Delusion, deception and the crisis in West Indies Test Cricket By Winston McGowan
Stabroek News
April 15, 2004

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This may seem to be a very inappropriate time to write what follows, as the Caribbean exults over the vastly improved performance of the regional cricket team in the just concluded Test in Antigua, especially the superb unprecedented achievement of master batsman Brian Lara. This welcome development, however, should not be allowed to distract us from the unexpected disturbing happenings of the previous month. An English team of moderate ability and achievement gained a Test series victory in the Caribbean for the first time in 36 years.

England's success, coming in the wake of the West Indies' recent disappointing victory in Zimbabwe and resounding defeat in South Africa, is significant. It has confirmed that the West Indies are justifiably ranked eighth among the ten Test-playing nations, ahead only of weak Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. In short, in spite of what has just transpired at the Antigua Recreation Ground, it should be obvious that West Indies cricket at the highest level is still in a serious crisis.

This prolonged crisis first became apparent over six years ago in Pakistan in 1997, when the West Indies lost all the matches in a Test series for the first time in 68 years, that is to say, since our initial rubber in England in 1928. It was confirmed in the subsequent "whitewashes" which the regional team suffered almost every year overseas.

The pitiable state of West Indies cricket, however, was to some extent masked by the team's markedly better performance in less challenging conditions in the Caribbean, where we enjoy home advantage. Series wins against Sri Lanka, England, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and India and brilliant individual Test victories over Australia and South Africa served to help to conceal somewhat the ongoing crisis in Caribbean cricket.

One of the disturbing features of the crisis over the years has been the persistent delusion or deception of the leading West Indies cricket authorities, especially the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and the selectors, managers, coaches and captains of the regional team. Since the embarrassing debacle in Pakistan, they have been repeatedly asserting that the West Indies will regain dominance in world cricket in the foreseeable future, often specifying within a period of two to three years.

This is pure delusion or deception which has given false unfulfilled expectations to the sponsors of West Indies Cricket, the players and the increasingly frustrated Caribbean public. West Indian victories in a series or single Tests are almost invariably hailed as evidence that the regional team "has turned the corner." The truth, however, is that the team is making little or no perceptible progress.

One glaring example of this lack of progress is the fact that the weaknesses of the team's batting continue year after year. The well-known deficiencies are the lack of a reliable opening pair, the tendency to unexpected dramatic collapses, a lack of depth owing to the length and fragility of the tail, marked inconsistency and excessive dependence on Brian Lara.

Similarly, the bowling problems evident since the retirement of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh continue. The present bowlers have not yet mastered the three basics of good line and length and the ability to bowl to the field set. In spite, however, of these blatant persistent weaknesses in bowling and batting, the regional cricket authorities continued to delude themselves and deceive the public into believing that West Indies cricket is on the rise.

Admittedly, the new WICB President, Teddy Griffith, has been more cautious than his recent predecessors. Instead of predicting that the West Indies will become world champions again in two years' time, he has modified expectations by asserting merely that by then the regional side will be among the top three teams. But how can this happen when the West Indies cannot defeat a moderately ranked English team at home?

Notwithstanding the optimism of the regional cricket authorities, the success of Michael Vaughan's team has strengthened a conviction which this writer began to express two years ago. The conviction is that the West Indies team will not be capable of regaining cricket ascendancy during the careers of Carl Hooper (now retired), Ridley Jacobs and Brian Lara, three of the side's four main pillars - in short, not during this decade. To believe otherwise is to allow oneself to be converted by the web of delusion and deception which has been affecting West Indies cricket in recent years.

The second instalment of this article will focus on the most important aspect of this delusion and deception, namely, the false conception and appraisal of regional batting talent.

The first instalment of this article emphasized that in spite of Brian Lara's brilliant record-breaking innings at the Antigua Recreation Ground, the decisive 3-0 victory of Michael Vaughan's team of moderate ability confirms the ongoing crisis in West Indies Test Cricket. It also stressed that one of the most disturbing aspects of the crisis is that the West Indies cricket authorities the (WICB, the selectors, managers, coaches and captains) have consistently contended that the region has an abundance of "young talented players", including most of the members of the current senior team. These players, the authorities continue to assure the Caribbean public, will in a few years' time enable the West Indies to regain world ascendancy, the overriding objective of current regional cricket policy.

In this writer's opinion, this contention and assurance are pure delusion, which the cricketing public has been, and continues to be, deceived into believing. It is important to point out that several of the so-called "young" players, notably Christopher Gayle, Wavell Hinds, and Ramnaresh Sarwan, may be young in age, but are virtually veterans in terms of international experience.

Some of them have played as many as 35-40 Test matches, the length of the entire career of some of the region's outstanding past players such as Colin Croft (27 Tests), George Headley (22), Jeffrey Stollmeyer (32), and Alfred Valentine (36). In addition, several of them have played more than fifty one-day international (ODI) games, notably Gayle (88 ODIs), Hinds (83), Sarwan (54) and Marlon Samuels (53).

Given their slow rate of progress, it is both reasonable and necessary to ask when or whether they will fulfil the high expectations the regional authorities have of them. How long more must the Caribbean public wait to see the realisation of these expectations? Isn't time running out for some of these "young, talented" cricketers?

The more serious aspect of the authorities' delusion, however, lies in their false conception and distorted appraisal of "talent." Where batting is concerned, the considerations used by the West Indies cricket authorities to determine "talent" seem to be a combination of the following: (1) a batsman who is a stroke player, e.g. Marlon Samuels; (2) an aggressive hard-hitting batsman who seems to have the ability to destroy a bowling attack, e.g., Gayle, Dwayne Smith and Ricardo Powell; (3) a player who has scored heavily in regional junior and/or senior cricket, e.g. Devon Smith.

These considerations regrettably do not include at least three factors which should be regarded as indispensable criteria of batting talent, namely, a good temperament or mental toughness, the right attitude, and, above all perhaps, a sound technique.

The vital importance of sound technique cannot be overstated. In modern international cricket, where the opposition uses videos and other technology to scrutinize players, no batsman who is deficient in technique succeeds at Test level, even if he was very productive in youth and first-class cricket. Invariably, even if he appears to be very "talented" and destined to enjoy a successful Test career, he does not live up to expectations and eventually is discarded.

Because of the authorities' delusion, this has been repeatedly the sad tale of West Indies cricket in recent years and will continue to be the case, unless they modify their approach to "talent." One striking example of this tragic delusion is the experience of the Barbadian, Sherwin Campbell. After a brilliant career in youth cricket, Campbell made a successful transition to regional senior first-class cricket. He was acclaimed by regional authorities as the "young, talented" player who would succeed Desmond Haynes and maintain the high standard set by Haynes and Gordon Greenidge by becoming a world-class opening batsman.

Campbell, however, had an Achilles heel, namely, his lack of foot movement to deliveries pitched outside the off stump. This deficiency in technique, which he never managed to remedy, did not prove to be a visible handicap in regional youth and first-class cricket. At Test level, however, it was increasingly deliberately exploited by able opposing bowlers. Thus, eventually the same authorities who had acclaimed this allegedly "talented" player were forced to discard him after a comparatively long career of 52 tests for failing to live up to expectations by giving the team the good starts it needed.

Admittedly, Campbell's achievements were better than most of the other supposedly "talented" batsmen of his time. He managed to score nearly 3,000 runs in Tests, including a double century (208) against New Zealand, three other hundreds and 16 fifties, with a modest average of 32 runs and innings. It must also be remembered that two of his centuries were made against the powerful Australian attack, including both Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Yet in the end this "talented" player was discarded, a victim of technical weaknesses.

One wonders whether the "talented" Christopher Gayle, the region's leading opener who has a technical deficiency identical to Campbell's, will have a similar end. Admittedly, Gayle does have two valuable assets, which Campbell did not possess and may stand him in good stead - namely, his explosive power which enables him to score quickly and his useful bowling, especially in limited-over games.

Players with glaring technical deficiencies such as Gayle and Wavell Hinds tend to have two traits. Firstly, they play periodic impressive innings in Tests, but they are never consistently productive. Secondly, they tend to perform much better in limited-over cricket, where the rules are a severe handicap to good bowlers, than in Test cricket. This is reflected in the marked difference between Gayle's moderate Test record and his commendable success in ODI's, where in 86 innings he has scored over 3,000 runs, including 8 centuries and 20 fifties, with an excellent average of 40 runs an innings.

Most of the yound "talented" batsmen in the current West Indies senior squad, with the possible exception of Sarwan and Darren Ganga, have glaring technical faults, some more serious than others. These flaws help to explain not only their limited success as individuals, but also the fact that the team is a better ODI side than a Test unit.

This problem of technical deficiency in the senior team was first strongly highlighted by manager Clive Lloyd in 1997, when the West Indies suffered the first of the numerous embarrassing "whitewashes" experienced overseas in recent years. In the wake of the debacle in Pakistan, Lloyd complained:

We have players who have come through our system now who are lacking in the basics. Basically, our players are coming through with too many faults.

We have a lot of talent, but when we unearth that talent, we have to round it off so that when a player represents his territory at domestic level he doesn't have much more to learn when he reaches Test match status.

The problem of technical flaws has continued to be pronounced to the detriment of the regional team's performance, especially in Test Cricket. Many coaches contend that it is very difficult to correct such faults once a batsman has played the game sufficiently long as to reach Test level.

In addition to the problem of technical deficiencies, the regional authorities' view of talent has been adversely affected by their failure to give sufficient cognizance to the fact that Caribbean senior cricket tournaments are no longer a good index of talent. The quality has declined considerably over the years and is now clearly inferior to that in countries like Australia and South Africa. In fact, it is now clearly sub-standard.

This largely explains why many of the very successful batsmen and bowlers in the regional first-class competitions - players touted as "talented" - have been abject failures in Test cricket and have had to be discarded. The list is long and embarrassing. It is headed by regional first-class "giants" such as Stuart Williams, Junior Murray, Floyd Reifer, Rajendra Dhanraj and Mahendra Nagamootoo. It also includes players such as Suruj Ragoonauth, Lincoln Roberts, Patterson Thompson, Nixon McLean and Courtney Browne.

Some of them, notably Williams and Murray, had an extended run in the regional team, while others, like Roberts and Ragoonauth, were discarded after only one or two Test appearances. The important point, however, is that regardless of the length of their Test careers, these were some of the many "talented" players which the deluded regional cricket authorities tried to convince the Caribbean public would restore greatness and glory to West Indies cricket.

Regrettably, the delusion and deception continue. Further evidence of this will be provided in the next and final instalment of this article which will focus on the bowlers, all-rounders and the current paucity of quality players.