December 27, 2011

Look ma, a B+

West Indies capped a generally decent year with an excellent second half

The task facing Darren Sammy and his men at the end of 2011 was threefold: to become consistent, to be mentally tough, and to win. It is fair to say they made a good go at fulfilling that mandate - so much so that, at last, it began to look in 2012 as though the players themselves could save West Indies cricket.

The World Twenty20 title in Sri Lanka in October, sandwiched between four consecutive Tests wins, over New Zealand and Bangladesh, rescued a year that had threatened to be overshadowed yet again by the uneasy, acrimonious relationship between the cricket board and the players' body, but even that relationship - kept tense by a series of court battles in 2012 - seemed less abrasive as the year closed.

For over a decade and a half, followers of West Indian cricket have been looking for the new dawn that would mark a return to play of which to be truly proud. Instead they have been left dismayed by false dawns, which have been as frequent as the comings and goings of captains, coaches and board presidents.

In 2012, however, there was a rare sense of stability. Sammy, appointed in place of Chris Gayle amid much scepticism in late 2010, kept the captaincy for a second full year. It meant that the coach, Ottis Gibson, was able to continue implementing his plans without disruption, and in the company of someone equally committed to seeing them through.

The West Indies selectors also retained the nucleus of players assembled the previous year. They tried to show patience with a somewhat green bunch despite their failures. At least one exciting new talent was introduced. And most telling of all, the older hands showed leadership.

For 12 years, inclusive of two on suspension for involvement with an Indian bookmaker, the West Indian public has been waiting for the real Marlon Samuels to emerge. In 2012, at age 31, he finally did.

Always splendid in his strokeplay, Samuels finally realised that he had to stay at the crease if he was to make a statement to the cricket world. The Samuels of 2012 was a driven man, determined to play his shots around a sound defence and to play them to the right balls. The outstanding result was 866 runs in seven Test matches, average 86.60, with three centuries; a Man-of-the-Match display in the World Twenty20 final unhinging of Sri Lanka; and more match-winning displays in ODIs against New Zealand and Bangladesh.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Old Man Windies himself, kept oozing out the Test runs, getting 987 at 98.70. And Gayle, restored to the side in May, after more than a year on the sidelines because of his dispute with the WICB, averaged 53 in Tests and got hundreds in both the five-day and 50-over formats. He was also a pivotal presence at the top of the order at the World Twenty20.

When any combination of that trio played together, West Indies looked a much more solid batting side, but in 2012 the team got contributions all round in all formats.

Denesh Ramdin contributed two centuries on his return to the Test side and averaged 42.87; "mystery" offspinner Sunil Narine proved himself a match-winner in limited overs play; 22-year-old Kieran Powell made up for a slow start to the year by claiming the other opening slot with three centuries in his last four Tests. Then there was Kemar Roach, who forced his way back into the Test team this year and became the leader of the attack with sustained, controlled pace bowling that earned him 39 fairly cheap wickets (22.25) on different surfaces, and a great deal more respect besides.

Ravi Rampaul continued to get regular early breakthroughs, and Tino Best came back to Test cricket and became a match-winner twice in Bangladesh. In the shorter formats, Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo and Andre Russell brought experience, dynamism and plenty of power-hitting, as did Sammy.

The captain, under the cosh for his lack of runs since taking the job, was no passenger in 2012. In England, he got his first Test century, and he averaged in the 30s both in Tests and ODIs, playing with more calculation and confidence than in the past.

Here was a man growing in his job. And his team grew with him. The 2-0 Test defeats to Australia and England were reminders, however, that the glory days are not quite yet here again. The surprise ODI series loss to Bangladesh at year's end drove home that point. But the long, dark tunnel is brightening up.

High point
The comprehensive 36-run victory over Sri Lanka in the World Twenty20 final delivered West Indies' first global title since the 2004 Champions Trophy success under Brian Lara. The Gangnam dancing the team did following that win was fitting, for it was cohesive and dynamic play that got Sammy's side through to the final and to the title. Style and substance worked beautifully together for West Indies for three weeks.

Low point
Embarrassingly for the WICB and its now former CEO Dr Ernest Hilaire, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Lendl Simmons and Narsingh Deonarine all successfully won lawsuits against their employers over their exclusion from the regional team at various times. The WICB was made to look like an organisation playing loose with its own rules. The final outcome of a US$20 million lawsuit filed by WIPA, over the board's withholding of no-objection certificates to players, could bring further suffering to the governing body in 2013.

New kid on the block
The cricket world had marvelled at Sunil Narine's variations in the IPL. And the offspinner took his beguiling deliveries into international cricket with success this year. Beginning with the bemused Australians in the two drawn one-day and T20 series, Narine troubled batsmen the world over in limited-overs play with his well-controlled, effectively disguised spin. He took 34 wickets in ODIs at an economy rate of 3.60. In T20s, he got 16 with an economy of 6.16. Test cricket has so far proved a greater struggle for him, but the ICC's Emerging Player of the Year has the time and the talent to make a lasting impression there too.

Fading star
Devendra Bishoo can give Narine sound words of warning about the "emerging player" mantle. It has proved something of a poisoned chalice for the legspinner, who won the award prior to Narine. Bishoo snared a team-leading 39 wickets in 2011, but the selectors lost patience with him after just one off-colour Test this year. While he has time on his side, Bishoo has fallen well behind Narine, Veerasammy Permaul and Shane Shillingford in the spin-bowling pecking order.

What 2013 holds
New leadership in the players association and a new board CEO, Michael Muirhead, have given hope of less fractious times off the field. Success at the World Twenty20 has provided energy to the effort on it. However, not enough time has passed to determine whether the WICB-WIPA "truce" will hold. The outcome of the court matter over the Collective Bargaining Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding will possibly test the peace. And the ongoing standoff between the Guyana government and the WICB over who should run that country's cricket is another issue with potentially damaging long-term consequences.

Meanwhile, the players must prove that the latter part of 2012 was no fluke.

West Indies cricket's stakeholders thus enter 2013 with grounds to be optimistic. But doing so with a heavy dose of caution would be wise.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express