2006 and the future of West Indies Cricket
History This Week No. 2007/1
By Winston McGowan
January 4, 2007
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The first installment of this article examined the performance of the senior West Indies cricket team in 2006 in both limited-over and Test Cricket. It showed that the regional team had done better in 2006 than in recent years in one-day international (ODI) matches, as seen in its impressive 4-1 defeat of third-ranked India in the Caribbean, but that there was little improvement in Test cricket. This installment of the article will examine the implications of these developments for the future of the West Indies in limited-over cricket. This examination is particularly pertinent in view of the imminence of the ICC World Cup Tournament which will begin in two months.
Caribbean cricket fans are wondering what are the prospects of Brian Lara's team doing well in this premier limited-over competition which is being staged in the Caribbean for the first time and is generating greater interest than virtually any previous event of any kind in the region's history. The regional team, its coach and most Caribbean people hope that the West Indies can win the coveted trophy.
Vice-captain Ramnaresh Sarwan expressed the team's hope for continued improvement before the beginning of the tri-nation tournament in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia last September thus: "We will be the first to admit that we have been inconsistent over the past few years but we're starting to play some good cricket now in the One-Day form of the game and we need to build on the series victory we had over India in the Caribbean earlier this year."
A few days ago coach Bennett King stated that he is "very optimistic" about the West Indies' chances of winning the World Cup. He told reporters: "I think what we've seen is a progression of our play in the limited-overs format. The limited-overs format - at the moment suits us better. The concentration levels are shorter. This amount of time is quite good. With that in mind, we're optimistic".
Older Caribbean cricket fans remember with joy the West Indies triumphs in the first two World Cups in 1975 and 1979 and also the sadness of the unexpected loss to underdogs India of the final in 1983 through overconfidence. The West Indies have not managed to reach the final of any of the five subsequent tournaments. Their best performance on these five occasions was in the 1996 tournament in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka when Richie Richardson's team reached the semi-final which it lost to Australia by five runs. That was the tournament when the West Indies suffered the ignominy of a shocking defeat at the hands of Kenya.
In short, since 1983 the West Indies have not done well in the World Cup. What are the prospects of a West Indies victory on this occasion? There are clearly several formidable obstacles in the way.
One obstacle is history, for no country which has hosted the event has ever won the World Cup, notwithstanding the frequent talk about home advantage in sport. In cricket that consideration seems much more relevant to the longer version of the game than to the limited-over form. In short, history suggests that familiarity with the conditions, the support of the crowd etc will not give the West Indies any special advantage in the forthcoming tournament.
Nor do the current ICC rankings give the Caribbean people much hope. The West Indies are currently ranked seventh in limited-over cricket, edging past England owning to improved performances in the latter half of 2006. In the year the regional team won 18 and lost 14 of the 33 ODI matches which it played. Clearly, as these statistics indicate, it is not among the best teams in the world and therefore to win the World Cup will require a considerable degree of fortune.
Another obstacle to a West Indies victory is the team's moderate bowling which in limited-over cricket continues to suffer in particular from two major deficiencies namely the absence of a penetrative bowler and the lack of any bowler or bowlers who can be economical in the final ten overs. With the World Cup still only three months away, it is not clear to whom skipper Brian Lara should entrust the ball for those critical final overs.
Where penetration is concerned, the West Indies badly need a bowler such as Brett Lee or Makhaya Ntini who frequently produce spells which rout the opposition.
An even more major obstacle which Lara's team will have to overcome is its well-known inconsistency. This was very evident as recently as in the ICC Champions Trophy competition in India where the West Indies suffered a heavy loss to Australia in the final after defeating the Aussies in the preliminary round. Amazingly, the West Indies, batting first on a good wicket, were dismissed for a paltry score of 138 in 30.4 of the available 50 overs.
Though these obstacles are formidable, there are also a few factors which are encouraging to those who are hopeful of a West Indies victory.
The most encouraging factor is probably the fair success achieved by the West Indies in the two recent tournaments, the Tri series DLF Cup against India and Australia in Malaysia in September and the ICC Champions Trophy in India in October, in which the regional team was the losing finalist.
Another encouraging factor is the fact that the World Cup is a league tournament, not a series encounter. The West Indies have shown in 2006 that on a given day they can defeat any other team, including the mighty Aussies over whom they had two ODI victories in the year. It would be far more difficult for the seventh-ranked team to defeat better sides in a 3 or 5 match series than in a single game. As Bennett King observed last week. "The limited-overs format is an interesting game. Anyone on their given day, if they have a good day, can win a game of limited-overs cricket.
"If a side has a below par game, they can lose. What we've got to make sure of is that we don't have a lot of bad games."
In short, the World Cup format is to the West Indies' advantage. Nevertheless, there are several important keys to the possibility of good success by the West Indies in the World Cup. These keys, including team selection and the performance of certain players, will be the focus of the third installment of this article.
The first two instalments of this article examined the performance of the West Indies senior cricket team in 2006 in both Test and Limited-Over cricket. The examination was made especially in the light of the possibility of the West Indies winning the forthcoming World Cup, a feat which the region has not performed since 1979, twenty-eight years ago.
Though the current ICC rankings make it clear that the West Indies are not among the best teams in the world in either the shorter or longer version of the game, the 2006 results indicate that on any given day the regional teams may be able to defeat any other team, including the mighty Aussies, whom the West Indies overcame in two of their five one-day international (ODI) games last year.
The last instalment of the article outlined the formidable obstacles in the way of a possible West Indies victory in this year's World Cup, the premier international limited-over tournament. This instalment will focus on the keys to good success by the regional team in this competition.
One obvious key is that the West Indies will need to eliminate inconsistency which has characterized their performance especially in recent times. This was evident in the recent ICC Champions Trophy competition last October and November in India. There Brian Lara's team, after defeating the Aussies in the preliminary round, capitulated in the final, suffering a humiliating heavy loss after evoking high expectations in the wake of its earlier success.
Success for the West Indies will depend considerably on the quality of the team's batting. The results in 2006 emphasise four needs in particular - good opening partnerships such as those provided recently by Christopher Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, consistently high scores by Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan, the return to productivity of Brian Lara in limited over cricket and the elimination of the astonishing batting collapses to which the team is prone. Brian Lara
Gayle and Sarwan, the team's most successful batsmen in ODI games in the last two years, need to continue their productivity. Sarwan was outstanding in the West Indies 4 - 1 triumph over India in the Caribbean last year, earning the enviable reputation of being the best "finisher" in international limited-over cricket. Furthermore, Gayle, who has fifteen ODI hundreds, was brilliant during the recent ICC Champions Trophy tournament, scoring 474 runs in eight innings at an average of 79 runs an innings and a strike rate of 92.94 runs per hundred balls and winning the much-coveted Man-of-the-Series award. Gayle and Sarwan need to repeat these achievements during the forthcoming World Cup.
The West Indies team also badly needs a return to productivity in limited-over cricket of master batsman Brian Lara. Lara was once an outstanding ODI batsman of about 45 runs an innings, but during the past three years his performance in ODI matches has declined markedly. The decline began in 2004 when in 18 innings in 20 ODI games he scored only 484 runs with a highest score of 59 not out, two other fifties and an unbecoming average of 32.26. It continued in 2005 when in 15 ODI innings he made 438 runs, including one century (156) and two fifties at an average of 29.20 runs an innings.
This trend of limited productivity, in striking contrast to his much better performance in Test cricket, continued in 2006 when at best he produced a substantial and valuable innings only occasionally. One example was his innings of 88 off 80 deliveries which enabled the West Indies to defeat Australia in the fourth match of the DFL Cup in Malaysia to secure a place in the final. Lara and Gayle (79) were involved in a whirlwind partnership of 151 at a fast rate of 7.8 runs per over, enabling the West Indies to reach 273 for 7 in 47.2 overs in response to Australia's challenging total of 272 for 6 in 50 overs. Lara needs to produce several innings like that one in the forthcoming World Cup. His performances need to reflect the fact that he has scored more runs and centuries than any other West Indian not only in test cricket but also in limited-over cricket. The West Indies need him at least to repeat his achievements in previous World Cup competitions where in 25 innings he scored 956 runs, including two hundreds and six fifties, with an average of 43.45 runs an innings. This World Cup performance has been surpassed only by Vivian Richards (average 63.31) among batsmen who have scored over 500 runs in such matches.
To do well in the World Cup the West Indies also need to avoid the cataclysmic collapses from which the batting frequently suffers. One recent example was in the opening game of the Tri-Series DLF Cup at the Kinrara Academy Oval in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia last September. The West Indies, in response to a formidable Australian score of 279 for 9 wickets in 50 overs had a wonderful start, with the openers, Gayle (58 from 46 balls with seven fours and two sixes) and Chanderpaul (who was eventually dismissed for 93, including 10 fours and four sixes, off 83 balls), sharing a thrilling first-wicket stand of 137 off only 18 overs.
At one stage in the 24th over, the score was 173 for the loss of only one wicket, but then there was a dramatic collapse with nine wickets amazingly falling for 29 runs in the space of only 11 overs. The West Indies were dismissed for 202 in 34.2 overs, with the last eight batsmen, including Lara, Dwayne Bravo, Wavell Hinds and Dwayne Smith, all failing to reach double figures. Owing to this astonishing collapse, the regional team lost by 78 runs a game which it had seemed destined to win comfortably.
These collapses are usually due to the inconsistency of the middle order, (where the lack of productivity of Lara and the potentially explosive Dwayne Smith is a source of serious concern), and the fragility of the tail. None of the fast bowlers, with the possible exception of Ian Bradshaw, can be expected to trouble the scorers.
To succeed in the World Cup the West Indies will need to display good catching and ground fielding, areas where the regional team showed commendable improvement in 2006 in ODI matches, but, incomprehensibly, not in Tests. Success will also require the West Indies bowlers to demonstrate good command of line and length, another area of improvement in 2006.
The moderate West Indies attack has two major deficiencies which are not likely to be remedied in time for the World Cup. One deficiency is the lack of a penetrative bowler who in his 10-over allotment can be expected to take several wickets, especially in the first 20-25 overs of an innings, either routing the opposition completely or at least putting it under pressure to rebuild an innings affected by the loss of early wickets.
Brett Lee frequently performs this service for Australia of securing a breakthrough in the opposition's batting. For example, he helped Australia to defeat India by 18 runs in the sixth and final preliminary match in the three-nation ODI series in Malaysia last September. He captured five wickets for 38 runs in 8.5 overs, causing India to lose two early wickets for 20 runs by removing the dangerous Sachin Tendulkar (4) and Virender Sehwag (10).
Similarly, in the final of that competition it was Lee's penetrative bowling which enabled Australia to defeat the West Indies easily by 127 runs, dismissing Lara's team for only 113 in 34.2 overs after making 240 for 6 in 50 overs. Lee, who was named Man of the Match, took four wickets for 24 runs in 8.2 overs, including the wicket of Gayle whom he removed with the first ball of the West Indies innings. Four other batsmen - Runako Morton, Hinds, Bradshaw and Jerome Taylor - made ducks while only three of them, Chanderpaul (12), Sarwan (36) and Smith (30), reached double figures.
Makhaya Ntini is another bowler who sometimes produces brilliant spells in ODI matches which give his team a decisive advantage. For example, in a game against Pakistan in the recent ICC Champions Trophy tournament, he had a hostile opening spell in which he took five wickets for eight runs in five overs, reducing Pakistan to 27 for 6 in 10 overs before being dismissed eventually for 89 in 25 overs. His team, South Africa, was able to gain a decisive victory by 124 runs and to win a semi-final berth.
This West Indies team presently does not have any bowler or howlers who can be expected to dismiss the opposition (except lowly Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) cheaply, especially the top order. It is rare that the attack dismisses the opposition in the allotted fifty overs.
The other major weakness of the West Indies attack is the absence of any bowler or bowlers who can be relied on to bowl with economy in the final five to ten overs of an innings. Bravo, Gayle and others have been tried without consistent success. In striking contrast, Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock often serve their teams admirably in such circumstances.
One final key to success for the West Indies in the World Cup is team selection. The year 2006 witnessed a considerable amount of chopping and changing of the team. This understandable experimentation in preparation for the World Cup resulted in the appearance of 23 players in the 33 ODI matches which the West Indies played in the year.
One would have thought that by now, only two months before the World Cup, the West Indies selectors would have made a decision about the right team and the best approach for success. Surprisingly however, instead of naming the squad and perhaps a few reserves, that is, a maximum of 17 or 18 players, 30 players have been identified for possible selection. This seems to be far too many at such a late stage and may have an adverse effect on the final preparation of the team.
Meanwhile, the players and the public await the selection of the final squad. Regrettably Pedro Collins, will not be included, for he is the best prospect that the West Indies have of a penetrative bowler because of his ability to swing the ball and the fact that he is a left-hander.
The results of the performance of the West Indies "A" team in 2006 suggest that consideration should be given to the inclusion in the final squad of the Windward Islands' all-rounder, Darren Sammy, perhaps at the expense of one of the fast bowlers who contribute little with the bat. Admittedly, however, Sammy is inexperienced at the senior level and cannot be said presently to be a player of outstanding quality or potential.
Regardless of the composition of the squad, there are formidable obstacles to a West Indies victory in the forthcoming World Cup. The region's prospects, however, are certainly better than they were on the eve of the last World Cup, when it was no surprise that the West Indies team failed to reach the Super Six stage.
Ricky Ponting's Australians, with confidence boosted by winning the ICC Champions Trophy recently, will be difficult to beat even with the absence of Damien Martyn, the key to their first victory in that tournament. No one should be surprised if they retain the World Cup which they won on the last two occasions, in 1999 when they defeated Pakistan by eight wickets in the final at Lord's and in 2003 when they beat India by 125 runs at Johannesburg. The West Indies team and its supporters, however, will approach the coming tournament with a measure of optimism, not justified by its current ICC ranking of seventh in ODI matches, but prompted by its unexpected success in the last two ICC Champion Trophy tournaments, the second most important one-day competition in which they were the winner in 2004 and the losing finalist in 2006.