, Powell's style is not one which is conducive to rescuing an innings from the number seven position should the top batsmen fail and the West Indies find themselves in trouble as they too often do. Ideally, who you would like to have in such a situation is the `Australian Finisher' Michael Bevan. You need someone who can manipulate the strike with the lower order yet capable of a flurry of boundaries.
Powell has never demonstrated that he is capable of batting intelligently to the extent where he can manoeuvre and control the strike with the lower order.
His approach is to hit out and hit out hard. It is a 50-50 strategy of `hit or miss' which is more often doomed to failure against the world's more cunning bowlers.
The West Indies selectors and management need to make some firm and final tough decisions as they head to South Africa.
They should start by considering whether they think Powell is good enough to make the West Indies One- Day team. If the answer is yes, then he must play as one of the top six batsmen. If the answer is otherwise then he must sit out.
The team must have its best six batsmen who must either produce or be dropped. This is more likely to ensure competitiveness for a spot in the final eleven as those who are in would want to stay there and those out will grab every opportunity to get a look in. With Hooper's critical off spin now missing, the West Indies needs to play as many of their fledgling bowlers as they can to stand a decent chance against the opposing batsmen.
In the final analysis, cricket is a game where the bowlers must bowl and get wickets and batsmen must bat and make runs.
Teams may be fortunate from time to time to be blessed with individuals who can do both competently. Until the West Indies is so blessed once again the batsmen must make runs or fetch drinks. It is a very simple and fundamental issue really, any schoolboy cricketer knows it all too well.