December 31, 2010

No step backwards

Garth Wattley
For which West Indies will be thankful, considering the woeful last few years. The successful hosting of the World Twenty20 and the emergence of young talent also made 2010 memorable

Late monsoon rains did not give West Indies or Sri Lanka much room to manoeuvre in December. Their three-match Test series ended as it had begun: 0-0.

The year 2010 as a whole was much like that for West Indies cricket. That rain-assisted drawn series in Sri Lanka may have allowed the Caribbean side to edge ahead of New Zealand to seventh spot in the ICC Test rankings. However, like early-morning moisture that gives hope to the bowling team but really masks the hard work ahead of them once the sun gets to work, that "improvement" was cosmetic. Like through all of the last decade, West Indies cricket gained little ground in 2010.

In a light Test programme, they were beaten in two of three matches at home by South Africa before going to Sri Lanka for a stalemate. In between, in what has more recently been considered their stronger suit, West Indies, under Chris Gayle, won just three out of 10 Twenty20 matches. Those wins - against Ireland, England and India - both came at the World Twenty20, which they hosted. They failed to get to the semi-finals but West Indians could at least console themselves that unlike the World Cup of 2007, this one was truly a Caribbean party.

In one-day internationals, both the Aussies (4-0 away) and the South Africans (5-0 at home) dominated West Indies. Zimbabwe won their first matches on Caribbean soil - the only Twenty20 and the first match of the ODI series of their tour. A jittery West Indies eventually prevailed 4-1.

Through it all presided Otis Gibson, the team's fourth coach since 2003. The former West Indies fast bowler and England bowling coach took over at the start of the year from the sacked Australian John Dyson. But like Dyson and another Aussie, Bennett King before him, Gibson had to contend with unrelenting issues, namely team instability.

The team's first-choice fast bowlers, Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards, both sidelined by long-term injuries, were badly missed. Edwards did not play at all, and Taylor did not feature in the Tests. Injury and then being left out due to on his supposed lack of fitness also eliminated senior batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan from Test action. These key absences meant that Gibson, Gayle, and his successor as captain in Sri Lanka, Darren Sammy, had to manage a squad lacking depth. Gayle's removal, after what seemed for him a torturous period at the helm, may have been inevitable. However, his contribution with the bat was solid, with an average of 58.33 and a career-best 333 in Sri Lanka being the high points.

But Gayle declining a central retainer contract was the real talking point of the year. That he was joined in his venture into free-agency by Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard was cause for genuine concern for the West Indies board. It was perhaps another indication of the lack of confidence that exists between the players and the board.

The skirmishes between the WICB and the West Indies Players Association that had led to the top players withholding their services for the visit to Sri Lanka in 2009 were not exacerbated in 2010. However, the public war of words between the two sides continued on a variety of issues - including the overlooking of Sarwan for a retainer contract - and was a reminder of the real divide that still exists.

And this time round, the Champions League Twenty20 did not provide an end-of-year facelift for West Indies cricket like it had last year. Guyana, the new Caribbean Twenty20 champions, led by Sarwan, could not emulate Trinidad & Tobago's inspired run to the final in 2009. The Guyanese did not win a game.

However, there were two developments that could in time produce a much different set of results for West Indies. The Sagicor High Performance Centre finally took in its first batch of players. It is the WICB's version of a finishing school, one that will hopefully send out a more equipped breed of player for international cricket.

More immediately, the restarted West Indies A team programme has already sent forth new players who have made an impact, namely Darren Bravo and Shane Shillingford. Offspinner Shillingford made his Test debut against South Africa after playing A team cricket and also had an impact in the first Test against the Sri Lankans before he was reported for a suspect action. It is an action that has caused him problems previously. But the improvement in his overall game has been evident. It would be a pity if new questions over his action were to curtail his career. It was a case of one step forward, two back for him. West Indies cricket's footwork in 2010 was no better.

High point
At 22, Kemar Roach is still young in the game. But his 16 wickets in Tests this year, especially his 10 in the challenging conditions of Sri Lanka was evidence of the continued progress of this genuine fast bowler. For once, here was a West Indian youngster not going backwards.

In a year low on genuine team achievements, the 333 reminders of Chris Gayle's Test-match pedigree in Galle stand out. His future in the five-day game is uncertain now that he is an independent operator. However, Gayle proved again in Sri Lanka that he is an asset to West Indies in any kind of game.

Low point
Losing the Queen's Park Oval Twenty20 by 26 runs to Zimbabwe when the target was just 106 was another in a long list of on-field ignominious moments. Crashing out as hosts of World Twenty20 after losing to Australia in the Super Eights was bad enough. Doing so with 22 balls to spare was just not on.

New kid on the block
Protest as he might, Darren Bravo, 21, will not soon hear the end of the Brian Lara comparisons. The family link from their native Santa Cruz in Trinidad, Bravo's striking physical resemblance, his left-handedness, not to mention his skill against spin bowling will keep such talk alive. However, the maturity he has already displayed at the crease should make Bravo a future topic of discussion in his own right. After filling Ramnaresh Sarwan's spot at No. 3 on debut, he embraced the challenge of Test cricket abroad as though it was another assignment for his local Queen's Park club. His knocks of 58, 80 and 68 were powered by a reassuring self-belief.

Fading star
Not long ago Denesh Ramdin was West Indies vice-captain. Now he is in a no-man's-land of his own making. The steady decline in his batting, rather than his wicketkeeping, has left him out of the international team. Some honest self-examination and runs for T&T and the A team seem the only way back for him at this point.

What 2011 holds
The World Cup in Asia ought to be the highlight. However, current form, a lack of self-belief and the absence of a settled squad suggests an early flight home. The Test and limited-overs series that follow, against Pakistan and India from April to July, will be a more accurate pointer to the immediate future. These will be Darren Sammy's first assignments at home as captain and will give him and coach Gibson more time to drive home their hard-work ethic. But hard work alone is not sufficient. The West Indies players must begin to genuinely believe in themselves to start winning again.